Wyoming city hopes new nuclear plant can ease transition from coal
More than a hundred people gathered in the heart of Kemmerer, Wyo., late last summer to celebrate favorite son James Cash Penney. Once he started his cash-and-carry retail stores, local coal miners didn’t have to buy everything from their employers.
Then the idea – and JC Penney stores – spread across America.
Penney’s spirit of innovation inspired city leaders as Kemmerer competed against three other Wyoming communities this year to host an experimental nuclear reactor. They wanted to save jobs as their coal-fired power plants retire early.
“We realize that’s coming," said Mayor Bill Thek, who was scooping barbecue onto buns for the crowd. “We want to mitigate anything, anywhere that we can to make our town not dry up and blow away.”
Thek blames the energy transition for coal’s decline. That’s a big deal in Wyoming, the nation’s biggest coal producer.
“When it comes to decarbonization, we’re not stupid,” he said. “We're hicks. But you know, we're not stupid.”
Thek and others learned Tuesday that Kemmerer was picked as the location for a $4 billion, electricity-generating reactor. The high-profile project was proposed by tech entrepreneur Bill Gates in partnership with Rocky Mountain Power, Wyoming's largest utility.
Kemmerer leaders hope Gates’ company, TerraPower, can do what Penney did 120 years ago – turn this remote coal town on Wyoming’s western high plains into a spring-
board for innovation.
At Tuesday’s announcement, Rocky Mountain Power CEO Gary Hoogeveen highlighted the importance of the project, called Natrium.
“We're going to need to decarbonize, and as we go down that path, we see the Natrium project as being incredibly valuable to our customers,” he said.
Natrium is expected to generate 345 megawatts of carbon-free energy – and help cut the company’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a big reason why Gates and Hoogeveen are touting these new reactors.
But sodium-cooled reactors like Natrium are unproven – and have their critics. Some question whether the new designs are as safe, reliable and affordable as advocates say.
“Nobody's ever been able to make this particular design work to produce electricity, economically and reliably,” said Allison Macfarlane, who led the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the Obama administration.
Over $100 billion dollars has been spent perfecting sodium-cooled reactors since the federal government began experimenting with them in Arco, Idaho, 70 years ago. But the technology hasn’t panned out commercially as water-cooled reactors have.
Macfarlane says the world needs climate solutions now, and can’t wait for Natrium to be tested and licensed. Federal matching funds for the reactor require the plant be up and running in 2028.
“This is a hair-on-fire moment,” she said.
In Kemmerer, optimism remains high even though Rocky Mountain Power plans to close the nearby coal-fired power plant in 2025. The Natrium project could be a safety net for some workers at the plant.
Chauffe Schirmer of the Utility Workers Union of America in Wyoming says members generally support the reactor experiment. They’re watching to see whether regulators agree that Natrium can be safely operated.
“In the big picture, if there's a way to do it, and protect jobs, we're all for it,” Schirmer said. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions, but the workers look forward to having an opportunity to stay where they live.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.