On June 2, 2021, TerraPower, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon and PacifiCorp announced efforts to build and operate a Natrium reactor demonstration project at a former coal plant in Wyoming.
The companies are evaluating several potential locations in the state. A decision on a location is expected by the end of this year.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who spoke via video feed at the event, said, “We are ready to make investments in advanced nuclear technology so that communities all over the country can enjoy the benefits of safe and reliable and clean power that will leave them with lower energy bills and greater opportunities.”
The project at its core is a 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system (fact sheet). The storage technology can boost the system’s output to 500 MWe of power for more than five and a half hours when needed for times when electricity from renewables is not available.
Conceptual Image of Natrium Reactor / Molten Salt Storage System
This innovative addition allows a Natrium plant to integrate seamlessly with renewable resources and could lead to faster, more cost-effective decarbonization of electricity generation.
Chris Levesque, TerraPower president and CEO, said in the statement that Natrium “was designed to solve a challenge utilities face as they work to enhance grid reliability and stability while meeting decarbonization and emissions-reduction goals.”
Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, a division of PacifiCorp., an electricity provider in six states in the western US, said in the statement the companies “are currently conducting joint due diligence to ensure this opportunity is cost-effective for our customers and a great fit for Wyoming.” PacifiCorp is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
Wyoming Governor Gordon said in the statement he was “thrilled to see Wyoming selected for this demonstration pilot project … and our experienced workforce is looking forward to the jobs this project will provide.”
Maria Korsnick, NEI president and CEO, said in the trade group’s statement that “TerraPower is leading the way by expanding the potential for advanced nuclear technologies in our energy transition.”
Location to Be Determined
The location of the Natrium demonstration plant is expected to be announced by the end of 2021. TerraPower and PacifiCorp said they are “conducting due diligence” in evaluating potential sites. The plant will replace a current coal-fired plant operated by PacifiCorp.
Gary Hoogeveen, of PacifiCorp, said in a media statement that the goal is to decide which of the utility’s four coal fired power plants will house the nuclear power plant: Jim Bridger near Rock Springs, Naughton in Kemmerer, Dave Johnston in Glenrock or Wyodak near Gillette.
Map of location of coal-fired power plants in Wyoming. Map: Google Maps
Prior to the current announcement, TerraPower had said it was considering several locations including the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, WA, and at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, ID. The other ARDP demonstration reactor, X-Energy’s HTGR, is slated to be located at the Richland, WA, site.
Separately, TerraPower and GE-Hitachi are engaged by DOE in the development of the Versatile Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory which is also based in part on the PRISM design. Bechtel will be the EPC for the project.
The Wyoming demonstration project will be a fully functioning power plant and is intended to validate the design, construction and operational features of the Natrium technology. Bechtel will be the Natrium plant’s design, licensing, engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) partner.
According to Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, siting a Natrium pilot at a former PacifiCorp coal plant in Wyoming is the right move because it would demonstrate that an advanced nuclear reactor can solve challenges “utilities face as they work to enhance grid reliability and stability while meeting decarbonization and emissions-reduction goals.”
Getting an NRC License is the First Key Step
The cost of the plant and the schedule to license and build it are still to be determined. As the reactor design, which is based on the GE Hitachi PRISM reactor, has not yet been submitted to the NRC for its safety design review, actual operation of the reactor is still years in the future although the DOE ARDP program calls for it to be operational by 2028. Other state and federal regulatory reviews are also in the pipeline.
Chris Levesque, of TerraPower, said the demonstration plant would take about seven years to build once its gets a license from the NRC. According to the NRC website, the license application has not yet been submitted and the Natrium design is still in what is called “pre-licensing review” as of 05/21/21. Given that the NRC safety review takes about 3 1/2 years in a best case experience, the 2028 date looks to be a tough goal to meet.
TerraPower ARDP Schedule with Level 1 Milestones/ Image: TerraPower
The NRC website notes the agency is currently engaged in pre-application activities interactions for the Natrium reactor. (Index of publicly accessible documents in NRC ADAMS)
The Natrium designs combines features from the previous GEH PRISM and TerraPower Traveling Wave designs. The proposed Natrium reactor is a 345 MWe pool type sodium fast reactor using HALEU metal fuel. In June 2017 a four company team organized an effort to license the PRISM reactor, but did not take the process to completion.
As far back as 2011 a collaboration of DOE national labs and university researchers determined that there were no technical show stoppers to licensing the Integral Fast Reactor which is the design legacy for the PRISM reactor and thus the current Natrium effort.
However, John Sackett, who was a manager for the IFR at the Idaho National Laboratory, said at the time, “”What we know now is that there are no technical gaps that would preclude a licensing application if using known technology. Gaps might arise if a developer chooses to use a new fuel which would need testing. That process could be completed faster if simulation and modeling tools could be brought to bear on the problem.” In this regard, Sackett’s comment turns out to be predictive with regard to the HALEU fuel that the Natrium reactor will use.
Fuel for Natrium?
While there is plenty of uranium in the ground in Wyoming to be mined to produce fuel for nuclear reactors, what Naturium needs is high assay low enriched fuel (HALEU) for which a reliable source of this product is not yet in place. In 2020 TerraPower established a partnership with Centrus to develop a commercial production plant to fabricate the HALEU fuel.
Currently, CNETRUS is working on a $115M contract with DOE to demonstrate that it can make the fuel. The project is expected to be complete next year. However, Centrus has told the nuclear industry trade press multiple times that it has doubts that demand for the HALEU will emerge as sufficient for it to make a profit.
The firm pointed out that after the completion of the DOE demonstration effort, there are no commitments from the government to purchase the fuel. Additionally. each reactor vendor will have to submit to the NRC to make the case for the safety of this type of fuel in their design as part of the NRC licensing process. It could turn out there will be more demand globally for HALEU fuel from Centrus than domestically until the Natrium reactor comes online by the end of this decade or in the early 2030s which is a more likely date.
Investors Face Uncertainties About Costs
TerraPower’s work on the Natrium design is funded in a cost sharing agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to build it as a demonstration project. In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), through its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), awarded TerraPower $80 million in initial funding to demonstrate the Natrium technology. TerraPower signed the cooperative agreement with DOE in May 2021. To date, Congress has appropriated $160 million for the ARDP and DOE has committed additional funding in the coming years, subject to appropriations.
During its media event on June 2nd TerraPower did comment on whether outside investors would take equity stakes in the new reactor, to help cover the private sector cost share with DOE. The first of a kind unit could cost between $1-2 billion. If the conventional formula of taking an estimated “overnight cost” for a reactor is used, and assuming the cost is $5,000/Kw, then the 345 MWe plant could cost $1.73 billion. A plus for the project is that the switchyard and regional grid infrastructure for the current coal fired power plant that is to be replaced is available. The actual real cost of the reactor is yet to be determined.
The Natrium system is a combination of TerraPower and GE Hitachi technologies. Along with PacifiCorp and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, members of the demonstration project team include engineering and construction partner Bechtel, Energy Northwest, Duke Energy and nearly a dozen additional companies, universities and national laboratory partners.
While the there are over a dozen “partners” on the project, it isn’t clear what portions of the “cost sharing” required by DOE under the ARDP umbrella would be allocated to each of them.
Economic Drivers Touted by Wyoming Supporters
According to media reports in Wyoming, the announcement comes as state leaders are trying to figure out how to deal with Wyoming’s bleak future for fossil fuels. Coal production has been on a steep slide as coal-burning power plants across the country close amid amid increased competition from natural gas and renewable energy.
The downturn in Wyoming’s energy sector, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, has prompted multiple rounds of cuts to the state’s budget and government services amid declines in revenues.
According to a news release from Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, “The development of a nuclear energy facility will bring welcome tax revenue to Wyoming’s state budget, which has seen a significant decline in recent years.”
Governor Gordon stressed that the state’s pursuit of nuclear power does not mean that he was turning aside from fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
“I am not going to abandon any of our fossil fuel industry,” he said. “It is absolutely essential to our state.”
The Wyoming Mining Association also took a positive view on Wednesday’s announcement. Executive director, Travis Deti, said in a statement, “This is an exciting opportunity for Wyoming to open a new chapter in the nuclear power industry. Advanced nuclear generation clearly fits the bill for zero-emission, reliable and dispatchable electricity necessary to power our country into the future,”
“Wyoming is the nation’s leader in the production of domestic uranium. Our producers stand ready, willing and able to safely and responsibly provide the vital fuel for America’s next generation of nuclear power.”
Scott Melbye, president of Uranium Producers of America (UPA) and executive vice president of Uranium Energy Corp, also welcomed the announcement.
“The UPA’s member companies have the production capability to support the fuel needs of this program and hopefully many new advanced and small modular reactors to follow. Wyoming uranium providing energy jobs and clean, reliable nuclear electricity here in Wyoming has a wonderful ring to it.”
Maria Korsnick, CEO at NEI, said in a press release that considerable overlap exists between job functions at a coal power plant to a nuclear power plant. She emphasized that nuclear is uniquely positioned to redirect skilled workers from the coal power industry to new nuclear plants, while historically offering the highest median wage across the entire energy sector. Retaining these jobs support local communities that may otherwise be devastated by the shutdown of coal power stations.
Note to readers: Once TerraPower has a construction license from the NRC under Part 50, which will come in about four years, labor hiring especially for skilled trades, will take off resulting in several thousand people being on site for a three-to-six year period. The operations staff will be about 200-300 people once construction is complete and the reactor is commissioned to enter revenue service.
Interest for new nuclear plants is growing beyond Wyoming as states in the western region like Montana, Nebraska, Utah, Idaho and North Dakota reevaluate the role of nuclear energy – particularly applications for advanced nuclear reactors that pair well with wind and solar. It also mirrors recent interest by utilities and technology developers like Tennessee Valley Authority and NuScale to explore the possibilities of a coal to nuclear transition.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, who appeared with Gordon at the podium, has been a proponent of expanding the U.S. nuclear sector. Wyoming is the nation’s top producer of uranium, Barrasso said, and some of that material will now be used here.
“This is the future of nuclear energy in America compared to what we’ve been doing over the last 65 years, with the energy being clean, affordable, reliable, safe,” he said.
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