Wyoming committee considers Natrium reactor plans

19 August 2021

Funding is in place for the first five years of a seven-year project to build a demonstration Natrium reactor in Wyoming - subject to the completion of the legislative process - and a location will be selected by the end of the year, representatives from TerraPower and PacifiCorp told the state legislature’s Joint Minerals Committee last week. Amendments to existing state laws could further improve the prospect of building the demonstration reactor.

The Jim Bridger coal-fired plant in Wyoming is earmarked for retirement - could it be the site for a Natrium plant? (Image: WildEarth Guardians)

The two companies, together with Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, earlier this year announced plans to build a 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor combined with a molten salt energy storage system at a retiring coal plant in the state. Since then, TerraPower and PacifiCorp subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power have been working together closely on the site selection process and work related to the design engineering, licensing and planning for construction, TerraPower's Executive Director of External Affairs Jeff Navin told the committee's meeting in Laramie on 12 August.

Technical teams have been on the ground at each of the four sites and are now analysing data to make a final selection, he said, and the CEOs of the companies have visited each of the communities. "We've seen real enthusiastic support for each of the four communities that are under consideration," he said. The companies will "certainly" meet a Department of Energy (DOE) deadline to decide on the site by the end of the year, he said, adding that the companies are keen to reach a site decision as soon as possible to "as there are a lot of things we can't work on until we have a site selected".

The Natrium project is funded under the DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ADRP), through which it receives 50:50 cost-shared funding. The bipartisan infrastructure bill - the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act - passed earlier this month by the US Senate, contains four years of funding for the ADRP, he said. Coupled with the funds already received for this fiscal year, that bill, when enshrined into law, will mean the first five years of the project will be fully funded. "We'll have to seek appropriations for the final two years of the project, but having that money guaranteed will substantially de-risk the project and help avoid delays," he said.

Some changes to Wyoming state laws could also further help the project, Jon Cox, vice president of government affairs for Rocky Mountain Power, said. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon in 2020 signed into law a bill - House Enrolled Act 60 - allowing the owners of coal or natural gas plants to apply to replace them with small modular reactors (SMRs) up to the current rated capacity of the retiring plant. That bill defines an SMR as having a capacity up to 300 MWe, which would exclude the 345 MWe Natrium plant. Cox suggested that the state's definition could be changed by eliminating this threshold and expanded to include "advanced reactors" - with caveats - to avoid the need to change the statute in future.

He also suggested that the state could clarify the permitting process to reduce potential redundancies between the processes carried out by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state regulators, and also asked the state to reconsider amendments to existing legislation on the retirements of coal-powered plants to avoid potential legal issues in the possible "conversion" of former coal generation sites to host a nuclear plant.

According to PacifiCorp's 2019 Integrated Resource Plan, the four Wyoming coal-fired power plants currently scheduled for retirement are: Dave Johnston; Jim Bridger; Naughton; and Wyodak

Researched and written by World Nuclear News