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Betting big on nuclear power

KEMMERER, WYOMING (AP) – In this sleepy Wyoming town that has relied on coal for over a century, a company founded by the man who revolutionised personal computing is launching an ambitious project to counter climate change: A nationwide reboot of nuclear energy technology.

Until recently, Kemmerer was little-known for anything except JC Penney’s first store and some 55-million-year-old fish fossils in quarries down the road.

Then in November, a company started by Bill Gates, TerraPower, announced it had chosen Kemmerer for a nontraditional, sodium-cooled nuclear reactor that will bring on workers from a local coal-fired power plant scheduled to close soon. The demonstration project comes as many United States (US) states see nuclear emerging as an answer to fill the gap as a transition away from coal, oil and natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many residents in Kemmerer, where the population of 2,700 is little-changed since the 1990s, see the TerraPower project as a much-needed economic boost because Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton power plant will close 2025. The plant employs about 230 and a mine that supplies coal exclusively to the plant – and is also at risk of closing if it can’t find another customer – almost 300.

“Kemmerer needs something or it’ll become a dust bowl,” said, 69-year-old retired coal mine worker Ken Spears whose family has depended on the mine and power plant for generations.

Spears was among a group of men who gathered recently in a downtown restaurant, Grumpies, near a park with statue of James Cash Penney and his first store. They played pool near an antique piano and signs reading “Let’s go Brandon” and “Trump 2020 No More Bull…”

This January 13 photo taken with a slow shutter speed shows taillights tracing the path of a motor vehicle at the Naughton Power Plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming. PHOTOS: AP
Managing Director of the Naughton Power Plant Rodger Holt
Crystal Bowen, a generation clerk at the Naughton Power Plant is hopeful about Kemmerer being chosen as the site of a nuclear reactor when the coal-fired power plant she works at is decommissioned in 2025, saying the plant should allow her and others with Rocky Mountain Power to shift to jobs at the new plant

Kemmerer is a quaint town of old-time storefronts and rolling hills, off the beaten path other than for occasional tourists who pass through on a slower, more scenic route to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Residents speak proudly of the coal heritage, quiet lifestyle and easy access to open lands where they can fish, hunt and hike. A river that is iced over in the winter runs through town nearby a railroad track that is down the hill from neighbourhoods of older houses where families of deer roam at sunset.

Wyoming has the biggest coal industry in the US by far. Trump won the state with some of his highest margins, almost 70 per cent, in 2016 and 2020 on promises to shore up coal mining. Yet concerns about TerraPower’s unusual, coal-replacing nuclear plant seem few and far between in this town.

“This isn’t a Chernobyl-type thing,” said Spears, wearing a camouflaged jacket and University of Wyoming cap with the bucking-horse-and-rider logo. “Kemmerer needs something.”

The US nuclear industry has been at a standstill, providing a steady 20 per cent of the nation’s power for decade amid the costly and time-consuming process of building huge conventional nuclear plants.

Only one new commercial nuclear project, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar No 2, has come online in the US in the past 25 years. By cooling the planned Kemmerer reactor with liquid sodium, a metal that boils at a temperature much higher than water and solidifies at well above room temperature, TerraPower said its relatively small, 345-megawatt plant, able to power about 345,000 homes, will be safe and less expensive than conventional, water-cooled nuclear plants. The company’s Natrium plant will use a simpler and less expensive system of unpressurised coolant and vents not dependent on electricity to halt fission during an emergency.

The approach isn’t new. Russia has had a commercial sodium-cooled reactor in use at full capacity since 2016 and such designs have been tested in the US.

TerraPower plans to make its plant useful for today’s energy grid of growing renewable power. A salt heat “battery” will allow the plant to ramp up electricity production on demand, offsetting dips in electricity when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining.

“It should provide a more useful reactor, really, for operating on a grid that has a much greater amount of wind and solar than in the past,” said TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque.

At peak capacity, the plant could generate 500 megawatts, enough for 500,000 homes, he said.

The project will cost up to USD4 billion, half of it from the US Department of Energy, but costs should come down as demand for carbon-free energy grows and more are built, said Levesque.

“If we can show that the plant can be built affordably and on time, we’ll have orders for additional Natrium reactors even before the first one starts up. In the 2030s, there will be massive demand for this kind of power,” Levesque said. One downside: The plant’s fuel, at least at first, would need to come from Russia. The plant will require uranium fuel enriched to 20 per cent, four times higher than in conventional nuclear plants. The US doesn’t currently enrich fuel to that level for commercial power.

For that matter, Levesque pointed out, about one-fifth of conventional nuclear fuel also is imported.

So far, concerns in Wyoming about the project have been few. The Wyoming Outdoor Council, noting the declining cost of solar and wind power, points out that nuclear remains costly and sodium-cooled in other countries have had leaks leading to fires and shutdowns.

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