Some in Glenrock eager to land at an experimental nuclear power plant

GLENROCK, Wyo. (AP) – Some communities would be reluctant for a company to build an experimental energy source on the outskirts of town. Glenrock is not one of them.

Before the end of the year, developers of a new type of nuclear power plant will decide which of Wyoming’s four cities will house their project, and Glenrock wants to be selected.

In a meeting Wednesday with executives from TerraPower and Rocky Mountain Power, community leaders listened intently to the speeches from the companies. Most were already involved in the project. A few security issues were raised, but Glenrock executives wanted to focus the conversation on logistics, not risk.

The city’s coal-fired power plant, Dave Johnston, is expected to retire in 2027, resulting in 191 jobs. The Natrium reactor is expected to enter service the following year, generating around 250 permanent jobs. Its developers intend to establish training programs to help workers in the selected community move from their current jobs at the coal plant to new roles in the nuclear facility.

Glenrock is a town of only 2,600 people; The entire population of Converse County is less than 14,000. The history of the community is closely linked to that of the energy sector. Many see the nuclear power plant not only as a natural transition, but necessary for their economic survival.

“We have had a history of energy developments in our community, for a very long time,” Glenrock City Councilor Margaret Nunn said at the meeting. “First, we have opened coal mines. Second, we built a power station. Third, we have mined the coal and reclaimed the earth. Fourth, we built a new wind farm where the coal mine used to be. Fifth, our powerhouse has outlived its time. So what is number six in our energy history? “

In a sense, the two parties are equal partners in the arrangement. Each tries to persuade the other that the investment is worth it. But with many local leaders already convinced of the potential benefits of the project, it is the developers’ choice to make.

“What do we need to do, collectively, to make sure the plant lands here? Converse County Commissioner Robert Short asked the leaders.

Their response: Be enthusiastic. And be lucky. The four possible sites have already undergone preliminary assessments and have been found to be viable. The companies want to build the plant in a supportive community with demonstrated economic needs – criteria that Glenrock meets. But equally important are business concerns such as infrastructure and access to services, as well as factors such as seismic activity, which can affect eligibility for permits.

A decision is expected before the end of the year. Until then, the community can do little more than wait and hope. The other three cities, Gillette, Kemmerer and Rock Springs, will do the same.

A new energy era?

In 1957, when the Shippingport experimental nuclear reactor was completed in Pennsylvania, the United States proved water-cooling technology ready for the market, leading to the construction of 100 water-cooled nuclear reactors throughout the country and 400 around the world, said Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower. Levesque believes the Natrium reactor will similarly inspire a new generation of nuclear development.

The TerraPower plant differs from standard US nuclear facilities in part by its cooling system: instead of pressurized water, the core temperature will be maintained using liquid sodium – the metal, not the salt. Because sodium has a much higher boiling point than water, it does not need to be pressurized to keep it from vaporizing, reducing the plant’s need for controlled systems used to keep the cooling water in place and allow it to rely more on natural forces like convection. and gravity.

“We used a lot of supercomputers and advanced metallurgy to design it,” said Levesque, “but the factory itself is actually simpler than a lot of factories today.”

The reactor is also designed to operate more efficiently, producing a third of the waste than existing nuclear power plants. It will require less human intervention, including in the event of a malfunction, a feature that its developers claim makes it much safer than water-cooled installations. Its modular nature allows it to be built in sections, with additional production capacity added later.

But the project’s energy storage system, which reserves the energy generated in molten salt reservoirs during times of low demand and releases it into the grid when demand increases, is what makes the TerraPower plant particularly distinctive.

Dave Johnston has a capacity of 922 megawatts. The capacity of the Natrium reactor is lower, at 345 megawatts. But its energy storage system allows the facility to increase its power to 500 megawatts for more than five hours straight. Due to its additional storage capacity, the plant will be shippable and therefore much more valuable to Rocky Mountain Power.

“The available resources are things like hydroelectric power plants, coal fired power plants, natural gas power plants, our geothermal power plant – places where, if you see customer demand increasing throughout the day, you can appeal. to a specific resource and the extra 100 megawatts you need, when you need it, ”Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson David Eskelsen said in an interview with the Star-Tribune.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are variable and non-distributable, which means they are difficult to use for utilities. Most nuclear power plants are technically shippable, but take too long to activate to meet immediate demand.

As the electrical network is increasingly supplied by variable sources, dispatchable sources such as battery storage will be necessary to supplement them. And as coal-fired power plants continue to go offline, the developers of the reactor – who say they would one day like to build reactors at all four sites – are hoping it will help fill the remaining energy niche.

From coal-fired power station to nuclear island

By building the nuclear facility on the site of a retired coal-fired power plant, developers will have access to available labor and economic resources such as current water permits and power grid connections.

“We are able to leverage the existing technical infrastructure, but also the expertise,” said Tiffany Erickson, media relations manager for Rocky Mountain Power, in an interview with the Star-Tribune.

Representatives from Rocky Mountain Power and TerraPower have repeatedly emphasized the companies’ plan to hire as many local workers as possible and provide training for those workers as needed.

“The intention is to work with community colleges and (the University of Wyoming) on ​​the development of training and retraining programs,” Erickson said.

While the reactor itself will be built under strict nuclear regulations, the part of the plant that generates electricity will be built some distance from the reactor, which its developers call “the nuclear island”. The electricity-producing part will be subject to more flexible licensing requirements and, unlike the reactor, will operate in the same way as generators in other types of power plants.

“There are a lot of jobs on this nuclear island, and they are very different,” Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, told the community of Glenrock. “From now on, some people will be able, if they are interested, to retrain and occupy these jobs. But the people who are mechanics, it’s the same low pressure system that they were working on, and they will have the opportunity to translate their expertise directly onto it.

Natrona County Commissioner Dave North told the Star-Tribune he expects the plant to provide good jobs and constant power to Natrona County in addition to Converse County.

“I think that’s a positive point across the board,” he said.

An economic lifeline

Aside from concerns raised by conservation groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council, little opposition to the reactor has been expressed publicly. And while nuclear is still divisive, the project’s appeal extends beyond party lines – potentially improving its chances as it travels the short seven-year development timeline set by the Energy Ministry, which provided half of its funding. The other half comes from private sources, including TerraPower founder Bill Gates.

Levesque said Democrats favor the project’s low carbon footprint, while Republicans see it as a source of energy security.

“The good thing about the program is that there is something for everyone,” he said.

Converse County Chairman Jim Willox told the Star-Tribune that almost all of his concerns were addressed at the meeting. For him, the implantation criteria are the point of friction. He hopes that by learning more about what businesses are looking for, he can help Converse County market itself as the most attractive location for construction.

Willox said the wider Glenrock community appeared ready to welcome the nuclear power plant.

“The people I’ve visited – and it’s not a huge sample, but the people I’ve visited are positive about it,” he said. “They have questions, but they are positive. And they recognize the value of energy.

The nuclear power plant could save Glenrock from a fate like that of Jeffrey City, a booming uranium town that collapsed along with industry in the 1980s. The loss of the coal plant without the construction of the reactor would not be a death sentence – Lander, a former iron town, managed to diversify its economy after its mine closed – but would mean a much more difficult recovery for the town.

“If we lose the power plant and it is completely shut down, it would affect us a lot. It reverberates throughout the business community, in schools, in all of our special districts – we would lose a lot when this power plant shuts down, ”Converse County Commissioner Tony Lehner said after the meeting.

“If we don’t get that first one, then hopefully we get the next one,” he said.

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