Bill Gates venture chooses Wyoming city for sodium core plant

CHEYENNE, Wyo. A small town in the top U.S. coal mining state of Wyoming will be home to a Bill Gates-backed experimental nuclear power project near a coal-fired power plant that will close soon, officials said Tuesday.

Bellevue, Washington-based TerraPower will build its Sodium plant in Kemmerer, a 2,600-population southwestern Wyoming city where the coal-fired Naughton power plant operated by PacifiCorp subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power is due to close in 2025.

“Our innovative technology will help ensure the continued production of reliable electricity while changing our energy system and creating new, well-paid jobs in Wyoming,” TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said in a statement.

The project will employ as many as 2,000 people during construction and 250 once operational in a state where the coal industry has lost jobs.

If it is as reliable as conventional nuclear power, the 345 megawatt plant would produce enough climate-friendly power to serve about 250,000 homes. The announcement came a few days after officials from the US and other countries at a global climate summit in Scotland promised to continue work to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and president of TerraPower, announced plans for the Wyoming project in June, along with officials from Rocky Mountain Power, President Joe Biden’s administration and the state, which produces about 40 percent of the country’s coal. Four cities in Wyoming were involved in the project after the announcement.

The correspondingly large pool of workers with experience in operating the coal-fired power plant was a leading factor in the decision to locate the plant in Kemmerer, Levesque told reporters.

“We think these workers are quite ready to serve Sodium. Of course, they will have to undergo some retraining,” Levesque said.

Development of a simulator to train workers to operate the nuclear power plant will be part of the project’s seven-year development, with construction to begin in 2024, Levesque said.

Supporters of the project with a sodium-cooled fast reactor and molten salt energy storage say it would work better, be safer and cost less than traditional nuclear power.

“Sodium will be the next safety improvement. It is important that it will not rely on external sources of power, pumps and additional equipment to help the plant recover in the event of an emergency,” Levesque said, referring to Fukushima. the nuclear disaster of 2011 caused by a tsunami that knocked out emergency generators.

Sodium’s high heat transfer properties will allow the Sodium plant to be air cooled. This will allow the plant to be shut down quickly in the event of an emergency, and the absence of emergency generators and pumps will save costs, Levesque said.

Others are skeptical about the benefits of sodium compared to cooling water as in conventional nuclear power plants.

β€œThe use of liquid sodium has many problems. It is a very volatile material that can catch fire if exposed to air or water, “said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ science advocacy nonprofit, on Tuesday.

Countries including the United States have been experimenting with sodium-cooled fast reactors for decades, but only Russia has set up such a reactor on a large, power-producing scale, Lyman said.

“Honestly, I do not understand the motivation,” Lyman said. “There are some people who are just strong advocates for it, and they’ve kind of won the day here by convincing Bill Gates that this is a good technology to pursue.”

Other sites considered for the plant were the Wyodak plant near Gillette in cool northeastern Wyoming, the Jim Bridger plant outside Rock Springs in southwestern Wyoming, and the Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock in eastern central Wyoming.

The closure of the coal-fired Naughton power plant in Kemmerer in a few years will endanger a local mine, which alone supplies coal to the plant.

Located about 130 miles (210 kilometers) northeast of Salt Lake City, Kemmerer is a destination for fossil enthusiasts at the nearby Fossil Butte National Monument and privately owned fossil quarries. It is also home to the first JC Penney location, a store called The Golden Rule opened by James Cash Penney in 1902.

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