I’m not going to invest in Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s plan to bring a nuclear power plant to Wyoming. I’d also prefer to not see taxpayers like myself forced to shell out hard-earned money on such an environmentally risky venture.
No, I plan to spend any surplus cash I can muster on cornering the red flag market. Demand is about to skyrocket. As residents consider what it means to have an experimental nuclear reactor in their backyards, they’ll be waving them in droves.
In fact, I’m raising a half-dozen red flags in this column alone, and I hope to see many more from readers in the comments section below.
Red Flag No. 1: Rapid core melting
Gates claims TerraPower’s Natrium reactor is more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and safer than the current generation of nuclear reactors.
Are we supposed to accept Gates’ word, or should we turn to the world’s scientists and see what they have to say? The Union of Concerned Scientists has strong reservations about the sodium-cooled Natrium design.
In its 140-page report in March on “advanced” nuclear reactor designs like Natrium, the UCS stressed that such facilities could experience safety problems that aren’t an issue in the current nuclear reactor fleet. The organization said the U.S. would be better off trying to improve existing technology rather than drastically changing course.
“Sodium coolant can burn when exposed to air or water, and a sodium-cooled fast reactor could experience uncontrollable power increases that result in rapid core melting,” according to the UCS.
The phrase “rapid core melting” having anything to do with Wyoming gives me the chills.
Red Flag No. 2: Fast-tracked safety tests
The UCS report said it could take at least 20 years and billions of dollars for federal regulators to require the necessary safety demonstrations to commercialize the type of nuclear plant that’s planned for Wyoming.
“Commercial deployment in the 2020s would require bypassing prototype stages that are critical for assuring safety and reliability,” the UCS concluded. The group called on Congress to require the Department of Energy to convene an independent commission to study the technical merits of such proposed reactors.
But TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque is leading an entirely different discussion. “The motivator is that we need this clean energy on the grid by the 2030s,” he said at the Cheyenne news conference announcing the project. “Congress created a real sense of urgency with that.”
Unfortunately, the White House is apparently on board with such fast-tracking. “As with the president’s proposal, the American Jobs Plan, this administration will see to it that we launch more nuclear energy demonstration projects across the country,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on a video link to the press conference.
Red Flag No. 3: Why Wyoming? Why now?
Wyoming residents are justified in wondering: “Why are we just hearing about this now?”
Project proponents didn’t just blindly throw a dart at the map and land on Wyoming. The state has exactly what energy entrepreneurs desire: desperation. The state, and our politicians, are hungry to find new ways to make up lost revenue from an industry that the marketplace is driving out of existence.
Not exactly a strong negotiating position.
Renewable energy like wind and solar are much cheaper, take only a fraction of the time to get online and also offer good-paying jobs. If Wyoming officials would aggressively recruit manufacturers to build wind turbines and solar panels, two new industries could thrive in the state.
It’s true that the Legislature has been interested in creating a regulatory framework for replacing coal-fired power plants with precisely the type of small nuclear reactors that are now on the drawing board.
But that effort has been little covered by Wyoming’s media, and I’m as guilty as anyone of giving it short-shrift. It may not be as popular to write or read about as proposed regulations on abortion, guns and gambling, but the consequences of bringing nuclear power to the state will be enormous whether it succeeds or fails.
Red Flag No. 4: Pricetag
Is anyone concerned about how much federal money will be sunk into this project? The Department of Energy gave TerraPower an $80 million grant to begin operating the first-of-its-kind commercial unit by 2027.
But that’s a drop in the bucket when we’re talking about a private-public demonstration project that will cost billions.
If left to solely fund the experimental Wyoming project on their own dime, TerraPower and PacifiCorp probably wouldn’t make the investment. Public dollars greatly reduce their financial risks. By contrast, the Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electricity Company went bankrupt in 2017 from delays in building nuclear facilities in Georgia and South Carolina.
Red Flag No. 5: Who benefits?
A beaming Gov. Mark Gordon announced that the private-public partnership Wyoming is launching will create “hundreds of well-paying jobs” by retiring a coal-fired plant and replacing it with a multi-billion-dollar nuclear plant.
The specific facility has not yet been chosen, but it will be one of four plant units: Jim Bridger near Rock Springs, Naughton in Kemmerer, Dave Johnson near Glenrock and WyoDak in Campbell County. The “losers” may luck out in the end.
Gates’ company, TerraPower, is developing the experimental technology to be used at the nuclear plant. Buffett’s corporation, Berkshire Hathaway, owns PacifiCorp, whose subsidiary, Rocky Mountain Power, operates in Wyoming.
Wait a minute — these billionaire buddies stand to add bundles to their fortunes, while Wyoming gets a few hundred jobs?
Marcia Westkott, chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, noted that this “silver bullet” salvation for Wyoming’s economy “again diverts attention from our very real crisis in revenue, jobs and community survival.”
Her point is well taken: In all three areas, nuclear comes up lacking compared to coal’s historic contributions.
Red Flag No. 6: Billionaire blindness
We may be listening to the wrong billionaires if we buy Gates’ and Buffett’s siren song of nuclear power. Why not tune in instead to what Tesla and SpaceX revolutionary Elon Musk is working on?
I admit I’m not a fan of Musk’s bizarre decision to send a Tesla Roadster into outer space. But here on terra firma, he’s been working on impressive battery storage technology that could be the energy “game-changer” Gordon says he wants — a disruptive experimental technology that is safer and much less expensive than nuclear power.
In 2017, Musk began construction in Australia of what was then the world’s biggest utility-scale battery project, the Hornsdale, which had a capacity of 100 thermal megawatts. It’s adjacent to a wind farm and can store surplus electricity generated on gusty nights for daytime demand.
Today, there are more than 40 big-battery projects either completed or planned across Australia with a total capacity of more than 7,000 MWt.
And Musk is just getting started. He’s recently turned his attention to his new home state of Texas, where he’s busy developing commercial-scale battery storage units to thwart the kind of power outage disasters that wreaked havoc to the Lone Star State’s power grid in February.
That same month, U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) tweeted an invitation to Musk to relocate to Wyoming and take advantage of its business-friendly Bitcoin laws.
Whether you see him as a madcap inventor or geeky playboy, it’s worth inviting Musk to explore the wilds of Wyoming and see what he could dream. Maybe he could help extend the state’s long history of supplying energy to the nation, without all the red flags.