When state officials unveiled in June that a nuclear demonstration project is slated for Wyoming, they touted it as an advanced technology. But critics of the Natrium project say we’ve been here before — with the same technology and the same assurances made — only to see hopes dashed and massive public investments go to waste.
The multi-billion dollar Natrium project is a joint effort of PacifiCorp, TerraPower and the U.S. Department of Energy that is expected to place a 345-megawatt power plant in Wyoming. Behind TerraPower is none other than Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Gates has injected vast sums from his enormous wealth into finding a solution to the world’s climate crisis that can be implemented in the near future. The investment in Natrium, Gates said during a recorded statement in June, would allow Wyoming to continue being a leader in U.S. energy.
Based on stipulations of the federal grant that makes the project possible, the plant is to be completed within seven years.
The unexpected announcement in early June brought rosy projections and big grins from Gov. Mark Gordon and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), along with representatives from TerraPower and Rocky Mountain Power. (Rocky Mountain Power is a unit of PacifiCorp.)
Gordon declared it “game-changing and monumental for Wyoming,” a state suffering massive budget shortfalls and economic ennui from a long-term downturn in fossil-fuel markets.
The advanced nuclear energy demonstration plant is slated to replace one of four coal-fired plant units in PacifiCorp’s Wyoming power system: either at Jim Bridger near Rock Springs, Naughton in Kemmerer, Dave Johnston near Glenrock or WyoDak near Gillette. Leaders in those communities have expressed hope to the Casper Star Tribune that they will land the jobs and tax revenues expected of the massive project.
Critics familiar with the technology and its history, however, doubt whether a commercially operating nuclear power plant will manifest in the next seven years — or ever — in Wyoming.
“It would be quite a feat to pull off,” Allison Macfarlane, Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair from 2012-2014, told WyoFile.
The history and current state of nuclear energy in the U.S. is long and complicated, but Edwin Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists’ nuclear power safety director, said one thing is abundantly clear: No U.S. nuclear power project has been successfully completed on time and on budget in recent decades.
“To attempt to build and operate a commercial unit without first taking the time to do all the necessary safety testing is a recipe for disaster,” Lyman said of the Natrium project.
TerraPower declined a request for an interview.
The nuclear reactors that supply roughly 20% of American electricity are known as light-water reactors. These thermal neutron reactors use water as both coolant and neutron moderator. Heat generated by controlled nuclear fission turns the water into steam, which drives the power-generating turbines.
The proposed Natrium reactor, by contrast, belongs to a broad class of non-light-water reactors. Sometimes called advanced reactors, they are cooled not by water but by other substances, such as liquid sodium, helium gas or even molten salts.
Natrium’s specific design is known as a fast reactor. This type of nuclear reactor does not require a moderator material to slow down fission neutrons. Natrium uses liquid sodium as its coolant. (The name Natrium comes from the Latin word for sodium.) The solid sodium melts into a liquid form when it gets hot enough. That molten metal is what’s inside the core cooling the reactor vessel and — via a molten salt loop — ultimately allowing a steam turbine to generate electricity.
It’s significantly different from light-water reactors, Jeff Navin, TerraPower’s director of external affairs, told Wyoming lawmakers June 25 in Casper. The design makes the system safer, he said, and inherently prevents meltdowns.
“That liquid metal has a very high boiling point, and what that means is the reactor can’t get hot enough to boil the coolant off,” Navin said. “So in the event of an accident happening, or loss of power, we don’t have to touch anything to keep the reactor from melting down.”
Though significantly different from the more-established light-water reactors, Natrium’s sodium-cooled approach isn’t new.
Its new technological development is the molten salt storage component, which has the potential to boost the system’s power up to a maximum of 500 megawatts, Navin said. A megawatt of capacity produces electricity that’s equivalent to powering between 400 and 900 homes for a year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“That energy storage component is four times larger than the biggest lithium ion battery plant that is currently deployed around the world,” Navin said. “This is a real massive and a real big gamechanger on that front. So what makes it valuable, what makes us valuable, is the ability to respond to that supply and demand on the energy system.”
The Natrium reactor would be roughly one-third of the size of a traditional light-water-reactor design, resulting in cost savings and reducing the scale in the event of an accident, Navin said. Additionally, proponents assert it would produce two-thirds less spent radioactive waste than a traditional light water reactor. Radioactive waste from the Natrium reactor would be stored on-site as the federal government continues to develop plans for permanent nuclear waste storage — an endeavor that has eluded policymakers since the inception of U.S. nuclear power generation.
Fast breeder reactor designs such as Natrium date back to 1944 with the Manhattan Project. The world’s first nuclear reactor to generate electricity was the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I, built in Idaho, which powered four lightbulbs in 1951.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, five sodium-cooled fast reactors are operating today in India, Russia and China. Four are experimental, testing features of the power systems. One commercial demonstration reactor is in Russia, where operators are assessing its ability to generate enough power consistently to serve electrical customers. A demonstration sodium-cooled fast reactor in India is slated to go online in 2021, but Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said there’s some doubt as to whether that timeline will pan out. The only fast breeder reactors ever connected to electrical grids were the French Superphénix and the Russian BN-600 and BN-800.
None of these fast reactors are currently operating as commercial reactors serving power customers.
The U.S. Department of Energy in 2017 identified sodium-cooled fast reactors as one of two non-light-water reactor technologies it would focus on for demonstration. Two sodium-cooled fast reactor concepts were submitted to the federal agency for evaluation. One of those was the General Electric-Hitachi PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module) fast reactor, based on the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II.
Three companies, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, are developing reactors that are based, to varying extents, on the PRISM reactor design. One of those is TerraPower’s Natrium reactor.
We’ve been here before
There have been high degrees of enthusiasm at various times in U.S. history for investing in nuclear power. Such endeavors have always come with baggage. It’s expensive, technically complex and dogged by safety concerns. Public concerns about the prospects of a core meltdown, proliferation or security breach require constant management.
Nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism risk is the danger that nations or terrorist groups could illicitly obtain nuclear-weapon-usable materials from reactors or fuel cycle facilities, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Persistent problems continue to plague ambitions to incorporate more light-water reactors into the power grid. The Vogtle plant in Georgia, for example, is years behind schedule with projected costs standing at more than twice the initial estimate of $14 billion. Another example, the Levy County nuclear plant in Florida, scheduled to go online in 2016, was abandoned after costs ballooned from $5 billion to $22 billion and it was clear it would be roughly a decade behind schedule.
Proponents of nuclear energy understand there are public perception problems with continued government subsidization of light-water reactor projects, Lyman said. The interest in non-light-water reactors is, in part, a reaction to these perception problems, with supporters seeing the technology as a potential breakthrough in the nuclear industry.
But the term “advanced reactor,” when applied to non-light-water reactors, is something of a misnomer, Lyman said. Designs of today, he said, are largely descended from decades-old models.
“There may be some variations on them, but you know it’s not like this hasn’t been tried [in] many different countries for many decades,” Lyman said.
In the mid-20th century, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission supported demonstration plants of non-light-water reactors at sites throughout the United States. One of those, a liquid-metal-sodium-cooled fast reactor called FERMI-1, suffered a partial fuel meltdown in 1966. It went back online years later, but was shut down permanently in 1972. Another example is the Fort St. Vrain high temperature gas cooled reactors in Colorado that experienced operational problems. Established in 1979, those failed after about a decade.
Several critics who spoke to WyoFile were reminded of the nuclear demonstration project that never was at Clinch River, Tennessee. In the early 1980s, it was the largest public works project in the United States.
The project — a joint effort of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. electric power industry — was intended to demonstrate the sodium-cooled fast reactor technology. It received an injection of government money with the idea it would be commercially viable after that initial boost. The Congressional appropriation came in 1972 after President Richard Nixon established it as the nation’s highest research and development priority. Cost estimates that started in the hundreds of millions grew to billions. There was opposition from the political left and right, and it lost lawmakers’ confidence. Construction that broke ground in 1981 under Reagan ceased in 1983.
Henry Sokolski, now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, worked in the 1980s for the conservative Washington, D.C., think-tank the Heritage Foundation. When he first came to the foundation, it was in support of the Clinch River fast breeder nuclear project. Under Sokolski’s direction, the think-tank would change course, condemning and eventually helping kill the project.
In Sokolski’s view, pursuing another fast reactor is akin to “swimming upstream against history,” with the chances it will be commercially viable “vanishingly small.” Looking at predictions, and promises of the past, Sokolski said the federal government is again going down a fraught path.
The PRISM design that the Natrium is based on has not had real-world experience, Lyman said.
The Versatile Test Reactor — a sodium-cooled fast reactor funded by the Department of Energy originally intended for operation in Idaho in 2026 and already projected to see cost overruns — and Natrium are intended to serve as the first large-scale demonstrations of PRISM technology.
All non-light-water reactor designs, Lyman wrote in a March 2021 Union of Concerned Scientists report, will require testing to understand and address new safety issues that come with the technology. To determine whether non-light-water reactors are, in fact, safer than light-water reactors, “the reactor must achieve an advanced stage of technical maturity, undergo complete comprehensive safety testing and analysis, and acquire significant operating experience under realistic conditions.”
Because of the questions about safety and reliability, Lyman wrote that “proceeding with construction of the VTR and the Natrium without conducting prototype testing could pose unacceptable risks to public health, safety, and security, as well as to the success of either project.”
Eight countries in the past 60 years have collectively spent more than $100 billion unsuccessfully trying to produce a commercially competitive sodium-cooled fast reactor, Macfarlane wrote in a July column in Foreign Affairs. The economic, technical and logistical hurdles that stand in the way of building safer, more efficient and cost-competitive reactors are too great to succeed in the required timeline for reducing fossil fuel emissions in the fight against the global climate crisis, she told WyoFile.
“I‘m a realist and a pragmatist, I’m a scientist, I’m a geologist by training, and it’s just not possible for nuclear to have any kind of significant impact on reducing climate change in the next 20 years,” she said.
Laying out unrealistic expectations?
TerraPower is hoping its Natrium reactor project in Wyoming will be the first of 100 advanced nuclear reactor power plants operating commercially in the U.S., Navin told lawmakers in June. Wyoming, as a global leader in energy for more than a century, was a natural choice with several advantages, he said.
But critics are uncertain whether Natrium’s timeline, Wyoming’s workforce, and natural resource utilization projections are realistic.
Sen. Barrasso introduced and was the lead Senate author of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, which has facilitated greater investment in research and development of advanced reactor technology and reaffirms congressional support for nuclear energy. The legislation directs the NRC to be much more aggressive in bringing resources to the table to help get these advanced reactors licensed.
The licensing phase would likely take two to three years, TerraPower president and CEO Chris Levesque said during the June announcement.
TerraPower estimates that once construction is allowed to begin, there could be 2,000-3,000 workers needed, with another 300-400 permanent jobs projected through the 60-year life of the plant, Navin told lawmakers June 25.
There is a conflict, however, between economic viability and maximized on-site employment, Lyman said. On one hand, he said companies are telling audiences at conventions they are finding ways to cut capital costs, including labor, to make sure new nuclear power is competitive with other forms of power generation. On the other, Lyman said it’s advantageous to give politicians in Wyoming the higher end of labor projections.
“Many small reactor vendors are banking on the ability to reduce both construction and operating costs radically in order to compete with lower-cost sources of generation,” he told WyoFile in an email. “TerraPower can’t have it both ways.”
TerraPower repeatedly told lawmakers June 25 that the company hoped it would take advantage of the existing Wyoming workforce for its labor needs, citing its experience and motivation. Lyman, however, is skeptical local workers would be the most economical choice, he said.
“For instance, welders need to have special qualifications to work on nuclear projects, and I believe they are in short supply even in parts of the country where there is a workforce with nuclear experience,” Lyman said in an email. “And many of the jobs for plant operation would require professional training and skills, as well. Is TerraPower factoring in the time and resources needed for this retraining of the local workforce?”
Barrasso, Gordon and the Wyoming Mining Association have all expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of using the state’s uranium for nuclear reactors in the U.S. Critics contend that prospect is exaggerated.
TerraPower and Rocky Mountain Power reached out to uranium operators in the state prior to the Natrium public announcement, Travis Deti, Wyoming Mining Association director told lawmakers June 25. For an industry in “dreadful” condition, Deti said it was welcome news.
“And when the announcement was made — we had representatives from all nine of our uranium companies in Wyoming — it was met with applause,” Deti said. “Our guys are very excited about this.”
Currently, there’s little demand for uranium beyond that for existing reactors, and demand won’t likely increase for decades, if at all, Macfarlane said.
The U.S. gets most of its uranium from imports, with domestic supply dropping from a peak in 1980. Deti said Wyoming operators mined 27,000 pounds of uranium in 2020, comparing it to about 12 million pounds a year back in the 1970s.
Russia is the only realistic source of the large quantity of high-assay, low enriched uranium that the Natrium will need, Lyman said.
“There is virtually no chance that U.S. uranium will be used if this reactor is to start up on schedule,” Lyman said in an email.
Finally, Navin said Congress was clear it expected a seven-year timeframe. While he acknowledged that as “very aggressive,” he believes it could be done, he said.
Again, Lyman doubts this is achievable. Recent history, Lyman said, does not support the notion that new nuclear plants, even those based on proven technologies, can be built on time and on budget — let alone on an accelerated schedule.
What do we stand to lose?
The Natrium demonstration project’s cost will be split 50-50 between the Department of Energy and TerraPower with an overall cap of $4 billion. TerraPower’s Navin said the company is assuming the risk of cost overruns, assuring lawmakers “that’s not going to be something that’s going to be put either on the state of Wyoming or on Rocky Mountain Power’s ratepayers.”
So even with Wyoming not on the hook financially, what do residents of the Equality State stand to lose with the Natrium project?
For a community struggling economically, Lyman said he can see why the Natrium proposal would appear to have merits for Wyoming.
“If it employs some people for some period of time, it’s better than nothing. But there are also the larger considerations, as well,” he said. “From a national perspective, not every pork barrel project that gives people employment is going to be a worthwhile expenditure of taxpayer money.”
Wyoming could be left with a complicated cleanup from a project that doesn’t go anywhere, and if the plant is operational for a period of time, there would be radioactive waste. A bottleneck in Congress is holding up a permanent geological solution for permanent spent nuclear waste disposal There’s no clear answer for where the waste is supposed to go.
The plan, Navin said, is to store nuclear waste on the plant site until there is a federal determination as to where it will be permanently stored.
The issue of waste is concerning whether the plant is commercially successful or not, Noah Miterko, Health Environmental Alliance of Utah policy associate, said.
“If this plant ends up outside of Kemmerer [for example], then the downside for them is they have thousands of pounds of radioactive waste in their backyard, and if the time comes to move it, they have hundreds of trucks moving through their town with high-level radioactive waste,” Miterko said. “There’s been no innovation on how to deal with radioactive waste.”
Miterko is closely following the NuScale project, a potential 720-megawatt nuclear power plant being developed by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems for Idaho Falls, Idaho. The Department of Energy in October approved a $1.3 billion award for the NuScale project.
Miterko, whose organization advocates nuclear abolition, said Wyoming should proceed with caution in approaching the Natrium project.
“I have a lot of empathy for these communities in Wyoming” that are losing their economic engines in fossil fuels, Miterko said. “Communities have been through this before and it doesn’t always have a happy ending.”
One of the key risks, Macfarlane said, is that humans are running out of time to address climate change in a meaningful way. The resources being funneled to nuclear energy could go elsewhere in the climate crisis fight, she said.
“We can’t pin our hopes on [nuclear] as the thing that’s going to get us out of the next 20 years, and the next 20 years are absolutely crucial,” Macfarlane said. “And so we absolutely have to just throw what we have behind renewables … because we know that technology works.”
Despite assurances that TerraPower would assume any potential cost overruns, Lyman said he could picture a scenario where the company is back lobbying Congress to try to raise the $4 billion cap.
“We’re just speculating here, but unless they make a solemn pledge to the people of the state and the country that they’re not going to accept another dime of public money, anything goes,” he said.
This story is supported by a grant through Wyoming’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the National Science Foundation.