A prototype nuclear facility promises to bolster Wyoming’s status as the nation’s leader in energy production even as the states once-dominant thermal coal mines continue a prolonged meltdown.
This week’s announcement that the Cowboy State will be home to the state-of-the-art Natrium nuclear reactor demonstration project is one of the rare times that deserves the often-used cliché “game-changer.”
The multi-billion dollar nuclear power plant is the product of TerraPower, owned by Bill Gates, with partnerships with Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy. It breaks the mold of traditional nuclear plants in that it’s smaller, modular and designed to plug in and replace existing coal-fired power plants as they retire.
As part of Gov. Mark Gordon’s “all-of-the-above” mission in energy production, the Natrium reactor is a unique opportunity for Wyoming and could revolutionize clean power generation for the United States for decades, said Rob Godby, a leading energy economist and interim dean of the University of Wyoming College of Business.
“This is a very different reactor with modern controlled technologies,” he said. “If you get past energy source preference, nuclear has a lot of potential benefits, especially with the design they’re going to build.”
That design is unique in that it’s almost a “plug-and-go” solution for the accelerating schedule of retiring coal-fired power plants around the nation, Godby said. And while the focus now is on coal generation, that will shift to natural gas after coal is out of the mix.
The Natrium’s modular design is smaller than most traditional nuclear plants, which use decades-old technology and haven’t changed much in a couple of generations, he said. By building at the retiring plant sites, the nuclear facilities already will have access to the power grid and transmission.
Even more important for those communities where those plants are located, the nuclear plant will provide long-term jobs for the skilled workforces already in place, Godby said. That means negating the economic impact of closing a coal- or gas-fired plant.
“The upsides are that this is a high-tech area,” he said. “That leads to some potential economic development and a technology-based economy as part of our diversification strategy.
“A nuclear plant in this form preserves jobs locally, and those are high-paying jobs and high-skilled jobs. This will replace jobs in a way renewables can’t. It also preserves local taxes. When you shut down a power plant, that has an immediate shock to the economy.”
The trickle-down impact includes a renewed focus on nuclear research and education at the University of Wyoming, along with the state’s community college system. That means the potential to see communities across the state offering nuclear options along with the already specialized education for other important industries, said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Gillette-based Energy Capital Economic Development.
A specific location hasn’t been determined, but it will be at one of four of Rocky Mountain Power’s plants in Wyoming: the Jim Bridger plant near Rock Springs, the Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock, the Naughton plant at Kemmerer or the Wyodak plant near Gillette.
The Wyodak power plant is scheduled to retire in 2039. That retirement date is further out than the other three plants.
“This is a good project for Campbell County,” Christopherson said, citing the county already becoming known as one of the nation’s leading areas for carbon capture, sequestration and utilization research. A groundbreaking nuclear facility fits with the movement toward energy innovation that’s happening here.
“We are on the leading edge of carbon research with all the things we’re doing,” he said. “We just have a bunch of different carbon projects. We have a lot of stuff going on, which is bringing a lot of national attention to us.
“Gillette has long been the energy capital of the nation.”
That expansion continues Monday with local and state officials breaking ground on the Wyoming Innovation Center, an energy-focused business incubator located at the former Fort Union coal mine site north of Gillette.
An announcement on the nuclear power plant location is expected later this year.
Wednesday’s press conference to announce the Natrium reactor demonstration project choosing Wyoming brought out the big guns. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm attended virtually and Gates touted the TerraPower technology in a video statement. Gates’ billionaire buddy Warren Buffett also is involved with the project.
Put simply, nuclear power is the clear and logical choice for the United States and the world to achieve their goals of eliminating CO2 emissions, Gates said.
“We think Natrium will be a game-changer for the energy industry,” he said.
For Wyoming, it’s an opportunity to cement a swing in the state’s reputation as the leading coal producer and contributor to climate change to being on the front lines of reinventing the U.S. electricity generation portfolio, Gordon said.
“This is our fastest and clearest course to becoming carbon negative,” he said. “Nuclear power is clearly a part of my all-of-the-above strategy.”
What is the Natrium reactor?
The new technology touted by Gates, Gordon and the federal government uses a sodium fast reactor that works much more quickly and efficiently than traditional water-cooled reactors, according to natrium.com.
The modular design means the reactor can expand in the future and also can easily adapt to whichever coal- or gas-fired footprint it replaces.
The first demonstration plant in Wyoming will generate 345 megawatts of power with a capacity for storage to ramp that up to a 500 MW capacity for more than five hours. More importantly, it’s expected to be four times more fuel efficient than light water reactors and its construction to use 80% less nuclear-grade concrete per MW.
Some of the other benefits touted at this week’s announcement is that the Natrium has potential to be a pilot that can become the preferred solution in replacing fossil fuels in the U.S. energy portfolio. It can be a model for a generation of smaller, more flexible nuclear plants.
More technically, Natrium boasts that that its main component, called the “Energy Island,” can be built and operated without having to meet any nuclear regulatory requirements. That means a much more streamlined process of licensing and permitting.
It also can be built more quickly and cost-effectively. And while it was touted this week as a potential multi-billion dollar project, much of that will be financed by Pacificorp, a subsidiary of Rocky Mountain Power.
Why it’s important
Another potential economic driver not mentioned at this week’s announcement is the Natrium also being able to produce hydrogen, Godby said.
“That would be green hydrogen, not using fossil fuel feed stocks and not producing carbon emissions,” he said. “One of the operational opportunities is a plant like this could produce hydrogen when it’s not making power.”
Hydrogen is important because it can be used to make other types of fuels, which will be more in demand as the movement for electronic vehicles grows, Godby said. One industry especially in need of a new fuel source is airlines.
“When you have electricity and you have a source of hydrocarbon, you can make a biofuel,” he said. “You can also use these power plants for production of that type of energy.
“As we decarbonize the economy, we have to come up with solutions for things we want to continue to do, like long-distance hauling and flying airplanes.”
With a seven-year deadline to have the Natrium up and running, the project has been on a fast track since it was awarded an $80 million federal research grant last year.
There are still many unanswered questions and theories to prove, but the potential is exciting to contemplate, Godby said.
“There are a lot of open questions, but one of the things we know is we have to get (carbon free) much faster than we’ve been going,” he said. “The more choices we have, the better.
“This nuclear power option can potentially work in Wyoming and it can have benefits nationally and have economic development statewide. What we’re talking about here is solutions. Does that come with risks in some people’s eyes? Yes, but we have to address that.”
As for the seven-year clock that’s ticking on the Natrium demonstration project, it’s aggressive for a new nuclear technology, Godby said.
“But if anybody can do it, you’ve got Bill Gates behind this,” he said. “It won’t be easy, but the reality is this is a big lift, but you have the largest utility in the state and one of the largest in the country behind this.”
Not a ‘silver bullet’
Some of those risks were highlighted by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Sheridan-based environmental advocacy group, in response to this week’s announcement.
“This technology is still experimental and unproven,” said the group’s chairperson Marcia Westkott in a press release. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to license a design, so this announcement appears to be premature.”
Westkott also said some other serious questions haven’t been addressed, like how much the plant will cost, where it will get the water it needs to operate and how its radioactive waste will be stored.
She also warned that the Natrium reactor isn’t “a silver bullet” solution to the state’s economic woes.
The announcement “once again diverts away from our very real crisis in revenue, jobs and community survival,” Westkott said. “Wyoming’s elected leaders have still not come forward with a real plan to address lost jobs, declining revenues and the dissolution of coal communities.”
Godby agrees on at least one aspect of the Resource Council’s concerns.
“This will not replace the severance tax loss Wyoming is going to face as its fossil fuel sector declines,” he said. “There is no source of energy you can just drop in to fill that hole.”
While nuclear energy may not be the overall answer to Wyoming’s energy downturn, “it is huge for our uranium industry,” said Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association.
Much of the national focus is on the state’s coal and oil industries, but Wyoming also is the nation’s largest producer of uranium, Deti said. The Natrium plant could use Wyoming uranium, which could be the beginning of a surge for that industry, especially if it’s successful and more Natrium plants are built around the United States as fossil fuel plants retire.
“As coal plants retire, this is a great option,” Deti said. “It’s also a kick-start to revitalize our nuclear industry. If we’re going the road of zero emissions, nuclear is the way to go. It’s proven technology and we’re going to work with TerraPower to get this demonstration plant up.”
Deti said domestic uranium has “been on the sidelines on the nuclear issue for a long time, and it’s time we get back on the field.”
With the support of Gates, Buffett, Gordon and President Joe Biden’s administration, Natrium represents a so-far rare instance of bipartisan support, Deti said.
Add in the work of U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, who sponsored and pushed critical legislation to support the project and move it forward, and Natrium “has got some beef behind it. It’s the real deal,” he said.
Questions and challenges aside, you can’t blame Wyoming officials and residents for being excited about embarking on another power trip.
Campbell County Health made a pitch to Campbell County Commissioners this week for a potential affiliation with UCHealth.
Because of a state law, the commissioners must give their approval before CCH can move forward. They are expected to vote on the proposal later this month.
The Campbell County Health board of trustees, as well as its administrative team and representatives from Colorado-based nonprofit health care giant UCHealth, answered questions from commissioners during a two-hour work session Tuesday afternoon.
“Whether we like it or not, the local health care market is changing and evolving, and we haven’t had to compete as much in prior years, but it’s knocking on our doors,” said CCH CEO Colleen Heeter.
With the affiliation, CCH would have greater purchasing power in buying supplies, equipment and drugs, and it also would have access to the EPIC electronic medical records system.
The question about the affiliation that probably has been asked the most since it was proposed was brought up again with the commission: What is UCHealth getting out of this?
Grace Taylor, vice president of operations for UCHealth, said six organizations in the last five years approached UCHealth about some sort of agreement, and UCHealth decided they all weren’t the right fit.
“We do vet those carefully and take the time to look at cultural fit, (and) does it make sense,” she said. “We don’t want to enter into something that’s going to fail.”
Taylor said UCHealth is going to cover its costs, whether that’s through management support, consulting or IT help. For example, if it brings in a doctor to lead a department on an interim basis while CCH searches for a replacement, UCHealth would charge CCH that doctor’s hourly rate, plus 15%.
“We feel that is covering our costs,” Taylor said.
But the larger goal is “to build some meaningful relationships,” Taylor said. “We understand the best care is delivered close to home. We would really like to support that concept and assure that 99% of the care remains in Gillette.”
But for the remaining 1%, “we want to be your choice when you need us,” Taylor said, adding where a patient is referred to is ultimately up to the patients and their doctors.
Dr. Attila Barabas, the CCH chief medical officer, said UCHealth has many specialty care providers that, while an asset for the system, don’t have many patients and are “extremely expensive” to run.
“What they’re looking for is not referrals to their primary care, but to maintain the sub specialists to keep them busy,” Barabas said. “They can’t pay for those referrals, but they can create a really good relationship to draw those referrals to keep them busy and fund those activities.”
Companies like Monument Health are spending lots of money to set up shop in Gillette, said CCH trustee Adrian Gerrits. With the affiliation, “UCHealth is getting a cost-neutral entry into our market.”
“I think I see what UC is getting out of this,” said state Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette. “Quite simply, they’re growing their market share, expanding their web of influence.”
“And if they do a good job, they get repeat business,” said Commissioner D.G. Reardon.
There were questions on what the affiliation would mean for the CCH mill levy.
UCHealth has no say in what the mill levy is, Taylor said. That decision still remains with Campbell County Health trustees.
“My sense of the board as their counsel for almost 30 years is there is absolutely no appetite to come to you and the voters asking for an additional 3 mills. It’s just not a possibility,” said Tom Lubnau, the hospital board’s attorney.
Why is the county involved?
At their regular meeting in mid-June, commissioners will vote on a resolution about the affiliation.
County Administrative Director Carol Seeger said the commission is involved because of a state law that covers memorial hospitals or hospitals owned by county governments. CCH is a special hospital district, which is covered in another section of state law.
The statute reads that “whenever the board of trustees of a county memorial hospital or special hospital district deems it in the best interests of the county they may, with the approval and consent of the board of county commissioners, lease or enter into a contract for the operation of the hospital with any person, group, association or corporation.”
The way the statute is being interpreted, CCH must get the blessing of the commission before moving forward, Seeger said.
She said she believes it’s a “statutory error” or fluke, because nowhere else in that section of state statute does it mention special hospital districts.
If the affiliation goes through, Heeter would become an employee of UCHealth. Many residents and officials have questioned that with concerns that local control would be lost.
“I have just as much anxiety as the rest of you because it’s my employment,” Heeter said.
Commission Chairman Bob Maul asked why Heeter couldn’t remain an employee of CCH.
Taylor said that based on past experiences, “it has been beneficial for the CEO to be employed by UCHealth to access the system.”
Because the system is very complex, “we need to have the leadership aligned with us,” Taylor said.
“We really expect the CEO to understand our system at some level to understand what resources are available so we can support her and the rest of the executive team,” she said. “I get that that’s a tough pill to swallow. But unfortunately, that’s where we stand with that.”
“So is it a deal breaker?” asked Commissioner Del Shelstad.
“Yes,” Taylor replied.
Shelstad also asked what would happen if UCHealth was, for whatever reason, unhappy with Heeter’s performance.
Taylor said UCHealth would talk about the issue with the CCH board chairperson and ask for a performance review. Although Heeter would be an employee of UCHealth, the board would have the final say in whether she’s kept or fired, Taylor said.
Deputy County Attorney Sean Brown said he’s comfortable with the language in the draft contract, which says 15 times that “the board is going to retain ultimate authority over the CEO, medical staff and operation of the hospital.”
“Here’s an opportunity to partner with a really strong system that’s not looking at purchasing us, that we still have choices, that we still have opportunity here,” said CCH trustee Lisa Harry. “We are still making decisions for the hospital. None of that will change.”
McKeown said that if the affiliation truly saves CCH money, and CCH’s employees are protected, then it is a good move.
“I don’t see a huge risk involved for the payoffs that could possibly come,” McKeown said. “And if we’re wrong, we’re nowhere worse off than we were.”
State Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, said that it’s “time to privatize a bunch of this stuff, give the taxpayers a break. It looks like we’re headed down that road anyway.”
CCH trustee Randy Hite, who has been on the board for almost 10 years, said conversations on affiliation have been going on for years.
“We understood the health care industry was becoming more volatile and more unstable. What we didn’t predict was how quickly that was going to drop off in the last five years,” he said.
Hite added that this affiliation is going to make CCH’s medical staff stronger than ever, and that was the deciding factor for him and fellow trustee Dr. Sara Hartsaw.
“They were all a little hesitant, still are to some degree. For the most part, there’s excitement, because it strengthens the knowledge they can pull from,” Hite said. “It strengthens our most valuable asset.”