GLENROCK, Wyo. (AP) — Some communities would balk at the idea of a company building an experimental power source on the edge 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 four Wyoming towns will house their project, and Glenrock wants to be selected.
During a Wednesday meeting with the heads of TerraPower and Rocky Mountain Power, community leaders listened attentively to the companies’ pitch. Most were already on board with the project. A few safety questions did come up, but Glenrock’s leaders wanted to focus the conversation on logistics — not risk.
The town’s coal-fired power plant, Dave Johnston, is set to retire in 2027, taking 191 jobs with it. The Natrium reactor is scheduled to come online the following year, generating an estimated 250 permanent jobs. Its developers intend to establish training programs to help workers in the selected community transition from their current jobs at the coal plant to new roles at the nuclear facility.
Glenrock is a town of just 2,600 people; Converse County’s entire population numbers fewer than 14,000. The community’s history is intertwined with that of the energy sector. Many see the nuclear plant not only as a natural transition, but a necessary one for their economic survival.
“We have a history of energy developments in our community, going way, way back,” Glenrock councilwoman Margaret Nunn said during the meeting. “One, we opened coal mines. Two, we built a power plant. Three, we mined out the coal and reclaimed the land. Four, we built a new wind farm where the coal mine once was. Five, our power plant 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 one is attempting to persuade the other that they’re worth the investment. But with many local leaders already convinced of the project’s potential benefits, it’s the developers’ choice to make.
“What do we need to do, collectively, to ensure that the plant lands here?” Converse County Commissioner Robert Short asked the executives.
Their answer: Be enthusiastic. And get lucky. All four possible sites have already undergone preliminary evaluations and been deemed viable. The companies want to build the plant in a supportive community with demonstrated economic need — criteria Glenrock meets. But just as important are business concerns like infrastructure and access to services, along with factors such as seismic activity, which can affect permitting eligibility.
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 towns in contention, Gillette, Kemmerer and Rock Springs, will do the same.
In 1957, when the experimental Shippingport nuclear reactor was completed in Pennsylvania, the U.S. proved that water cooling technology was market-ready, leading to the construction of 100 water-cooled nuclear reactors nationwide 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 is distinguished from standard U.S. 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 prevent it from vaporizing, reducing the plant’s need for the controlled systems used to keep cooling water in place and allowing it to rely more on natural forces like convection and gravity.
“We used a lot of supercomputing and advanced metallurgy to design it,” Levesque said, “but the plant itself is actually simpler than a lot of plants today.”
The reactor is also designed to operate more efficiently, producing one-third as much waste as existing nuclear plants. It will require less human intervention, including in the case of any malfunctions, a feature its developers say makes it much safer than water-cooled facilities.
By building the nuclear facility on the site of a retiring coal plant, developers will have access to an available workforce and cost-saving resources like current water permits and electric grid connections.
“We are able to leverage the existing technical infrastructure that’s there, but also the expertise,” said Tiffany Erickson, media relations manager for Rocky Mountain Power, in an interview with the Casper Star-Tribune.
Representatives of Rocky Mountain Power and TerraPower have repeatedly emphasized the companies’ plan to hire as many local workers as possible and provide training to those workers when necessary.
“The intent is to work with community colleges and [the University of Wyoming] on developing training and reskilling programs,” Erickson said.