PacifiCorp joins Bill Gates’ TerraPower in bid to build nuclear plant in Wyoming

S&P Global Market Intelligence • 06-02-21 • By Garrett Hering

(Duke Energy note: TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy announced the launch of the Natrium™ reactor/energy system last fall. Along with PacifiCorp and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, other project team members include Duke Energy, Bechtel, Energy Northwest, universities and national labs. Duke Energy will serve in an advisory role.)

In a bid to revive nuclear energy as a solution to decarbonization in the Western U.S., Berkshire Hathaway Energy utility subsidiary PacifiCorp will work with TerraPower LLC, a Bellevue, Wash.-based advanced nuclear company co-founded by billionaire Bill Gates, to build a new reactor at a retiring coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, the companies announced Wednesday.

The demonstration project, which includes a 345-MW sodium-cooled reactor with an integrated molten salt energy storage system, “could ensure that a formerly productive coal generation site continues to produce reliable power for our customers,” Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of PacifiCorp’s Rocky Mountain Power division, said in a statement. “We are currently conducting joint due diligence to ensure this opportunity is cost-effective for our customers and a great fit for Wyoming and the communities we serve.”

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon called his state, the nation’s largest producer of uranium, “the perfect place for this type of innovative utility facility.”

The companies have not yet determined which retiring coal plant the nuclear facility would replace but said they expected to announce the location by the end of 2021. PacifiCorp operates four coal-fired power plants in Wyoming.

Other participants in the proposed Wyoming demonstration project, which must still garner state and federal approvals, include engineering and construction company Bechtel Corp.; Energy Northwest, which operates the Columbia Generating (WNP-2) nuclear plant on behalf of public utility districts in Washington state; and Duke Energy Corp.
Codeveloped with the GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy joint venture, TerraPower’s so-called Natrium technology also has the backing of the U.S. Energy Department, which awarded the company $80 million in October 2020 and signed a cooperation agreement with the company in May.

“The reactors are smaller, safer [and have] less nuclear waste,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said during an announcement event. “This is the future of nuclear energy in America compared to what we’ve been doing over the last 65 years, with the energy being clean, affordable, reliable, safe.”

The project’s storage system is designed to increase the facility’s output to 500 MW for more than five-and-a-half hours, equal to the energy required to power about 400,000 homes, according to the project participants. That duration is longer than most current lithium-ion battery projects, which typically offer four hours of storage or less, though some lithium-ion battery developers are exploring projects with up to eight hours of storage capacity.

“With coal plants retiring, a transition to nuclear means we can continue to use the expertise of coal workers and infrastructure developed over decades to achieve our decarbonization goals while delivering well-paid, highly-skilled jobs in coal communities,” Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of advocacy group Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a statement.

Despite the high-level support, which includes Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the project is already spawning local skepticism.

Marcia Westkott, chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said the Wyoming-based conservation group has “many questions” about the proposal, calling the technology “experimental and unproven.” The group has concerns about cost, water use and safe waste storage, Westkott said in an emailed statement.

“Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this latest claim of a ‘silver bullet’ to save Wyoming’s economy is that it once again diverts attention away from our very real crisis in revenue, jobs and community survival,” Westkott said.