Utility Explores Converting Coal Plants into Nuclear Power

The West goes nuclear.

A Bill Gates-backed developer and one of many largest utilities within the Western United States introduced Thursday they had been launching a research to find out if as much as 5 coal crops may very well be outfitted with superior nuclear reactors.

The transfer additional cemented the connection between TerraPower, a nuclear developer, and PacifiCorp, a six-state utility headquartered in Portland, Ore. The pair agreed final yr to construct a 345-megawatt Natrium nuclear reactor on the web site of a retiring coal plant in western Wyoming.

The deal alerts the emergence of a brand new vitality transition technique within the West, the place PacifiCorp has needed to stability the local weather objectives of its prospects in Washington and Oregon with the desires of its Wyoming shoppers, who wish to preserve the corporate’s coal crops open of their state. Nuclear energy brings with it the prospect of jobs and zero-carbon electrical energy, probably assembly the local weather objectives of political leaders and ratepayers in Washington and Oregon.

Yet the brand new concentrate on nuclear vitality additionally comes with dangers. The first reactor on the Naughton Power Plant in Kemmerer, Wyo., the place the 2 firms hope to show {that a} coal-to-nuclear conversion is viable, has but to have its design accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is projected to value $4 billion. It’s unclear how a lot of these prices could be borne by ratepayers.

“PacifiCorp has a difficult challenge not just technically, but politically with a diverse set of stakeholders,” mentioned Robert Godby, a professor who tracks vitality markets on the University of Wyoming.

Nuclear had lengthy been anathema for a lot of in Wyoming, the nation’s prime coal-producing state. But that has begun to alter in recent times, as coal crops throughout the nation have closed and PacifiCorp started to contemplate retiring its fleet of 4 coal crops within the state.

The plan to transform the Kemmerer plant into a sodium-cooled Natrium reactor has been embraced by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican.

“I think a lot of people in Wyoming are open to considering nuclear’s benefits and costs and seeing if it pencils out,” Godby mentioned.

Thursday’s announcement is a part of a broader effort to scale up TerraPower’s know-how. The firm’s first undertaking is anticipated to start working in 2028. And superior planning is required to convey further initiatives on-line afterwards, mentioned TerraPower president and CEO Chris Levesque.

Those future initiatives may assist set up the provision chain wanted to construct further reactors. That vitality is required desperately as coal crops shutter throughout the nation and to enrich the build-out of renewables, he mentioned.

“We do need to quickly not just demonstrate the technology but ramp it up to make the type of global impact that the TerraPower [company] was founded by Bill to achieve,” Levesque mentioned, referring to Gates.

Converting coal crops into nuclear vitality enterprises is en vogue. A current Department of Energy research discovered that siting superior reactors at outdated coal websites can lower prices by making the most of current transmission and interconnection infrastructure (Energywire, Sept. 14).

Nuclear additionally has the potential to supply two issues that renewables can not: energy that may be dispatched at any time and an abundance of jobs. Wind and photo voltaic services typically make use of solely a handful of individuals as soon as they’re totally constructed. TerraPower estimates its facility would require a workforce of 250 folks.

Ryan McGraw, vice chairman of undertaking improvement at Rocky Mountain Power, a PacifiCorp subsidiary, mentioned the benefits of a Natrium reactor embrace “reliable emissions-free generation that is flexible and incorporates an important energy storage technology.”

The research introduced Thursday will consider if further fossil gasoline crops operated by the utility may host a Natrium reactor. The firms mentioned they might have interaction with native communities earlier than any web site is chosen.

“While there are a number of hurdles to overcome prior to commercialization of any new technology, this joint study with TerraPower will help us to understand those challenges and frame a path forward with the best interest of our customers in mind,” McGraw wrote in an electronic mail.

‘It’s loopy’

TerraPower’s know-how is exclusive in that the plant features as an influence generator and a battery. The molten salt used to chill the plant might be saved in large tanks after which launched, creating warmth that may flip a turbine. That permits the ability to ramp up energy to 500 megawatts for a number of hours, serving to offset decreases in wind and photo voltaic output.

DOE awarded the corporate almost $2 billion for its first reactor. The firm has additionally been attracting traders; it raised $750 million in an fairness fundraiser earlier this yr (Energywire, Aug. 16).

Yet there are unanswered questions in regards to the prices on prospects. TerraPower has mentioned it will bear improvement prices, together with any potential overruns. And PacifiCorp has mentioned it will solely choose the plant if modeling outcomes from long-term planning eventualities present that it’s warranted. Levesque mentioned the corporate’s hope is that future reactors will value round $1 billion.

Still, some client advocates are cautious. They declare the businesses haven’t offered particular undertaking prices or mentioned if prospects might be on the hook to pay them. The firms’ aggressive timeline has additionally been a trigger for concern. TerraPower plans to file its software for its reactor design with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2023, start building on generators and different nonnuclear building in 2024 and begin producing electrical energy in 2028.

“It’s extremely risky. It’s crazy, in fact,” mentioned Bob Jenks, govt director of the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board, a client advocacy group. “This is an unproven technology. It hasn’t been licensed from the NRC. It doesn’t know where it’s going to get its fuel from.”

The firm had hoped to initially import uranium from Russia however ditched that plan after the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this yr.

Advanced nuclear know-how like a Natrium reactor might finally be wanted to enrich renewables and supply energy for the carbon-free grid of the longer term, Jenks mentioned. But PacifiCorp has a whole lot of work to do to show TerraPower’s answer is best than different alternate options, equivalent to batteries or hydrogen.

The utility additionally hasn’t spelled out the way it intends to guard shoppers within the occasion of value overruns, a frequent pitfall for nuclear initiatives. Both firms, Jenks famous, are owned by billionaires. TerraPower was based by Gates, and PacifiCorp is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

“Warren Buffet’s PacifiCorp wants to put as much risk as possible on customers as possible. I know Warren Buffet isn’t going to take the risk, maybe Bill Gates is,” Jenks mentioned. “They have a lot of work to do before they convince me, and I will be arguing to Oregon regulators don’t approve this until you know how much risk Oregon customers are being subjected to.”

Oregon accounts for roughly 1 / 4 of PacifiCorp’s vitality gross sales.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News gives important information for vitality and setting professionals.


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