Third in a series with the Seattle Times on the future of nuclear power in the United States in the era of climate change.
KEMMERER, Wyoming—In a triangle-shaped park, a bronze statue honors the legacy of J.C. Penney. In 1902, he opened a dry-goods store here to serve workers who dug coal from a nearby mine. The entrepreneur would go on to forge a nationwide retail empire.
More than a century later, a J.C. Penney department store still sells clothing in this town of fewer than 3,000 people. In the blocks surrounding the park, many businesses have closed, leaving behind aging storefronts. Some that remain open have “for sale” signs in the windows.
Kemmerer’s decline has come as the coal industry, despite a recent surge in demand, has suffered a long-term loss of markets to cleaner, cheaper sources of electricity. In 2025, the town faces a stark reckoning when Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton coal plant is scheduled to close, which also will leave a more difficult future for a nearby mine.
“With the power plant shutting down in five years, would you open a new restaurant or new business of any kind?” said Tom Crank, a former state legislator and civil engineer who has lived in Kemmerer since 1968. “This is slowly eating away at the community.”
This week came big news, and fresh hope for an economic revival of Kemmerer.
TerraPower, a Bellevue-based nuclear energy company founded by Bill Gates, announced plans to build a new reactor called Natrium—cooled by liquid sodium—at the site of the Naughton coal plant.
The plant was one of four scheduled for closure that were under consideration for TerraPower’s Wyoming Advanced Nuclear Demonstration Project.
“We think Natrium will be a game-changer for the energy industry,” Gates said in a June virtual appearance in Wyoming. “Wyoming has been a leader in energy for over a century. And we hope that our investment in Natrium will allow Wyoming to stay in the lead for many decades to come.”
Nuclear power generates electricity without the direct combustion of fossil fuels, which releases greenhouse gases. And Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, has been one of America’s most high-profile proponents of nuclear power to help the nation reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In his virtual appearance, Gates promoted Natrium as a safer, more flexible and less-expensive reactor than those cooled by water in conventional plants.
Gates’ advocacy has earned him praise—and pushback—amid a global debate about nuclear power’s role in the 21st century. In Europe, Germany plans to shut down its last nuclear power plants in 2022, while France remains dependent on nuclear for most of its electricity. In China, the government is backing a program of nuclear expansion that until U.S. restrictions were imposed in 2019 included a TerraPower proposal to build an experimental reactor south of Beijing.
In the United States, where nuclear provides 20 percent of the electricity, critics say it remains a costly option with unresolved issues over long-term waste storage. And they say the potential of advanced reactors is being oversold.
“Many of the claims that are being made about these types of reactors are simply untrue or highly misleading,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who this year published a report on advanced nuclear technology that included a harsh critique of TerraPower’s project.
Shannon Anderson, staff attorney with Wyoming’s Powder River Basin Resource Council, said the TerraPower reactor is “no silver bullet solution,” and would be too little, too late to address climate change or the economic impacts of coal’s decline in Wyoming. “It doesn’t answer the tough questions that we really need to have answered in the state,” Anderson said.
Since 2009, TerraPower has spent more than $1.4 million on contributions to national political campaigns and lobbying, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit tracking money in politics.
TerraPower has benefitted from bipartisan political support.
During the June announcement of the four sites, Gates was joined by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Gov. Mark Gordon—eager to launch nuclear power generation in the nation’s largest coal-producing state.
TerraPower’s Wyoming project is projected to cost nearly $4 billion. Taxpayers, under contract terms, pick up half that, matching private sector spending dollar for dollar.
Congress already has allocated most of the nearly $2 billion to the Energy Department to spend on TerraPower, much of it in the infrastructure bill signed into law Monday by President Joe Biden. The company’s CEO, Chris Levesque, calls it the largest public investment in an advanced nuclear power project in the nation’s history.
The Energy Department’s contract stipulates the Natrium reactor must be operating by 2028—lightning speed in the nuclear world. A partner in the project is Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, PacifiCorp, controlled by Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company led by Gates’ billionaire friend Warren Buffett.
The 345-megawatt TerraPower reactor is designed to generate electricity around the clock and would be coupled with a molten-salt system to store heat and enable the plant to surge up to 500 megawatts for over five hours—enough electricity for about 400,000 homes.
The project would employ 2,000 workers during construction and 250 others to operate the plant. TerraPower officials hope this project can be replicated at other U.S. coal plants.
“This [TerraPower] technology is amazing—there’s no other word for it,” said Gary W. Hoogeven, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, which plans to close 19 coal-fired power plant units by 2040.
“I couldn’t be more excited for you, those communities and our employees that there is a solution. It’s coming, and TerraPower, I believe, is it,” Hoogeven said as the project was announced.
In Kemmerer, a conservative town in a fiercely Republican state, some are wary of Gates’ wide-ranging agenda, from combating climate change to developing COVID-19 vaccines.
But many people strongly support the new nuclear plant.
“When it comes to decarbonization, we’re not stupid,” said Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek. “We realize that’s coming—we want to mitigate anything, anywhere that we can to make our town not dry up and blow away.”
At a Crossroads
The Naughton power plant’s first unit came online in 1963, when coal generation of electricity was in the early stage of a long expansion that peaked in the first decade of the 21st century.
The plant was built near the coal deposits that had given birth to Kemmerer back in the 1890s. The fuel went to heat homes, fuel industries and feed the boilers for locomotive steam engines that pulled trains across the West.
By the 1960s, the mining had morphed into open-pit operations that used heavy equipment to bring coal out of the ground. The coal moved on a tipple to the power plant, which by 1971 included three separate generating units able to produce 445 megawatts of electricity.
The mine, along with oil and gas development in surrounding Lincoln County, helped usher in economic growth as the population of Kemmerer reached 3,273 in 1980, nearly double its 1950 census, according to a city planning document.
“Everything was busy,” recalls John Sawaya, a retired businessman who was proprietor of a downtown Kemmerer shoe shop and men’s clothing store.
Back in the ’80s, Sawaya was on the school board and recalls discussions about the likely need for a new school. That school was never built, a sign of the boom-and-bust nature of the energy industry.
For most of the past decade, coal has been losing market share to natural gas and renewable power generation. And in 2019, the largest and most modern of Naughton’s three coal units shut down with a conversion that enables it to burn natural gas.
PacifiCorp’s plans to close Naughton and other Wyoming power units put state politicians on high alert, and resulted in new laws to try to boost the industry and head off closures.
One requires Rocky Mountain Power to offer Naughton units, as well as others slated for closure, for sale.
“My drive is to save those people’s jobs,” said Wyoming Senate President Dan Dockstader, a Republican behind several of those laws.
This year, natural gas prices have soared, giving coal-fired power plants a boost with generation expected to rise by 18 percent compared to 2020, according to an Energy Information Administration report.
But at the Naughton plant, which employs more than 100 people, the end of an era appeared to be fast approaching. It has been increasingly difficult to retain workers, according to Eric Backman, a 42-year veteran of the plant who works in a control room near a turbine and boiler.
Skilled plant workers often earn more than $40 an hour, but Backman said the plant in recent years has been chronically short-handed as younger people with families look for somewhere else to go. Backman plans to retire in January after nearly 43 years at the plant.
Within the plant’s workforce, Backman said, there is broad support for a nuclear plant that could offer new jobs.
Bill Gates brainstormed with colleagues about nuclear power in 2006, a year of transition as he exited day-to-day responsibilities at Microsoft. He became convinced nuclear power was key to a global supply of low-carbon energy, and founded TerraPower to develop a safer, more efficient reactor.
TerraPower initially focused on what was called a “traveling wave reactor,” which was intended to safely operate for decades without refueling, and might eventually be able to run on depleted uranium, a byproduct of nuclear industry processing operations, or on spent fuel from a conventional reactor.
But the traveling wave reactor proved difficult to bring from concept to demonstration, and after years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, development is on hold.
In Wyoming, TerraPower is focused on a different design, the Natrium reactor. Natrium is the Latin word for sodium, which would be used as a coolant. This plant would use enriched uranium fuel, which involves processing that increases the percentage of uranium 235-isotopes that can sustain fission.
Levesque, Terrapower’s CEO, says advanced materials and computing will create a reactor that is “walkaway safe,” and produces less waste. The plant could quickly flex power generation to help keep the grid in balance as more solar and wind projects come online.
TerraPower hopes to secure a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before construction begins in 2024, then an operating permit to enable the plant to begin generating electricity in 2028.
“We do have a lot of weight on our shoulders,” Levesque said, citing the aggressive timeline as the biggest challenge. “But it needs to be ready, because the need will be there.”
Lyman, the physicist who watchdogs nuclear power with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that to expect the advanced designs to prove themselves on that timeline is audacious and possibly magical thinking.
The basic idea of a sodium-cooled reactors has been around since 1951 but they never came into widespread commercial use. Development efforts included a sodium-cooled reactor in Michigan, called Fermi-1, that suffered a partial meltdown in 1966, restarted in 1970, then shut down in 1972, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists report released earlier this year by Lyman.
“The [nuclear industry’s] public relations machine is being fueled by the entry of a few large, deep-pocketed investors, but that doesn’t mean the fundamentals have really changed,” Lyman said.
Lyman disputes TerraPower’s assessment of the safety of the sodium-cooled reactor design, which in his report he rates as significantly worse than conventional reactors cooled by water. Fire can break out if air or water comes into contact with liquid sodium. Lyman also cites the risk of an out-of-control chain reaction known as a “supercritical power excursion,” which would involve a power increase so rapid it would be impossible to control—as occurred during the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union.
Lyman expects TerraPower’s uranium fuel enrichment will top 18 percent—below the more than 90 percent preferred to create atomic weapons but more than triple the percentage of conventional reactors cooled by water.
He says this would pose a greater security risk. And if the technology gains a global foothold, the production, processing and transport of this fuel could increase the risk of the spread of nuclear weapons, he said.
TerraPower’s design will undergo a safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the licensing process, according to Scott Burnell, a commission spokesperson.
For TerraPower, another complication involves securing the fuel needed to operate the reactor. It is called HALEU, or “high-assay, low-enriched uranium.” The U.S. lacks the capacity to produce it on a scale required to supply TerraPower and other advanced nuclear reactors, such as the X-energy project proposed for Washington state.
TerraPower has partnered with a company called Centrus Energy Corp. to expand a pilot plant in Piketon, Ohio. But just to produce enough fuel for the TerraPower plant in Wyoming would require at least tripling the output, and would require its own federal licensing process. So some of this fuel might, at least initially, need to be imported from other nations.
‘Great News’ in Coal Country
TerraPower officials said that all four towns that were considered for the power plant showed strong community support. In the end, the decision came down to factors that included seismic analysis of potential sites, construction logistics, power transmission networks and the projected closure dates of the different coal plants. “We tried to figure out what was the best site for having a successful deployment of the Natrium technology,” TerraPower’s Levesque said Tuesday.
For Kemmerer and Lincoln County officials, there are now new challenges to prepare for a multibillion-dollar project launched on a tract of land—yet to be determined—close by the Naughton plant.
“There is a lot of excitement. It’s great news, and there is going to be a lot involved,” said Jerry Hansen, a Lincoln County commissioner who said that one challenge will be to figure out some sort of lodging for all the construction workers.
Some of these construction jobs could be taken by coal power plant workers who will be unemployed as the Naughton plant shuts down. But those are temporary jobs, and the full-time jobs in the power plant would not be available until 2028 at the earliest. They would require new training that TerraPower officials say will be offered.
Crank, the former state legislator and civil engineer, said all these jobs will bring about more prosperous times in the town he calls home.
He recalls how hard it was to get a loan to build a new office building in the late 1990s because the banks were so wary of Kemmerer. With Bill Gates’ TerraPower making a bet here, he figures new loans will be easier to come by.