This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Utah may be nuclear powered in a decade.
Rocky Mountain Power parent PacifiCorp and Bill Gates-backed TerraPower announced Thursday they are looking at five sites to locate TerraPower’s fast-sodium nuclear reactors integrated with molten salt storage. This move could provide continuous, carbon-free power to customers across PacifiCorp’s six-state system.
“The locations that will be the subject of the joint study will include sites near existing power plants in Wyoming and Utah,” said Ryan McGraw, vice president, project development for Rocky Mountain Power.
The two companies had previously announced a partnership to develop the first “Natrium” power plant in Wyoming’s coal country near Kemmerer. Construction on that plant is scheduled to begin in 2024, with the plant becoming operational by 2028.
Locating nuclear plants near existing coal plants means the companies can use existing transmission lines to distribute the power. That could be good news for Emery County, home to two of PacifiCorp’s largest coal-fired power plants that are set to be retired in the coming years. The utility is one of the county’s largest employers.
“When I heard the news, I was very excited to learn we’re moving from older technology to the next stage of power generation,” said Emery County Commissioner Kent Wilson. “We’re excited to be a part of Rocky Mountain Power’s future generation prospects.”
The TerraPower system still relies on the nuclear fission of uranium to produce heat that can generate electricity, but it is quite different from the traditional water-cooled reactors that currently produce most of the world’s nuclear energy.
Fast-sodium reactors use molten sodium instead of water to cool the reactor and transfer heat, which is safer and more efficient. They use “fast neutrons” that produce more energy from the uranium fuel than traditional reactors. And they generate less “transuranic” waste, heavy radioactive particles that are a byproduct of nuclear reactions.
TerraPower’s system also includes large molten salt reservoirs that can store the nuclear-generated heat to produce electricity when it’s needed. Unlike regular nuclear plants or coal-fired plants that are slow to ramp up and down, the molten salt storage can rapidly convert its heat to electricity. That makes it better suited for integrating with intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. When the wind dies or the sun goes down, the molten salt storage can ramp up.
“I think the new reactor technology is very promising and exciting,” said Michael Simpson, chair of the University of Utah’s material science and engineering department. “The reactor with sodium coolant is based on a GE-Hitachi design called PRISM, that has been in development off and on for a long time.”
Simpson said a test reactor at Idaho National Laboratory based on similar technology “experienced no major operational problems over about 30 years of operation”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, which has monitored safety at nuclear power plants since its inception in 1969, disputed the idea that fast sodium reactors are inherently safer than traditional nuclear generation in a 2021 report.
According to the report, “sodium-cooled fast reactors such as the Natrium would likely be less “uranium-efficient.” They would not reduce the amount of waste that requires long-term isolation in a geologic repository. They also could experience safety problems that are not an issue for light-water reactors.”
This is not the only effort to bring nuclear power to Utah. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which represents public-owned power systems in Utah cities and nearby states, has been working toward its own next-generation nuclear power. UAMPS has been working with a company called NuScale on small “modular” reactors that are also said to be much safer than traditional reactors. The current plan would locate the reactors in Idaho’s national engineering laboratory and dispatch power to Utah and elsewhere. UAMPS hasn’t formally committed to buying yet.
While it has never used nuclear-generated power, Utah has a long history with the promise and the realities of nuclear reactions. Moab in the 1950s was the heart of the nation’s uranium boom, only to see it bust in the ‘60s. Utahns living in southwestern Utah in the late ‘50s became the unwitting victims of radiation-related cancers from open-air testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada. Those “downwinders” were later given compensation from the federal government, along with some Utah uranium miners who worked without adequate protection.
Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.