Wednesday’s announcement has the potential to be a game changer: Nuclear power is coming to Wyoming within the next decade.
Gov. Mark Gordon said so with as much enthusiasm and fanfare as he could muster during a news conference inside the state Capitol. Standing to his left, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., tried to look and sound excited, as well.
But both men had to be thinking to themselves, “How in the world did it come to this?” Because both of these top elected officials have gone out of their way in recent years to support the sagging coal industry, whether by lifting environmental restrictions at the federal level or cheerleading for carbon capture and utilization technology within the state’s borders. Heck, the governor even got state lawmakers to set aside $1.2 million so he can sue any state that tries to block exports of Wyoming coal and causes Wyoming coal-fired power plants to shut down.
Yet, despite their best efforts, market forces continue to drag down the fortunes of coal, as plants convert to cheaper natural gas or shut down entirely, and renewables surge. Plus, climate change deniers are having an increasingly tough time convincing younger generations that continuing to support the status quo will work out just fine.
Oh, neither of them will admit it, of course. Both will say they have always supported an “all of the above” energy portfolio that includes renewables like solar and wind, as well as coal, natural gas, oil, and now, apparently, nuclear. And, in some ways, that’s true. Mr. Gordon has stated a goal of being a carbon-negative state, and Mr. Barrasso has long supported the extraction of uranium from the state.
But we know where their hearts lie, don’t we? And, honestly, who can blame them? After all, their political futures depend on the support of coal miners and power plant workers whose jobs are either disappearing or threatened by the planned closure of the four Rocky Mountain Power facilities currently operating around the state.
They need the support of small town mayors and their residents, whose way of life is threatened by the very real possibility that they may be living in one of Wyoming’s future ghost towns. And they need the support of ranchers, hunters, outfitters and others whose livelihood depends on preserving Wyoming’s outdoor beauty.
So, the nuclear power industry seems like a strange bedfellow, doesn’t it?
But don’t get us wrong: We’re glad to see Gov. Gordon and Sen. Barrasso welcome Bill Gates’ TerraPower demonstration plant to the Equality State. If it performs as advertised, it will be able to reliably generate between 345 and 500 Megawatts of electricity, starting in 2028, with no harmful carbon emissions. The facility will be smaller than the existing behemoths that currently provide about 20% of the nation’s electricity, and is (reportedly) safer than the Three Mile Islands, Chernobyls and Fukushima Daiichis of the world.
If project supporters and researchers who have been developing the new technology are right, this next chapter of nuclear energy generation holds the promise of meeting the increasing demands for energy worldwide while helping us get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Best of all – for at least one Wyoming community, anyway – the Natrium plant will be built near one of those four soon-to-be-decommissioned coal-fired power plants, offering a ray of hope for the people of Rock Springs, Kemmerer, Glenrock or Gillette that they will be able to pivot to a new industry without missing much of a beat.
(Of course, “best of all” depends on your perspective, because this technology has yet to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; we haven’t heard any details about how waste from the plant will be handled; Rocky Mountain Power officials say they have to be sure the cost of building the facility won’t put an undue burden on ratepayers, etc. Plus, Wyoming has a history of industries moving in, taking advantage of us and leaving us holding the bag.)
But, really, what choice did they have? After all, it’s not like anyone else is offering anything better, as far as we can tell.
Because they and their fellow elected leaders have failed to get serious about diversifying the state’s economy and its tax base, they had no choice but to put out the “Welcome to Wyoming” sign. The problem, of course, is this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is still too far out of reach to address the very serious financial crisis state officials face today.
Which means once the confetti is all swept up and the balloons have dropped to the floor, Wyoming’s leaders face the same situation they did a week ago. How do we pay for K-12 education, health care and other vital services as the revenue from fossil fuels continues to decline?
Yes, adding nuclear power to Wyoming’s energy portfolio can, indeed, be a game changer. But it’s a long way from being something we can hang our hat on, so our leaders will have to do much more. It’s time for them to roll up their sleeves and get busy.