Charles McCollum 2021

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Kemmerer, Wyoming, is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Cache Valley — up Logan Canyon, around Bear Lake, then straight on for 40 miles across a moon-like stretch of high plains.

My wife and I used to drive out there for one weekend every July to take in the Oyster Ridge Music Festival and spend some time knocking about amid the sagebrush, fish fossils and jackalope of western Wyoming.

Two of the places we explored — or tried to explore before we encountered “Authorized Personnel Only” signs — were the Kemmerer Mine, a massive open-pit coal-extraction operation just southwest of town, and the Naughton Power Plant fueled by the mine.

These two facilities employ a good portion of Kemmerer’s population, which Anita and I got a pretty good feel for during our annual visits. They have a lot of community camaraderie there, probably enhanced by their shared challenges living in a rugged region known for its boom-and-bust cycles.

All of this explains why my jaw dropped when I read the other day that the power plant is soon shutting down and will likely be replaced by a nuclear power facility scheduled to go online by the year 2028. My jaw dropped even farther when I read the facility’s investors include a company owned by tech billionaire and alleged do-gooder Bill Gates.

All of this is actually old news. The site selection was announced last November. We never published anything about it in The Herald Journal because we simply don’t monitor Wyoming news very closely, even though it’s not that far away. State lines are curious that way. Somehow, a big news event in a cross-border town like Kemmerer gets less attention than a small news event in St. George, which is almost 300 miles farther away.

Anyway, Gates’ company, TerraPower, is partnering on the project with GE Hatachi Nuclear Energy and PacificCorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power. If the project clears all regulatory hurdles, the group will get matching funds from the U.S. Department of Energy through what is known as the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, for which Congress has allocated $2.5 billion.

TerraPower has presented the Kemmerer proposal as a demonstration project for its reportedly cutting-edge “Natrium” nuclear reactors and what it hopes will be the first of many plants around Wyoming, the West and the country.

What is the Natrium process? TerraPower touts it as safe and inexpensive. Here is a paragraph from one of the company’s news releases about the Kemmerer proposal that may or may not explain it for you, depending on whether you do or don’t have an advanced physics degree:

“The project features a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. The storage technology can boost the system’s output to 500 MW of power when needed, which is equivalent to the energy required to power around 400,000 homes. The energy storage capability allows the plant to integrate seamlessly with renewable resources.”

There have already been public meetings about the plant, and from what I’ve read it doesn’t sound like any stiff opposition has been mounted to date. Many people in Kemmerer and the adjacent town of Diamondville are excited because it will bring an economic boom with the influx of 2,000 or more workers to build the plant. And the estimated 250 workers needed to operate the thing will help keep the towns vibrant for years to come. If approved, construction will begin in 2024.

There is an excellent article about the project and its expected community impact on the nonprofit Wyoming news website WyoFile. The article by Dustin Bleizeffer cited two possible points of concern and opposition: the potentially dangerous shipment of radioactive fuels across the country from South Carolina and the storage of spent nuclear fuels onsite.

TerraPower also plans what it’s calling “the world’s first fast-spectrum salt reactor” at the Idaho National Laboratory outside of Idaho Falls. This is a joint project with Southern Company, a utility holding company based in Atlanta that provides power throughout the southeastern U.S. This is not connected with the six small next-generation nuclear plants also planned at the Idaho National Laboratory by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS, of which Logan is a member.

Many readers will remember Logan pulled out of the UAMPS nuclear project in 2020, not necessarily because of safety concerns but because of the economics of the investment. Logan won’t be buying power from Kemmerer either because Rocky Mountain Power doesn’t sell energy outside of its own system.

But getting back to why news of the Wyoming plans really caught my attention. Kemmerer is simply not very far from Cache Valley.

If ultimately built, the Kemmerer facility will be the closest nuclear power plant to Logan at roughly 75 miles as the crow flies. A straight line between Logan and Idaho Falls is about 140 miles.

I can’t pretend to know anything about nuclear safety or whether an accident at the TerraPower plant could pose a risk to Cache Valley, but a quick search online tells me radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster caused measurable contamination as far as 300 miles from the plant site, and Fukushima radiation went much farther, helped along by ocean currents.

Wind is a factor in the spread of radiation, as residents in this region know well from the health impacts of Cold War nuclear weapons testing on “downwinders” in Utah and Nevada.

Is Logan downwind of western Wyoming? Sometimes, but very rarely.

USU climatologist Jon Meyer notes that the majority of large-scale winds in Cache Valley come from the west and tend to swing between northwesterly and southwesterly. The valley’s infamous “canyon winds” are localized, but each year the region is hit a couple of times by heavy downslope gales out of Wyoming that wreak havoc on homes, trees and semi-trailers on the highways.

Honestly, I’m not trying to weigh in on the proposed nuclear plant in Kemmerer. I just think Cache Valley residents should be aware of something like this so close to home, even if it is on the other side of a big, fat, news-swallowing state line.

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