Best of the West: Advanced nuclear energy; a $350 million face-lift; a rare earth motherlode; and a world-record trout

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 8, 2023. (Photos courtesy of NuScale, Wenk Associates, and Scott Enloe).

Bill Gates and officials from TerraPower were in Wyoming this week to tout the advanced nuclear reactors planned for the Natrium Nuclear Power Plant that require less land and water than traditional nuclear reactors and produce less nuclear fuel waste – an important aspect for Western Governors who have strongly advocated for robust compliance with federal radioactive waste managment and transport safety requirements in WGA’s Policy Resolution, Radioactive Materials Management.

“This is a pioneering move that would be a big part of how we keep electricity reliable and keep the United States at the forefront of providing energy technology,” Gates said.

But while Gates and the Natrium Nuclear Power Plant have received most of the attention around advanced nuclear power in recent months, the technology is also gaining traction in many other western states – especially as public support for nuclear power rose to the highest level in over a decade (55%).  

The Idaho National Laboratory, where nuclear power was originally conceived some 70 years ago, is working on next-generation microreactor technology, which can be produced more quickly than modular reeactors, and within weeks, transported and deployed to locations such as isolated military bases or communities affected by natural disasters. They are designed to provide resilient, non-carbon emitting, and independent power in those environments. The Microreactor Applications Research Validation and Evaluation project, or MARVEL, at INL is designed to help industry bring the sedan-sized microreactor to commercial deployment.

Abilene Christian University in Texas is leading a group of three other universities with the company Natura Resources to design and build a research microreactor cooled by molten salt to allow for high-temperature operations at low-pressure, in part to help train the next-generation nuclear workforce.

But it’s not just theoretical.

Oregon-based NuScale Power, a pioneer in small nuclear reactors, cleared the ultimate U.S. regulatory hurdle in civilian advanced nuclear earlier this year. In a historic ruling, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the design of NuScale’s 50-megawatt power module, the first small modular reactor and just the seventh reactor design ever approved for use in the U.S.

Last Energy in Texas is building microreactor “kits” that can be shipped in nine modal units, each the size of a shipping container, and plugged directly into the grid. The reactors even double as waste storage caskets. The company recently secured power purchase agreements for 34 small modular reactor units with four industrial partners in the UK and Poland.   

In hopes of spurring similarly innovative projects, The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $22.1 million to 10 industry-led projects this week. RhinoCorps, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico will use the funding to create a roadmap to help reactor licensees assess defensive strategies and incorporate modeling and simulation into their security assessment processes. General Atomics, based in San Diego, California, will support accelerated fuel testing efforts to license new fuel types needed by advanced reactor developers.

With such significant progress being made, states like Colorado and Alaska are taking a deeper look at the possibility of adding nuclear power to provide rural communities with more reliable power.

The Colorado Legislature recently passed a bill entitled, Assess Advanced Energy Solutions In Rural Colorado, by overwhelming bi-partisan margins. It requires the Colorado Energy Office to study options for advanced nuclear, as well as natural gas with carbon capture, geothermal, and clean hydrogen — as well as wind and solar — in remote areas of northwestern and southeastern Colorado.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation released draft regulations this week that outlines the process of applying for a permit to build or install a nuclear facility in Alaska. According to an agency news release, the regulations were drafted in response to the Air Force’s Eielson Air Force Base Micro-Reactor Pilot Program, which calls for siting a microreactor at the base that’ll generate up to 5 megawatts when it begins operation four years now.

$350 Million Face-Lift: The Waterway Resiliency Program will restore a 6.5-mile stretch of the South Platte River from 6th to 58th Avenues in Denver and Adam Counties received $350 million in federal funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project will provide a face-lift to existing amenities, as well as habitat restoration and flood control, creating more inviting spaces for plants, animals, and people, and reducing flood risks along Weir and Harvard Gulches.

Air Support: The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities recently launched the Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) Program to improve emergency response capabilities in rural Alaskan communities. By providing Uncrewed Aerial Systems and access to a shared geographic information system, communities will be better equipped to respond to natural and man-made disasters, protecting critical infrastructure and ensuring the safety of residents in these remote areas.

Rare Earth Motherlode: Following eighteen months of extensive core drilling and independent chemical analysis, NETL researchers and Ramaco now believe that the Brook Mine in Wyoming contains perhaps the largest deposit of rare earth elements in the United States, and possibly the world. In particular, the mine ranks among the highest relative concentrations yet discovered of magnetic rare earth elements such as Terbium and Dysprosium, as well as Neodymium and Praseodymium.

World Record Trout: Two residents of Gunnison, Colorado recently caught a 73-pound lake trout and Blue Mesa Reservoir. That is about a pound more than the record lake trout listed by the International Game Fish Association, one caught in Canada in 1995. In the state, Scott Enloe's reported catch would shatter the lake trout record kept by Colorado Parks and Wildlife: a 50-pounder also drawn from Blue Mesa in 2007. Enloe's score would by far be the biggest fish of any kind CPW has logged, since the 57-pound grass carp out of Jefferson County in 2013.

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