Best of the West: Nuclear energy’s resurgence; A geothermally heated city; A historic land management agreement; Lynx recovery; and the future of the National Finals Rodeo

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Dec. 4, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Dean Calma/International Atomic Energy Agency, adobe stock images).

During the launch of the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP28, more than 20 countries including the U.S., France, Japan, and the United Kingdom pledged to triple global nuclear energy generation by 2050.

Much like during the nuclear age of the 1950’s and 60’s, most of the research and mining required to power the resurgence of nuclear energy in the United States will likely be focused in the West.

Researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) were the first to generate electricity from splitting the atom back in 1951, and countless scientists have since visited the remote site to test reactor designs.

New designs for advanced and small nuclear reactors will need rigorous testing to ensure safety and reliability before they can go into service. As America’s nuclear energy laboratory, INL is one of the few laboratories in the country where these test can be conducted. 

“This is the hard part, but also the fun part,” said Ron Crone, associate lab director for INL’s Materials & Fuels Complex. ”This is Disneyland for nuclear energy.”

Much of the uranium mining will also take place in the West.

Uranium Energy Corp, which has about 20 uranium sites in Wyoming, announced this week that it signed a memorandum of understanding with TerraPower to “restore domestic supply chains of uranium fuel” and, along the way, supply TerraPower’s proposed Natrium reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

At least part of the strategy to increase the nation’s nuclear capacity will also involve nuclear fusion, which again, will likely be focused in the West.

While much of the research for nuclear fission is happening at western academic institutions, the world's first commercial fusion power plant is being built in Washington by Helion. The company, which recently announced $500 million in fundraising, hopes their newest machine will produce electrical output by the end of 2024 and net energy in a matter of years.

Geothermal City: Using a $716,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, a coalition of local government and community groups in Carbondale, Colorado known as Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER), is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to design a geothermal heating and cooling system that can provide 50% of the heating and cooling needs across a 16-acre area, which includes the community center, a town administration building, the high school, a library, 20 townhouses and 20 condominiums.

Cooperative Land Management: Leadership from the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests, the Bureau of Land Management, and Ohkay Owingeh Governor Larry Phillips, Jr. signed a Memorandum of Understanding to co-steward culturally significant tribal places located within these federal land management areas.

“The Forest Service is honored to have worked collaboratively with Ohkay Owingeh these last five months to get to this historic agreement,” Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Shaun Sanchez and Carson National Forest Acting Supervisor Jack Lewis said in a joint statement. “We are confident this will serve as a national co-stewardship model for other federal land management agencies and federally recognized tribes who have mutual protection and preservation goals.”

Airline Merger: Alaska Airlines announced that it is buying Hawaiian Airlines for $1.9 billion. While the deal still needs the approval of U.S. regulators, the airlines said the move will preserve both brands and unlock more travel destinations for flyers. The combined company will offer service to 138 destinations, including non-stop service to 29 top international destinations in the Americas, Asia, Australia and the South Pacific.

Lynx Recovery: In a bid to help the snow-dependent wildcat species that scientists say could be wiped out in parts of the contiguous U.S. by the end of the century, U.S. officials proposed a $31 million recovery plan for Canada lynx. Populations of the wildcats in New Hampshire, Maine and Washington state are most at risk as warmer temperatures reduce habitat for lynx and their primary food, snowshoe hares, Fish and Wildlife Service documents indicate. The recovery plan says protecting 95 percent of current lynx habitat in the lower 48 states in coming decades would help the species remain viable. It also suggests that lynx could be moved into the Yellowstone region of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — an area they don't currently occupy — as a potential climate change refuge.

Roped-In: The Las Vegas Events Board of Trustees and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Board of Directors announced that Las Vegas will be home to the National Finals Rodeo through at least 2035. “We have made this a priority for our organization to secure the world’s richest and most prestigious rodeo as a December fixture in our city,” Las Vegas Events chairman Bill McBeath said. One of the valley’s largest annual events, the 2022 NFR had an attendance of 173,350 for the 10 days of competition.

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