Gillette Mayor Shay Lundvall has a vision for the coal-rich Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming: Bring a components manufacturer and assembly factory for very tiny nuclear power plants to the region.
These miniaturized plants could be shipped out by 18-wheelers, by trains over existing rail lines or flown out by plane from the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport.
Wherever they end up, the modular plants could be bolted together into a generating station no larger than the size of six shipping containers.
The vision didn’t come to Lundvall easily.
After all, Lundvall’s background is rooted in coal, an industry that’s getting hit on the chin with federal policies that limit its mining production under national clean air guidelines.
The mayor’s father worked for more than 35 years in Arch Coal’s Black Thunder surface mine, which holds one of the largest deposits of coal anywhere in the world. And Lundvall worked his way through college on methane and oil rigs during his summer breaks.
“I’m very loyal to those industries,” he said. “You’ll never pull me away from them. That’s nonnegotiable.”
“But at the same time, you’ve got to be successful,” he added.
Lundvall and Gillette’s city council recently took what could be considered the first major step in diversifying the region’s economy by opening the door to bringing a small nuclear plant factory to the city’s sprawling 1,000-acre Cam-plex.
That land in northeast Gillette features large grassy areas, a fine arts theater, conference halls, racetrack, rodeo grounds and RV campgrounds.
There’s no deal in hand yet, but Lundvall wants to slip the idea of Gillette’s embrace of the new technology for the region into the hands of executives with BWX Technologies Inc. (BWXT).
No deal yet
BWXT is supportive of the idea of considering a factory in Gillette for manufacturing nuclear components, or assembling small nuclear reactors for industrial customers.
These customers include trona, coal, soda ash and any other strategic minerals in Wyoming’s ground. Going after this business would represent the third leg of BWXT’s stool of already established businesses.
The other two legs of business for BWXT, with a market capitalization of nearly $8 billion, involve building small nuclear reactors for the U.S. Navy’s fleet of submarines and aircraft carriers, and Canada’s nuclear power plants.
This work is done out of its Virginia corporate home in Lynchburg.
For now, the third leg of BWXT’s business remains on the drawing board, which might include selling to industrial customers. That’s where Gillette could fit in, Erik Nygaard, director of product development for BWXT, told Cowboy State Daily.
“We are at the beginning of our journey,” which could take several years to realize, Nygaard said. “It’s not like we have a shovel in our back pocket. We still need to figure this out. Everything is being built on kits and skids.”
Already Looking At Trona
The small nuclear reactors envisioned by BWXT could supply up to 50-megawatts of power to individual operations owned by Wyoming’s minerals industries as a starting point.
As evidence of this trend, BWXT said last fall said that it would work with Tata Soda Ash Partners in southwestern Wyoming to possibly bring one such reactor to its project.
“We started in the trona patch” because there are “similar power demands in one area,” Nygaard said.
Other electricity-starved trona mines and energy sectors in the state have expressed interest in a tiny nuclear reactor, though Nygaard declined to elaborate.
Nygaard said that BWXT is participating in a study with the Wyoming Energy Authority to understand the state’s “supply chain” of businesses that could lead to the establishment of the factory, though other spots may eventually come to be considered.
Nygaard said that meet-and-greet meetings in Cody, Casper, Cheyenne and Rock Springs are planned across the state to identify potential supply chain possibilities, plus possible locations. Gillette’s meeting was held in November.
BWXT also is working with TerraPower on its nuclear demonstration project in Kemmerer.
Nygaard said that his company has begun working with Gillette-based companies like Red River LLC, a maker of pressure vessels and modular skids, and L&H Industrial, which provides custom manufacturing and service for heavy industrial machinery used in mining, oil and gas, railways and other industries.
“If this really goes the way of market demand, this could become a substantial business for us,” Nygaard said.
Meanwhile, Lundvall is doing what he can to set the table for the future.
“That’s my job as mayor to promote Gillette,” Lundvall said. “I’m going to fight for the city.”
Pat Maio can be reached at email@example.com.