by Nicole Pollack, North Dakota Monitor

Policymakers in North Dakota are starting to lay the groundwork for a nuclear power industry that doesn’t exist in the state — yet.

Across the country, companies developing advanced nuclear reactors have begun partnering with electric utilities to build demonstration plants. No such partnerships have been announced in North Dakota. But state officials are trying to make sure that if those early projects succeed, North Dakota will be ready to follow.

They’re keeping an especially close eye on Wyoming, where Bill Gates-fronted TerraPower and regional electric utility Rocky Mountain Power aim to build a nuclear reactor on the site of a retiring coal plant. The nuclear facility, if completed, will enable the utility to repurpose the coal plant’s transmission capacity while preserving upwards of 100 local jobs.

“The coal fleet of North Dakota, which is providing most of our baseload right now, is aging. It’s 48.2 years old,” Rich Garman, director of the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development and Finance Division, told the Legislature’s Energy Development and Transmission Committee on April 10. Rich Garman, director of economic development and finance for the North Dakota Department of Commerce, speaks during an Energy Development and Transmission Committee meeting at the Capitol on April 10, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

North Dakota, which still has a half-dozen active coal plants, also stands to benefit from “utilizing existing infrastructure at the power plant sites that we have,” Garman said during the committee meeting. If the demonstration projects in Wyoming and other states stay on track, he anticipates that North Dakota could see its first nuclear plants come online in 10 to 15 years.

There are no nuclear power plants in North Dakota, though the state does get some of its electricity from reactors in other states served by the same utilities. Minnesota’s two nuclear facilities, Monticello and Prairie Island, have a combined generation capacity of over 3,600 megawatts. Both plants are operated by Xcel Energy. The TerraPower reactor in Wyoming, by comparison, would only produce about one-tenth as much power.

Many advanced reactor designs are even smaller than TerraPower’s, as part of a push within the nuclear power sector to bring down reactors’ astronomical up-front construction costs and make them more adaptable to the evolving needs of the modern electric grid.

With Xcel planning to eliminate coal from its generation mix by 2030, the utility is looking for consistent electricity sources that can balance out the ups and downs of wind and solar. Xcel hasn’t laid any concrete plans of its own — but is closely following the progress of advanced nuclear projects that have already been announced. Pam Gorman Prochaska, general manager of nuclear fleet operations for Xcel Energy, speaks during a meeting of the Energy Development and Transmission Committee at the Capitol on April 10, 2024. (Michael Achterling/North Dakota Monitor)

“Advanced nuclear is definitely part of the future,” Pam Gorman Prochaska, Xcel’s general manager of nuclear fleet operations, told state lawmakers on April 10. 

“I think the pilots will be important for the coal industry as we watch them take off,” she said. “They’ll demonstrate the supply chains. They’ll demonstrate the licensing. But they’re certainly not without challenges that they have to overcome.”

Other electric utilities serving customers in North Dakota say they’re in a similar position. Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Minnkota Power Cooperative, Montana-Dakota Utilities and Otter Tail Power Company, are all keeping an eye on advanced nuclear’s progress but have no plans to become involved themselves, according to statements emailed to the North Dakota Monitor.

“We are supportive of nuclear power and the important role it plays on our nation’s electric grid as a 24/7 baseload generation resource. However, the development of a new nuclear plant is challenged by rising capital costs, stringent permitting requirements, waste disposal logistics, and lengthy construction and supply chain timelines,” said Ben Fladhammer, Minnkota spokesperson.

Randy Christmann, chair of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, echoed those concerns after a recent meeting. “Nuclear generation is something that I’m very supportive of,” he said. But before getting into the details of a project, he added, “tell me where we’re going to bury the waste.”

The state may have time to wait out some of the nuclear industry’s current challenges. At present, none of North Dakota’s operating coal plants have set retirement dates.

For the state to successfully land any advanced nuclear reactors, whether at coal plants or elsewhere, public officials and private companies will have to be on the same page, said David Flynn, a professor of economics and finance and the research director for the Institute of Policy and Business Analytics at the University of North Dakota.

“I think if it was really going to get a foothold, what you’d have to see would be a real public-private push on that front,” Flynn said. “The utilities have to be on board. … If there’s not both public and private components to it, I don’t think it will ultimately be successful.”

North Dakota also will need to better understand how it stands to benefit from the addition of advanced nuclear and what its limitations will be, according to Flynn.

“The current labor constraints in North Dakota are real and binding,” he said. “Any kind of expansion of any existing industry, or the introduction of new industries in the state, does put additional burden on that workforce.”

North Dakota is watching, and waiting, to see if Wyoming and other nuclear pioneers find ways to overcome those issues, too.

North Dakota Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. North Dakota Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Amy Dalrymple for questions: info@northdakotamonitor.com. Follow North Dakota Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

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