University of Wyoming Receives Funding to Help Develop Nuclear Chemistry Core Facility

Nuclear industry has ‘tremendous potential’ in the Cowboy State

Caleb Hill, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wyoming and co-director of the Nuclear Energy Research Center (NERC) in the School of Energy Resources, will lead the development of the nuclear chemistry core facility on campus. (Courtesy photo from the University of Wyoming)

This story has been updated with new information as of June 27, 2023 at 7:30 a.m. MT.

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The University of Wyoming is set to offer the first practical nuclear chemistry research and educational programs in the Cowboy State.

UW will receive a $300,000 award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help establish a nuclear chemistry core facility on campus. The award is part of the $6.3 million in funding from the federal department’s Nuclear Energy University Program, which aims to upgrade research reactors and infrastructure at colleges.

The core facility will allow UW researchers and students to perform wet chemistry and analytical work involving radioactive materials, according to a university statement released last week. To accomplish this goal, UW will focus on installing necessary safety and analytical equipment, as well as creating appropriate protocols for the core facility.

The UW project will be spearheaded by Caleb Hill, an associate professor of chemistry and co-director of the Nuclear Energy Research Center (NERC) in the School of Energy Resources.

“I think this is a great step for UW,” Hill told the Wyoming Truth. “This facility will enable hands-on wet lab work with radioactive material. This is important due to the increasing relevance of nuclear science and engineering to the state’s economy.”

UW students will have nuclear-focused educational opportunities once the lab is fully up and running, including participation in a nuclear energy certificate program.

In addition to the DOE award, the Nuclear Energy Research Center received the Faculty Development Advancement Award as part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research University Nuclear Leadership Program. The two awards will help develop the infrastructure needed to support nuclear-focused research at UW, Hill noted.

“The Natrium plant is obviously very exciting for the state, but there are many opportunities in the nuclear space for Wyoming beyond this plant: microreactors/SMRs (small modular reactors), advanced manufacturing for nuclear systems, fuel mining/production/processing/storage, etc.,” he said. “At UW, we’re trying to adopt a long-term view of what we can do in terms of research and student training to support growth in all of these areas.”

Tara Righetti, co-director of NERC, told the Wyoming Truth, “NERC was formed with support from the legislature to help build research capacity on campus. That includes developing facilities that are necessary for research that will advance understanding of problems related to nuclear energy. Having state-of-the-art facilities will help provide students with excellent opportunities and open pathways to new research collaborations with industry and leading universities.”

As the largest U.S. producer of uranium, Wyoming has been a long-time contributor to nuclear power, although production of this chemical element has stalled in recent years, according to the NERC. The organization projects that the nuclear industry has “tremendous potential” in Wyoming and could rake in $2.5 trillion in business over the next two decades.

The announcement that Wyoming will host the first-of-a-kind demonstration of TerraPower’s Natrium nuclear power plant has stirred renewed interest in nuclear energy.

The plant will be housed in Kemmerer near a PacifiCorp retiring coal facility. The Natrium demonstration project, which is part of the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, will feature a 345 megawatts sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. The system could output 500 megawatts of power – the energy required to power around 400,000 homes – when necessary. The project is expected to create at most 1,600 construction jobs and 250 full-time jobs for daily operations once the plant is operating.

Bill Gates, TerraPower founder and chairman, visited Wyoming in May to discuss the project and meet with state elected officials. TerraPower and PacifiCorp announced last fall that they also plan to build five more Natrium reactors by 2035.

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