Bill Gates: Nuclear power project key to global energy future
Bill Gates addresses a crowd of local leaders in Kemmerer May 5, 2023, joined by Chris Levesque, Tara Neider and Mark Werner of TerraPower. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
KEMMERER—Despite the engineering, finance and permitting challenges that have dogged the U.S. nuclear power industry for decades, Wyoming can count on the successful launch of the Natrium nuclear power plant here, according to TerraPower officials and the company’s owner, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. The plant is slated to begin operation in 2030.
“I look forward to coming and seeing this plant as it becomes reality,” Gates told a packed room of local and state leaders at the Best Western Plus Fossil Country Inn & Suites on Friday. “We’ll have lots of challenges building this in real life, but we’ve put a lot of innovation in it to keep it simple and to make sure that we don’t run into any surprises as we move along.”
Gates and a team of TerraPower leaders held several meetings with state and local officials to provide an update on the project touted as an economic boon that will help Kemmerer, Diamondville and other regional communities shift to a lower-carbon energy economy.
The $4 billion Natrium demonstration project is part of Gates’ vision for an “advanced” nuclear energy design that can be replicated throughout Wyoming and the world — a vital investment desperately needed to meet the global challenges of climate change and growing demand for electricity, according to Gates.
“This is a design 12 years in the making,” Gates said. “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.”
The promise of TerraPower’s Natrium design is its small industrial footprint combined with a liquid-sodium cooled “fast reactor,” according to the company. The Natrium plant will generate 345 megawatts of steady electric generation and includes a power storage component that allows it to “flex” up to 500 megawatts for short periods.
The design requires less water and produces less nuclear fuel waste, according to TerraPower. The company says the reactors are ideal for plugging into existing coal-fired power plant infrastructure — a critical solution for communities reliant on coal plants that are slated for retirement.
That’s why TerraPower chose to site its first Natrium reactor near the Naughton power plant outside Kemmerer. One of three coal-burning units at Naughton has already been converted to natural gas, and PacifiCorp plans to convert the other two units to natural gas in 2026.
Once the Natrium reactor is in operation, PacifiCorp plans to include the plant in its power generation fleet. TerraPower and PacifiCorp are considering adding five more Natrium reactors at existing coal-fired power plants in Wyoming and Utah.
‘This is real’
TerraPower’s selection of Kemmerer to launch its Natrium fleet has created a lot of anticipation for a region of the state that’s suffered from the decline in coal power. Financing and licensing new nuclear reactors is a notoriously difficult feat. Although TerraPower promises to clear those hurdles, the company already has had to push back its planned in-service date by two years due to a fuel supply snag.
The Natrium design requires high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel. TerraPower cut ties with the Russian state-owned Tenex — the only facility in the world with the capacity to supply commercial volumes of HALEU — after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Although TerraPower was already working with Congress and the Department of Energy to expand the U.S. commercial HALEU supply chain, the Natrium project may now depend on how quickly the federal government can “downblend” enough weapons-grade uranium, according to the company.
Despite the challenge, TerraPower expects to begin to receive its first HALEU fuel deliveries in 2025. Construction on the non-nuclear portions of the plant will begin in 2024.
“We’re going to start that activity as soon as we get the environmental permits because we really want to show you all that this is real,” TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said.
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