Bill Gates’ TerraPower builds first nuclear reactor in coal town

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Kemmerer, Wyoming, is a coal border town. It was organized in 1897 by coal miners and still employs people in the coal and natural gas industries today.

Photo courtesy of TerraPower

TerraPower, a start-up co-founded by Bill Gates to revolutionize nuclear reactor design, has chosen Kemmerer, Wyoming, as the prime location for its first demonstration reactor. It aims to build the factory in the border-era coal town by 2028.

Construction of the plant will be a godsend for Kemmerer, with 2,000 workers at its peak, TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque said on a video call with reporters on Tuesday.

It will also provide new clean energy jobs to a region now dominated by the coal and gas industry. Today, a combined power plant, coal mine and natural gas processing plant provide more than 400 jobs, a significant number for a region of only around 3,000 people.

“The arrival of a new industry in any community is generally good news,” Kemmerer Mayor William Thek told CNBC. “You have to understand that most of our neighboring towns are 80 kilometers or more from Kemmerer. Despite this, workers travel these distances every day to work in our area.”

The town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. The statue represents JC Penney, as Kemmerer is home to the first Penney store, William Thek, the mayor of Kemmerer told CNBC.

Photo courtesy of William Thek

For TerraPower, choosing a location was a matter of geological and technical factors, such as seismic and soil conditions, and community support, Levesque said.

When built, the plant will provide a base load of 345 megawatts, with the potential to expand its capacity to 500 megawatts.

For reference, one gigawatt or 1,000 megawatts of energy will power a mid-sized city, and a small town can run on around one megawatt, according to a rule of thumb that Microsoft co-founder Gates provided in his recent book, ” How to avoid a climate catastrophe. ” The United States uses 1,000 gigawatts and the world needs 5,000 gigawatts, he wrote.

The plant will cost around $ 4 billion to build, with half of that money coming from TerraPower and the other half from the US Department of Energy’s advanced reactor demonstration program.

“This is a very serious government subsidy. It was necessary, I must mention, because the US government and the US nuclear industry were falling behind,” said Lévesque.

“China and Russia continue to build new factories with advanced technologies like ours, and they are looking to export these factories to many other countries around the world,” Levesque said. “So the American government was concerned that the United States was not going ahead in this way. “

Once built, it is expected to provide electricity for 60 years, said Lévesque.

How TerraPower’s reactors are different

The Kemerrer plant will be the first to use an advanced nuclear design called Natrium, developed by TerraPower with GE-Hitachi.

Natrium plants use liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water. Sodium has a higher boiling point and can absorb more heat than water, which means that high pressure does not build up inside the reactor, reducing the risk of explosion.

In addition, Natrium plants do not need an external energy source to operate their cooling systems, which can be a vulnerability in the event of an emergency shutdown. This contributed to the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, when a tsunami shut down diesel generators running its backup cooling system, contributing to a meltdown and the release of radioactive material.

An artist rendering of a Natrium power plant from TerraPower.

Photo courtesy of TerraPower

Natrium plants can also store heat in molten salt tanks, conserving energy for later use as a battery and allowing the plant to increase its capacity from 345 to 500 megawatts for five hours.

Power plants are also smaller than conventional nuclear power plants, which should make them faster and cheaper to build than conventional power plants. TerraPower aims to bring its factories to a cost of $ 1 billion, a quarter of the budget of the first in Kemmerer.

“An important thing to realize is that the first plant always costs more,” said Lévesque.

Finally, Natrium plants produce less waste, a problematic and dangerous by-product of nuclear fission.

‘The times are changing’

The Kemmerer plant still faces some obstacles, including obtaining a federal permit.

“There is a full licensing process overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which, frankly, is expensive. There are many, many reviews,” Levesque said.

In addition, the fuel used by the Natrium plant is called High Dosage Low Enriched Uranium, or HALEU, which is not yet commercially available.

The existing nuclear fleet in the United States uses uranium 235 fuel enriched up to 5%, according to the Department of Energy, while HALEU is enriched between 5% and 20%.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have that enrichment capability in the United States today. And that’s an area of ​​great concern to the US government, and in particular the Department of Energy,” Levesque said.

But it’s coming, said Lévesque. “I’m really sure we’ll build that capacity” as part of another public-private partnership, similar to how the Natrium demonstration plant is being built.

Once built, the plant will be handed over to Rocky Mountain Power, a division of PacifiCorp of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, for its operation.

There, it will be part of Rocky Mountain Power’s decarbonization plan.

Coal-fired plants like the Naughton facility in Kemmerer “have benefited our customers for decades with very low cost electricity,” Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, said Tuesday. “And we appreciate that. But times are changing,” Hoogeveen said.

“The external demands of the federal government, state governments, regulators are going to demand that we change and we will need to decarbonize and as we move forward in this direction we see the Natrium project as being incredibly valuable to us. our clients. “

“Wyoming is a state with enormous wind resources,” Hoogeveen said. And so far, Rocky Mountain Power has built 2,000 megawatts of wind power capacity in Wyoming, and it’s going to increase. “We plan to build many more thousands of megawatts of wind capacity in the state.”

But the Kemmerer nuclear power plant will be a key bridge for the state, Hoogeveen said.

“It’s a great place to absorb the intermittency of renewable resources and use the built-in storage that is so incredibly valuable to us,” he said.


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