Bill Gates-Backed TerraPower Picks Wyoming for First Advanced Nuclear Reactor

Bill Gates-Backed TerraPower Picks Wyoming for First Advanced Nuclear Reactor
Photo: Getty Images Staff, Getty Images

TerraPower, an experimental nuclear power company backed by Bill Gates, could open its first site as early as 2028 in the coal mining town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. Adding a touch of symbolism for out with the old, in with the new, the company says their plant would be constructed near the premises of a pair of coal plants slated for retirement by 2025.

The new “Natrium” reactor is expected to have a 345 megawatts sodium-cooled fast reactor with storage tech that can temporarily increase output to 500 megawatts of power when needed. That means the reactor can generate enough power for 400,000 homes, the company said in its blog post. Sodium-fuelled reactors can burn spent uranium and plutonium, potentially minimising waste and reducing the need for hazardous storage.

The plant is designed to be air-cooled, which TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque told the Guardian will lower the risks of a meltdown and allow for quick emergency shutdown. There are potential drawbacks to the sodium approach as well though: Sodium’s ability to maintain its liquid form at high temperature rather than turn to gas means it can burn on contact with air and potentially explode when submerged in water, Scientific American notes.

TerraPower’s Wyoming project could require up to 2,000 people for construction and employ 250 once fully operational. That’s significant, considering the town of Kemmerer is home to just over 2,500 residents.

Though Gates has poured a significant amount of resources into TerraPower since he co-founded it in 2006, around half of the Natrium project in Wyoming will essentially be subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. The company will reportedly receive $US1.9 ($3) billion from the government, $US1.5 ($2) billion of which will come from funds dedicated to advanced nuclear reactors in the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill. The total cost of the plant should come out to around $US4 ($5) billion.  TerraPower was also one of two U.S.-based firms that received $US160 ($220) million from the Department of Energy last year to develop the new reactors.

The cost to build the Natrium reactor is a decent chunk of change, but far below the price of Plant Vogtle, the only nuclear plant currently under construction in the U.S. The plant could cost $US28.5 ($39) billion to complete when all is said and done. It relies on traditional nuclear technology but has also faced cost overruns and missed deadlines.

TerraPower had previously attempted to build an experimental plant near Beijing but that project was cut short due to increased regulatory restrictions during the Trump presidency. Though countries including the U.S. have been experimenting with sodium-cooled fast reactors as far back as the 1950s, TerraPower’s Natrium would mark the first reactor operating on a large scale outside of Russia. France had spent years and millions of Europe developing its own prototype sodium-cooled nuclear reactor but ditched those plans in 2019. Other firms are also toying with still other nuclear plant designs, including a recently announced Rolls-Royce small nuclear reactor.