Bill Gates’ TerraPower makes its pick for next-gen nuclear power plant in Wyoming

An artist’s conception shows the layout for the Natrium reactor demonstration project in Kemmerer, Wyoming. (TerraPower Illustration)

TerraPower, the nuclear power venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has chosen a soon-to-be-retired coal-fired power plant in Wyoming as its preferred location for a next-generation demonstration reactor.

After an evaluation process that included meetings with community members, the Bellevue, Wash.-based venture selected Kemmerer, Wyo., for the site of its Natrium reactor, which will make use of technology from TerraPower and GE-Hitachi.

The project is one of two projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy with an initial funding round totaling $160 million. The other project is planned by Maryland-based X-energy, with Washington state’s Hanford nuclear reservation selected as the preferred location. The Department of Energy plans to invest a total of $3.2 billion over a seven-year period to turn the concepts into reality by 2028, with matching funds provided by industry partners.

TerraPower had previously signaled that it planned to build the demonstration reactor at one of PacifiCorp’s four retiring coal-fired plants in Wyoming, but today’s announcement revealed the precise location.

“People across Wyoming welcomed us into their communities over the past several months, and we are excited to work with PacifiCorp to build the first Natrium plant in Kemmerer,” Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, said today in a news release. “Our innovative technology will help ensure the continued production of reliable electricity while also transitioning our energy system and creating new, good-paying jobs in Wyoming.”

A cutaway view shows the layout of the TerraPower/GE-Hitachi Natrium nuclear plant. (TerraPower Graphic)

The two remaining coal generation units at Kemmerer’s Naughton Power Planet are due to be retired in 2025. In selecting the site, TerraPower considered community support, the physical characteristics of the site, the needs of the regional electricity grid, access to existing infrastructure, and the likelihood of obtaining a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. TerraPower plans to submit its application for a construction permit to the NRC in mid-2023.

About 2,000 workers would be needed for construction at the project’s peak. Once the plant is operational, about 250 people would support day-to-day activities. “This is great for Kemmerer, and great for Wyoming,” Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek said.

In a statement, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm noted that President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation just this week to provide more than $1 trillion for infrastructure projects. “Today DOE is already putting it to work, with more than $1.5 billion heading to Wyoming,” she said.

The demonstration plant would validate the TerraPower/GE-Hitachi Natrium concept for next-generation nuclear power generation.

That concept calls for building a sodium-cooled fast reactor with an energy storage system that uses molten salt rather than water. The demonstration reactor would produces 345 megawatts of power, which is enough power to serve about 250,000 homes. When necessary, the storage system could boost the system’s output to 500 megawatts, enough for 400,000 homes.

The U.S. Census Bureau says Wyoming has a little more than 230,000 households.

Another selling point is that the storage system could be integrated with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, to back up those sources with round-the-clock, day-or-night power-generating capability.

Gates founded TerraPower in 2006, and for most of its existence its research has been conducted at a lab co-located with Intellectual Ventures’ facilities in Bellevue. In late 2019, TerraPower established a 65,000-square-foot research facility in Everett, Wash., near Paine Field and one of Boeing’s airplane factories.

In addition to working on the Natrium concept, TerraPower has a program that focuses on medical applications of nuclear technology — applications that could make use of spent nuclear fuel.

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Science Department of energy Ge-hitachi Nuclear energy Nuclear power Terrapower Wyoming