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Bill Gates–funded nuclear startup will transform a Wyoming coal plant

Will this be the project that revives American nuclear? Plus, a roundup of other nuclear news.
By Eric Wesoff

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The cooling towers of the Trillo Nuclear Power Plant in Guadalajara, Spain (Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket/Getty Images)

A nuclear fission startup with billions in investment from Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy has selected the site where it will build its first-of-a-kind reactor, which it plans to complete in a record seven years.

It’s an example of how private companies and public funders, reenergized by the net-zero movement, are positioning nuclear power as a zero-emission generation source that is an essential part of the pathway to full decarbonization.

For that matter, the Biden administration is counting on new and existing nuclear plants to meet its 2030 decarbonization goals.

Big plans for advanced nuclear

The Bill Gates–funded nuclear developer TerraPower (which Canary covered in detail in June) announced the location for its operable 345-megawatt sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor demonstration project: It will be built near a soon-to-be-retired coal plant in the city of Kemmerer in western Wyoming.

The DOE and private investors will split the cost of the project.

TerraPower intends to use the coal plant’s infrastructure and workforce to construct and operate a reactor that will employ high-temperature liquid sodium as its coolant instead of water and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) as its fuel.

Chris Levesque, CEO of TerraPower, had this to say in a Zoom press briefing: We’re working with the DOE and other companies to establish a U.S. capability for HALEU in a very similar way to this advanced reactor — with public-private partnerships.”

Levesque said the plant would be in operation by 2028, acknowledging, That’s not a rapid schedule for fossil or wind or solar projects, but it’s a pretty aggressive schedule for a nuclear project.”

The seven-year schedule will involve design, procurement and construction,” he continued. There’ll be two big [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] approvals, the first for the construction license, and we expect that to be awarded in 2024. And beginning in 2024, construction will start and we’ll have a four-year construction project leading to plant operation.”

Levesque compared TerraPower’s demo to the Shippingport light-water reactor demonstration plant built outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the late 1950s: Shippingport became a commercial asset for that utility and led to many more plant orders in the U.S. and around the world.”

However, not all scientists are fans of TerraPower’s approach.

Nuclear nuggets

Here’s a roundup of other nuclear news:

  • Canary recently published a profile of Helion, a nuclear fusion company that just landed $500 million in funding. You can also check out our overview of nuclear fusion technology.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week during an address to the nation that France will for the first time in decades relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors in our country.” 
  • Visual Capitalist mapped the world’s nuclear landscape.
  • Jigar Shah, director of the DOE’s Loan Programs Office, likes this pro-nuclear video.
  • Power magazine’s Sonal Patel reports on China’s 2,340-megawatt Haiyang nuclear power plant, which is used for both power and district heating. This plant experienced some of the same construction delays and cost overruns as reactors in the West.
  • NuScale, a builder of small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear technology, and Nuclearelectrica, a state-owned Romanian nuclear company, reached an agreement at COP26 to begin construction of the first SMR in Europe.
  • The DOE claims that more than 50 U.S. companies are working on new nuclear designs that are smaller, scalable and even mobile” and suggests that microreactors will likely be the first advanced reactors to enter the U.S. market. 
  • The Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska will host a new SMR, as reported by World Nuclear News. A microreactor of up to 5 megawatts-electric (MWe) could be in operation on the base as soon as 2027.

The article notes that there is currently one microreactor vendor in the midst of navigating the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s stringent licensing process: Oklo, which submitted an application for its 1.5 MWe design in 2020. Oklo’s microreactor uses a different fuel, different coolant and radically different scale than the light-water reactors that make up the existing commercial U.S. nuclear fleet. The fast reactor’s design allows the nuclear heater to operate potentially for up to 20 years without having to be refueled.

Exception to the Smil

While energy researcher and professor Vaclav Smil posits that global resource transitions unfold across generations,” nuclear power went from zero to 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation in less than two decades. France’s grid was dominated by nuclear power in a similarly short timeframe.

Whether or not you agree with Smil, nuclear reactors in the U.S. are closing down because of economics, risk and competition from cheap natural gas, wind and solar power. New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant was permanently closed earlier this year. California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant will shut down in 2025. Two nuclear plants in Illinois were on the verge of being shut down until the state legislature coughed up almost $700 million in subsidies to keep them alive.

New construction of nuclear power is also stalled out in the U.S. Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was established in 1975, not a single plant that has submitted an application for approval by the body has begun operating. The only conventional nuclear power plant under construction in the U.S. — Southern Company’s Vogtle plant expansion in Georgia — is facing ongoing delays and jaw-dropping budget overruns.

Nuclear expert Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace told German public broadcaster DW, The recent attention on nuclear energy is fully driven by the declining industry’s desperation for capital and its related lobby depicting it as a solution for climate change.”

Nuclear proponents would beg to differ. They agree with what Gates said at a Nuclear Energy Institute event earlier this year:​“We need more nuclear power to zero out emissions in America and to prevent a climate disaster.”

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.