If Kemmerer’s nuclear power plant is built as intended, passersby might not be able to tell what it is — at least upon first glance.
Diagrams on display during a Friday afternoon meeting between the project’s developer, TerraPower, and state and local leaders revealed that the flagship facility will look much more like a string of nondescript warehouses than a traditional nuclear plant. Notably absent from the renderings: the hulking concrete cooling towers that are synonymous with nuclear in the U.S. today.
Bill Gates, the technology entrepreneur who founded TerraPower, believes scaled-down nuclear plants like the 345-megawatt Natrium model his company is working on will be a transformative addition to the U.S. electric grid as utilities move away from high-emitting but reliable coal and natural gas and rely increasingly on renewables.
Friday marked Gates’ first visit to the tiny coal town where he hopes to bring that vision to life.
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“This is a very innovative plant design,” Gates said at the meeting. Part of the goal, he added, is “making it even safer; making it more economic, so you don’t get these large, complex [cost] overruns; making it so that it has even less waste.”
(There’s some debate about whether advanced nuclear developers will be able to deliver on their promise of significantly reduced waste. One study, which evaluated several leading designs last year but did not look closely at Natrium, found that the facilities may actually generate more waste.)
So far, TerraPower’s plant design has performed well across a wide range of simulated conditions, he said.
“We’ll have lots of challenges building in real life. But we’ve put a lot of innovation in to keep it simple and to make sure that we don’t run into any surprises as we move along,” Gates said.
TerraPower has already hit one major speed bump: Its plan to source at least the first load of fuel from a supplier in Russia fell through after the country invaded Ukraine last year.
With the domestic supply chain for the more highly enriched form of uranium the plant will require still in its infancy, the company scrambled to strike a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy that would let the plant start up by 2028 — a deadline tied to the $2 billion federal grant TerraPower received.
The 2020 Congressional appropriation was intended to help breathe life back into the notoriously slow and prohibitively expensive world of nuclear permitting and construction.
Ultimately, though, TerraPower announced in December that its fuel troubles will likely delay operations at the flagship site until at least 2030. (The company says it is still aiming to build as many as five more Natrium plants in Wyoming and Utah by the middle of that decade.)
TerraPower anticipates submitting its application for a license to construct the nuclear portion of the Kemmerer facility next spring, receiving authorization to do so by 2026 and applying for a license to operate the plant soon after that. It wants to start building the parts not directly overseen by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission even sooner.
“It’s aggressive, but that’s still our target,” CEO Chris Levesque said of the 2030 start date. The company feels confident that the Department of Energy, equipped with hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for advanced fuel, will continue pushing U.S. suppliers toward commercialization, he said.
Fuel isn’t the only issue TerraPower faces, though. In the nuclear sector, like in so many other industries, supply chains are tight and workforces are limited — due, in part, to the near-absence of new nuclear plants built in recent decades.
“This fuel thing is, like, the first supply chain issue, but then there’s just the total absence of manufacturing facilities for all these components,” Levesque said.
It’s a situation the company has dubbed its “chicken-and-egg problem.”
These days, the U.S. nuclear fleet relies on fuel imported mostly from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia and Russia, and domestic manufacturers and uranium processors don’t want to invest in advanced nuclear until they can be confident at least some of the projects will succeed. But the early projects will only make it off the ground if they can secure parts and fuel.
Some of Wyoming’s idled uranium mines are starting to scale back up, a promising sign for the industry, but only one piece of the puzzle it’s trying to solve.
Thus, as Natrium and projects like it start to be built, Levesque said, “there’s more government investment that’s going to be needed in the supply chain.”
TerraPower has made it clear from the start that its aim is to deploy Natrium plants all over the country and around the world. Kemmerer is only the start.