Bill Gates breaks ground on US’ first advanced reactor in 40 years

Bill Gates (middle) at the groundbreaking ceremony, Monday 10 June (TerraPower)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has kicked off construction this week at his company TerraPower’s nuclear demonstration project in Wyoming, next to an existing coal power station.

He said the Natrium plant in the small town of Kemmerer would “revolutionise” the way electricity was generated. 

He told the audience they were standing on “the bedrock of America’s energy future”.

“I believe that TerraPower’s next-generation nuclear energy will power the future of our nation – and the world,” he said.

Powering 400,000 homes

The plant will use a 345MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten, salt-based energy storage system. 

TerraPower said the storage technology can boost the system’s output to 500MW when needed, enough to power around 400,000 homes. 

It’s expected to cost up to $4bn, half coming from the Department of Energy. 

That figure includes one-off design and licensing costs, so future units are expected to be less expensive. 

Until now, the US nuclear industry has relied on water-cooled reactors for its 95GW of generating capacity. 

A view down the main street of Kemmerer, Wyoming. The population is expected to double at peak reactor construction (Kenneth Hynek/CC BY 2.0)

But fourth-generation reactors – the current state of the art – often use other coolants, such as molten salt or metal, to achieve higher temperatures at lower pressures. 

In recent years, the race to develop fourth and eventually fifth-generation reactors has been led by state-owned Chinese and Russian companies. 

For example, China National Nuclear Corporation last year completed 18 years of work on the world’s first fourth-generation reactor at its Shidao Bay plant in the northeast of the country.

First in 40 years

The Wyoming project is the first time in 40 years a US company has tried to get an advanced reactor up and running. 

The unit will begin as a demonstration project before becoming a commercial power plant.

TerraPower doesn’t have approval from America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the reactor’s design. But work is starting now so TerraPower can build it quickly if the permit is approved. 

The location is adjacent to utility PacifiCorp’s coal-fueled Naughton Power Plant, which will stop burning coal in 2026 and natural gas a decade later.

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