Bill Gates Picks Wyoming Town to Set Up Experimental Nuclear Reactor

By Naveen Athrappully
Naveen Athrappully
Naveen Athrappully
November 17, 2021 Updated: November 17, 2021

TerraPower, a nuclear power venture founded by Bill Gates, announced Tuesday that it has picked a coal-mining town in Wyoming as the site for building a $4 billion demonstration nuclear plant with partial funding from the U.S. government.

TerraPower, along with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, has picked Kemmerer, a remote western Wyoming town for building the Natrium plant “following an extensive evaluation process and meetings with community members and leaders,” according to a statement on the company’s website. Factors for choosing Kemmerer included physical characteristics, infrastructure, and the ability of the site to obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The 345-megawatt Natrium demonstration reactor, scheduled to be opened in 2028, will essentially replace the Warren Buffett-owned Naughton coal plant which is due to be shut down in 2025. Construction of the new advanced nuclear plant is expected to give employment to around 2,000 people with 250 employees needed to support day-to-day activities.

“On behalf of Kemmerer and surrounding communities, we are pleased and excited to host the Natrium demonstration project. This is great for Kemmerer and great for Wyoming,” said Bill Thek, the mayor of Kemmerer.

About half of the project funding, $1.9 billion, will be done by the U.S. government as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill that was signed recently with bipartisan support. Along with the Natrium plant, other advanced nuclear reactors are being supported by the government, with the Department of Energy planning to invest $3.2 billion into such ventures over a period of seven years.

“It’s a very serious government grant,” Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, told reporters. “This was necessary because the U.S. government and the U.S. nuclear industry was falling behind.”

Advanced nuclear reactors are smaller in size when compared to traditional reactors and could be built in remote locations. The Natrium reactor features a 345-megawatt sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system rather than water which is used in today’s reactors. The plant will have the capacity to power 250,000 homes, and when needed, the reactor could be boosted to 500 megawatts, enough power for almost 400,000 homes.

Once the demonstration plant starts running successfully, Gates said that the concept could be quickly expanded or replicated elsewhere.

“The energy communities that have powered us for generations have real opportunities to power our clean energy future through projects just like this one, that provide good-paying jobs and usher in the next wave of nuclear technologies,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.

The Natrium reactor is fueled by uranium that is enriched up to 20 percent. This is a level far higher than today’s requirement, which detractors of the technology say could be an attractive target for militants looking to create a crude nuclear weapon.

While TerraPower claims Natrium will provide “four times more fuel efficiency than light water reactors,” a report (pdf) by The Union of Concerned Scientists said, “Little evidence supports claims that NLWRs will be significantly safer than today’s LWRs.” NLWR refers to Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors.

“The claim that any nuclear reactor system can ‘burn’ or ‘consume’ nuclear waste is a misleading oversimplification. Reactors can actually use only a fraction of spent nuclear fuel as new fuel, and separating that fraction increases the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism,” said the report.

Gates had initially chosen Beijing to set up the experimental reactor through a partnership with state-owned China National Nuclear Corp., but the administration of Donald Trump restricted nuclear deals with China, forcing TerraPower to pick a new partner and site.