Bill Gates-backed nuclear reactor heading to Wyoming coal town

Reactor uses technology similar to that which powers US Navy submarines

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 18 November 2021 00:04
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A small town in Wyoming that’s home to a coal-fired power plant could soon be the site of an innovative nuclear plant, which the project’s billionaire backers Bill Gates and Warren Buffett say could be a major breakthrough for sustainable energy in the US.

Mr Gates, in addition to being a co-founder of Microsoft, is chairman of TerraPower, a company which plans to build its Natrium nuclear reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, the current home of the Naughton coal plant.

Wyoming is America’s top coal-mining state, and TerraPower argues its project will help transition the energy system to something more sustainable.

“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," TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said in a statement.

The Natrium plant, distinct for using liquid sodium to transfer its energy rather than high-pressure coolant, is expected to produce 345 megawatts, enough energy to regularly power 250,000 homes, preventing 2 million metric tons of carbon from reaching the atmosphere that would otherwise be released by a comparable fossil fuel plant.

The project, expected to generate 2,000 construction jobs once ground is broken in 2024, and sustain 250 full-time positions, has received high praise from a variety of Democratic and Republican leaders.

“The Natrium reactor is the future of nuclear energy in America. It makes perfect sense to have it in Wyoming, the energy capital of the United States. Wyoming’s economy will grow from having this groundbreaking technology in our state," U.S. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Republican, said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Biden administration energy secretary Jennifer Granholm has said the project shows how  “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.”

The reactor, which uses technology similar to that which powers US Navy submarines, will be eligible for federal funding as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed on Monday.

Not everyone was convinced about the direction of this marquee project.

“The use of liquid sodium has many problems. It’s a very volatile material that can catch fire if it’s exposed to air or water,” Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists science advocacy nonprofit, told Fortune on Tuesday. “Honestly I don’t understand the motivation... There are some people who are just strong advocates for it and they’ve sort of won the day here by convincing Bill Gates that this is a good technology to pursue.”

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