A company backed by Bill Gates is planning to build a small nuclear power plant in Wyoming on the site of a coal-powered plant that is shutting down.
TerraPower this week announced that Kemmerer, Wyoming, would be the site of the first nuclear plant using its Natrium technology — a type of advanced nuclear technology that is designed to be smaller and more flexible in terms of output than current nuclear plants in the U.S. fleet.
The startup hopes that the $4 billion project, nearly half of which will be funded by the government, will serve as a proof of concept and lead to the deployment of many new nuclear plants, while adding reliable — and carbon-free — power to a grid that is shedding fossil fuels.
The plant will produce enough power for about 400,000 homes and will operate for at least 60 years, TerraPower said.
In 2020, TerraPower was one of two companies to win a Department of Energy grant to develop advanced nuclear technology. With the passage of the this week, the government has now committed $1.9 billion to the project.
That funding is conditioned on an ambitious timeline: TerraPower has just seven years to put the plant into operation — in 2028 — the company said. It plans to start construction in 2024 after getting the necessary approvals from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Losses now, profits later
If the planned nuclear plant is completed on schedule and within budget, it would be a monumental feat given that nuclear projects are notorious for time and cost overruns.
"In the United States, new nuclear plants have proven prohibitively expensive and slow to build, discouraging private investment and contributing to public skepticism," the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a March report. In the early 2000s, a dozen nuclear projects were started, only to fall by the wayside because of high costs or political opposition.
TerraPower's plant, substantially smaller than a typical nuclear plant, is designed to be faster and cheaper to build. Still, CEO Chris Levesque said the company won't turn a profit with this first project, but hopes to use it to promote similar nuclear plants.
"TerraPower won't achieve our return on this investment on the first plant," Levesque told reporters at an event on Tuesday. "We plan to sell many more of these plants around the U.S. and around the world, that's our business case."
More wind, less coal
Kemmerer is a town of 2,500 people in the southwestern part of Wyoming, a state that's been the top U.S. coal producer for three decades. But two years ago, PacifiCorp, the state's largest utility, announced plans to cut coal use by two-thirds, leading to hundreds of job losses.
The prospect of replacing those lost jobs, as well as some of the state's power-generating capacity, is an appealing one for lawmakers. Four towns vied to be selected for the project, the Casper Star-Tribune reported, before Kemmerer was announced as the pick earlier this week.
Building the nuclear plant will require up to 2,000 workers, with hundreds more required to run the completed plant, the Department of Energy said in a press release. The new plant will use some of the same transmission lines that are currently taken up by the Naughton coal unit, scheduled to close in 2027, to connect to the power grid.
The Natrium plant's capacity of 345 megawatts — enough to power 300,000 to 400,000 homes — puts it on par with a midsize coal plant. However, it's much smaller than the smallest nuclear plant operating today.
The project also includes a molten salt battery that allows the plant to rapidly increase its output up to 500 MW for over five hours, complementing fluctuating power from renewable resources. The design aims to make this plant more nimble than existing nuclear facilities, which are most profitable when they run at a constant output.
"This thing is very different from what current power plants look like," Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at the Clear Air Task Force, told CBS MoneyWatch. "As the renewable grid comes in more, more flexible technology like this Natrium concept are really things that we need."
As coal is gradually being retired in the fight against climate change, wind power is growing in Wyoming and now makes up 12% of the state's electricity. Last year, the state ranked No. in the nation in wind power installations, according to the Energy Department.
The Kemmerer location was chosen in part because it's midway between eastern Wyoming, which generates most of the state's wind power, and heavily populated northern Utah, Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, told reporters.
Rocky Mountain Power, a division of PacifiCorp, will own the plant once it's completed, executives said.
More advanced — and more dangerous?
With the U.S. facing the urgent need to decarbonize the power grid as one way to stave off the worst effects of climate change, nuclear power is having a revival as a reliable source of carbon-free energy. Today, nuclear energy provides about one-fifth of U.S. electricity and half of its carbon-free power.
Climate scientist James Hansen has called nuclear development essential for rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "Modern nuclear power ... has the smallest environmental footprint of the potential energies because of its high energy density and the small volume of its waste, which is well-contained," he wrote last month.
Other environmental advocates have pushed back against nuclear development, citing risks such as the health effects of mining and the disposal of nuclear waste.
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