Bill Gates’ nuclear power company selects a site for its first reactor


Computer rendering of the reactor site design.
Enlarge / In TerraPower’s design, the nuclear reactor is separated from the power era course of by molten salt warmth storage.

On Tuesday, TerraPower, the US-based nuclear power company backed by Bill Gates, introduced it has chosen a site for what could be its first reactor. Kemmerer, Wyoming, inhabitants roughly 2,500, has been the site of the coal-fired Naughton Power Plant, which is being closed. The TerraPower challenge will see it changed by a 345 megawatt reactor that may pioneer a variety of applied sciences that have not been commercially deployed earlier than.

These embrace a reactor design that wants minimal refueling, cooling by liquid sodium, and a molten-salt heat-storage system that can present the plant with the flexibleness wanted to combine higher with renewable vitality.


While TerraPower is the identify clearly hooked up to the challenge, loads of different events are concerned, as nicely. The company is maybe greatest recognized for being backed by Bill Gates, now chairman of the company board, who has promoted nuclear power as a partial answer for the local weather disaster. The company has been chosen by the US Department of Energy to construct a demonstration reactor, a designation that ensures a minimum of $180 million towards building and will see it obtain billions of {dollars} over the following a number of years.

The reactor itself can also be not strictly a TerraPower challenge. The reactor design is being developed collectively with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. A company known as Bechtel will assist with the development, which would require a workforce equal to roughly 80 % of Kemmerer’s inhabitants.

The design will contain a variety of applied sciences which have solely been tried not often or under no circumstances. So this won’t be a easy challenge. TerraPower and GE Hitachi are calling the design Natrium, and so they have set up a website to explain it. We’ll go over a few of its key differentiators right here.

Very completely different

To start with, the plant won’t use water to switch warmth out of the reactor; as an alternative, it would use liquid sodium. This has a main benefit in that sodium will not boil at any of the temperatures it ought to be uncovered to within the reactor. This signifies that not one of the {hardware} that holds the coolant might be uncovered to excessive pressures, which simplifies issues significantly. Sodium will, nonetheless, readily react with air and explosively react with water, which raises a distinct set of issues.

Globally, solely about 25 main reactors have been constructed utilizing sodium coolant. Many had been solely constructed for analysis functions, and solely a handful stay operational. The final one within the US was in-built 1965, and the final operational one was shuttered in 1994. So, it is truthful to say that the businesses haven’t got a lot hands-on expertise to attract on.

Sodium-cooled designs, in distinction to water cooling, do not sluggish the neutrons produced by fission reactions down; they’re sometimes called “fast reactors” for that purpose. Fast neutrons have the flexibility to remodel isotopes that do not make helpful gas, permitting them to provide extra gas throughout operation.

In TerraPower’s case, its design surrounds a core of enriched gas with numerous much less helpful isotopes. The reactor might be powered by the enriched core because it converts further materials to helpful gas, which can take over because the first will get exhausted. This course of can repeat by means of a number of layers of conversion, limiting the downtime wanted for refueling. But once more, it hasn’t seen industrial use earlier than.

The reactor could have a variety of options that ought to enable passive security, inflicting its inner warmth to stay restricted even when cooling circulation fails.

Plays properly with others

Finally, TerraPower will not immediately convert the warmth extracted from the reactor into power; as an alternative, it would retailer it as molten salt. As a outcome, though the reactor might be rated as 345 MW, the plant will have the ability to generate as a lot as 500 MW during times of excessive demand or scale all the way down to decrease manufacturing when demand is lowered. This will enable the plant to raised comply with every day cycles of demand. In addition, the warmth storage can even enable the Kemmerer site to raised combine with the rising use of renewable power (Wyoming is a main producer of wind power).

Overall, any one among these variations entails dangers. The mixture of all of them in a single design means this might be a particularly tough challenge to tug off, particularly on the deliberate seven-year timeline. Should it succeed, nonetheless, we are able to lastly get a sense of whether or not the prices of superior nuclear designs can stay aggressive with the ever-shrinking prices of renewables backed by storage.

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