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Microsoft’s Gates breaks ground on novel nuclear power plant in Wyoming

The pilot Natrium nuclear power plant in Kemmerer will be the first of what TerraPower officials hope will be a worldwide fleet of new nuclear energy facilities.

Microsoft billionaire and TerraPower founder Bill Gates addresses a crowd of about 300 on June 10, 2024 to mark the beginning of construction for the Natrium nuclear power plant just outside Kemmerer, Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

by Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

KEMMERER—Nearly three years after TerraPower announced it would build its inaugural Natrium nuclear plant in Wyoming, the company’s founder — Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates — was on hand to celebrate the first major construction milestone for the project. 

Approximately 300 local and state officials, as well as business partners attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

“This reactor exists inside a virtual model, and it’s been working really well inside the computer,” Gates said light-heartedly, eliciting some laughter. “It’s a little bit harder to make it work out there. But that’s what we’re starting on today. This is a big step towards safe, abundant, zero-carbon energy.”

Technically, Gates and others marked the groundbreaking of a liquid sodium testing facility — a critical component of TerraPower’s Natrium nuclear power plant slated to begin operating here in 2030. The event marked what developers, which includes the U.S. Department of Energy, say is the “first advanced nuclear project in the Western Hemisphere to move from design to construction.”

This rendering represents the Natrium nuclear power plant that TerraPower plans to build just outside of Kemmerer. (TerraPower)

Gates-backed TerraPower touts the Natrium design as part of the industry’s “next generation” strategy to deploy nuclear power throughout the nation and across the globe — a low-carbon alternative for stable electrical generation and a means to address planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions while meeting growing demand for electricity, according to the company.

Rather than the industry’s existing standard of massive nuclear power plants that consume a lot of water, Natrium is much smaller and will use liquid sodium to cool the reactor, which is designed to generate a consistent 345 megawatts of power — enough energy to power about 250,000 homes — with a capability of ramping up to 500 megawatts for short periods, according to the Bellevue, Washington-based TerraPower.

The $4 billion construction project is also considered an economic lifeline for southwest Wyoming, particularly the adjacent towns of Kemmerer and Diamondville, a region impacted by fossil fuels’ decline. The company selected the location in 2021 in part because it can tap into existing power-grid infrastructure and local labor force currently serving the nearby Naughton power plant, which is scheduled for permanent closure in 2036. Until the Natrium project came along, locals considered the pending Naughton closure — and potentially the Kemmerer coal mine that serves it — an insurmountable blow to jobs and the local economy. 

“I believe this project will keep Kemmerer prosperous for decades to come,” Gates said. “That’s because we’re not just going to build the one  plant. We’re going to build a lot of these things.”

Electrical demand is projected to increase across the globe — including to support data centers and artificial intelligence, Gates said. And nations are desperate for reliable carbon-free energy.

“We’re going to support electrification. We support keeping the world’s best data centers here in the country, and so we do need a lot more energy. And you’re the pioneers that are going to make that happen.”

Gov. Mark Gordon (in the cowboy hat) shakes hands with TerraPower founder Bill Gates on June 10, 2024 outside Kemmerer, Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Gov. Mark Gordon told the crowd he never doubted that TerraPower was sincere about making good on its efforts to launch the next generation of nuclear energy in Wyoming. But he warned that many companies come to Wyoming with big promises and not enough to back them up.

“If you’re going to do something about energy, you’re going to do it in Wyoming,” Gordon said, explaining why so many energy companies propose projects in the state. “We have the best solar, the best wind, the best water, and we are a source of nuclear material and nuclear fuel. That’s all very, very exciting. But Chris [Levesque, TerraPower president] you got to show me what you’re actually going to get accomplished.”

Construction milestone

Commencement of the liquid sodium testing facility build marks what company officials say will be continuous construction at the location until the Natrium plant goes into operation. The phased construction begins with the “non-nuclear” components of the plant while TerraPower continues the years-long process of obtaining a nuclear design license and construction permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the nuclear side.

The phased nature of construction will cycle in workers with different construction and engineering skills, peaking at about 1,600 workers in 2028, according to TerraPower.

TerraPower President Chris Levesque speaks to reporters June 10, 2024 at the location of the future Natrium nuclear power plant outside Kemmerer, Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Gillette-based Earth Work Solutions won a $10 million contract from Bechtel Corp., the lead construction contractor for Natrium, to build the liquid sodium testing facility. TerraPower hopes to obtain NRC approval to begin construction on the nuclear components by 2026. 

The company filed a nuclear construction permit application with the federal agency in March. Levesque, the TerraPower president, said the company recently learned the NRC has officially accepted the application without requests for amendments.

“That’s huge,” Levesque told reporters, “because that’s one of the biggest schedule risks, and now that [construction permit review] has begun.”

Company officials have said they’re working with the NRC for an expedited review process.

Commercialization

One of the biggest roadblocks to deploying new nuclear power plants in recent decades has been financing. What sets TerraPower’s pilot Natrium plant here apart from past financial failures is the fact that it’s backed by Gates and the federal government.

TerraPower, which Gates founded in 2006, is backing half of the estimated $4 billion of the construction project with private financing — which includes other private investors — while the U.S. Department of Energy has committed another $2 billion in taxpayer money.

An artificial intelligence-guided robot dog welcomed attendees of a nuclear power plant groundbreaking ceremony June 10, 2024 outside Kemmerer, Wyoming. Bechtel Corp. says it relies heavily on AI and drone technology to supplement its security staff and to aid with many aspects of construction. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The western utility giant PacifiCorp also plays a critical role. 

The utility, part of billionaire Warren Buffet’s multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, has signed a memorandum of understanding to take over the Natrium plant in Kemmerer and integrate it into its six-state service territory, which includes Wyoming. PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, is also considering taking on five more Natrium reactors, co-locating them with coal-fired power plants that it plans to retire.

What it means to Kemmerer and Wyoming

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek told WyoFile days before the event. “These towns [Kemmerer and Diamondville] were born on energy, which was the coal industry. Then we moved to drilling for oil and [natural] gas, and we’re surrounded by gas plants and compressor stations that pump this stuff all over the country.

“Now, one more time, we’re on the cusp of a new type of nuclear energy that really has us on the map.”

Though not every Naughton-supported job will be easily transferable to the Natrium plant, it will support an estimated 250 permanent jobs once operational, according to officials. The promise of a construction boom and new permanent jobs is one thing, but actually being prepared to support them for the long term is another.

Kemmerer and surrounding communities are still scrambling to shift gears from what, just a few years ago, looked to be a long economic decline to booming industrial activity. Housing has been a primary concern, as well as emergency preparedness and basic services — health care, schools and utilities — that have been in decline for the past decade.

A dinosaur statue at the In Stone Fossils Gift Shop in Kemmerer entices tourists May 5, 2023. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

A long-abandoned apartment complex is under renovation to provide 64 rental units, while numerous other rental projects and new permanent housing construction is underway, as well as plans for a major new truckstop outside of town.

While the fresh water supply system that serves both Kemmerer and Diamondville has plenty of capacity to meet significant growth, local officials are working with state and federal agencies to secure funds to patch up an aging sewer system, Thek said.

Lincoln County is also considering a ballot measure for an optional “6th penny” tax levied on retail sales and personal property, which could generate $24 million over a four-year period to help with road and other infrastructure upgrades throughout the county.

Officials are planning for several other major industrial projects in the region besides the Natrium plant. The trona and soda ash industry has plans for major expansions, others are partnering with the state and Department of Energy to establish several carbon dioxide collection and storage facilities. All told, the slate of industrial projects in southwest Wyoming may require more than 6,000 temporary construction workers over the next five years, according to estimates.

“There’s a million things going on here at the same time,” Thek said.


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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