Bill Gates-sponsored nuclear demonstration postponed by at least 2 years

An artist’s rendering of the advanced nuclear power plant demonstration project that TerraPower, Bill Gates’ nuclear innovation company, plans to build in the frontier-era coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming.

Rendering courtesy of TerraPower

The demonstration of TerraPower’s advanced reactor will be delayed by at least two years because its only source of fuel was Russia and the war in Ukraine ended those trade ties. The Bill Gates-backed company plans to build its first reactor in the frontier coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, and had hoped to complete it by 2028.

“In February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine meant that the sole commercial source of HALEU fuel was no longer a viable part of the supply chain for TerraPower and others in our industry,” said Chris Levesque, CEO of TerraPower in a written statement. which was sent to the company’s newsletter recipients on Wednesday.

“Given the lack of fuel availability and the fact that construction of new fuel enrichment plants has not yet begun, TerraPower anticipates a delay of at least two years before the sodium reactor can be commissioned,” Levesque said.

Terrapower’s advanced nuclear power plant design, known as Natrum, will be smaller than traditional nuclear reactors and is expected to cost $4 billion, with half of that money coming from the US Department of Energy. It will offer 345 megawatts of base-load power, with the potential to expand its capacity to 500 megawatts — about half of what it takes to power a medium-sized city, according to a rule of thumb by Gates in his book How to Avoid a climate catastrophe.

But the plant depends on low enriched uranium or high assay HALEU. The existing fleet of nuclear reactors in the United States uses uranium-235 fuel enriched up to 5%, the Department of Energy says, while HALEU is between 5% and 20% enriched.

The United States does not have the enrichment capacity to supply commercial quantities of HALEU fuel, and so TerraPower had “assumed the use of HALEU from Russia for our first core load,” Levesque wrote.

Since war broke out in February and it became clear that Russia could no longer be a reliable trading partner, TerraPower, the Department of Energy and other stakeholders have been looking for alternative sources of HALEU fuel. They are also urging lawmakers to approve $2.1 billion to support HALEU production, according to Levesque.

Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, a Republican, believes this is a wake-up call for the US

“America needs to re-establish itself as the world leader in nuclear energy,” Barrasso said in a written statement. “Instead of relying on our adversaries like Russia for uranium, the United States needs to produce its own stockpile of advanced nuclear fuel.”

Barrasso sent a letter to Senate Energy Committee Chairman Joe Manchin, DW.Va., requesting a hearing on the availability of HALEU. Barrasso also sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to urge the United States to more quickly secure a source for HALEU.

The Department of Energy has “sufficient inventories of excess and previously used uranium to meet TerraPower’s needs,” but it has yet to “process sufficient amounts of this excess uranium into HALEU,” Barrasso said in the letter to Granholm. “At this point, probably no single way will be enough to keep TerraPower on track.”

There are currently 800 engineers working to finalize the plant design, and TerraPower anticipates that the project will employ up to 2,000 workers to build the plant by the mid-2020s.

TerraPower has raised over $830 million in private funding in 2022, and Congress has allocated $1.6 billion to build the facility, Levesque said.

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