Home News Nuclear power is hard. One climate-conscious billionaire wants to make it easier.

Nuclear power is hard. One climate-conscious billionaire wants to make it easier.


Outside a small coal town in southwestern Wyoming, a multibillion-dollar plan is building the first of a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United States.

Workers began construction on Tuesday A new type of nuclear reactor The reactor is smaller and cheaper than older bulky reactors and generates electricity without producing carbon dioxide, which causes rapid warming of the planet.

The reactor being built by startup TerraPower won’t be ready until 2030 at the earliest, and it faces huge hurdles. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to approve the design, and the company must overcome the inevitable delays and cost overruns that have scuppered countless nuclear projects before.

However, TerraPower does have an influential and financially powerful founder: Bill Gates. Current ranking The world’s seventh-richest person has invested more than $1 billion of his fortune in TerraPower, and he expects that amount to increase.

“If you care about the climate, there are places around the world that need nuclear power,” Gates said in an interview Monday near the project site. “I’m not involved in TerraPower to make more money. I’m involved in TerraPower because we need to build a lot of these reactors.”

Gates, the former Microsoft CEO, has said he believes the best way to address climate change is through innovation that makes clean energy competitive with fossil fuels, a philosophy he described in his 2021 book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”

Nationwide, nuclear power Interest is resurfacingSeveral startups are racing to build a fleet of small reactors, while the Biden administration is offering huge tax credits for new nuclear plants.

The 3,000 residents of the nearby Wyoming towns of Kemmerer and Diamondville have high hopes for TerraPower’s project. For decades, the local economy has depended on a coal-fired power plant and an adjacent coal mine. But the plant is scheduled to close in 2036 as the country moves away from coal.

New reactors, and the jobs they bring, could offer a lifeline.

“A few years ago, we were not happy as a community when people said we were going to lose the coal mine and the power plant,” said Mary Crosby, a Kemmerer resident and county grant author. The reactor, she said, “gives us an opportunity.”

At a recent conference in New York, David Crane, the U.S. Department of Energy’s undersecretary for infrastructure, said that two years ago he “really didn’t see the need” for the next generation of reactors. Due to the surge in electricity demand new data centers, factories and electric vehicles, Mr. Crane said he had become “very bullish” on nuclear power because it does not require much land and can provide carbon-free electricity around the clock.

The challenge, Mr. Crane said, was building the factory. “Nothing we wanted to do was easy.”

Gates became interested in nuclear power in the early 2000s after scientists convinced him that large amounts of emissions-free electricity were needed to combat global warming. He doubted that wind and solar power could meet demand because they don’t operate 24/7.

“Wind and solar are great, and we have to build them as quickly as possible, but the idea that we don’t need anything beyond that is very unlikely,” Gates said. How, he asked, would Chicago heat its homes during the long winters without wind or sunshine?

However, one problem with nuclear energy is that It has become very expensiveTraditional reactors are large, complex, and highly regulated, making them difficult to build and finance. The only two reactors in the United States in the past 30 years—Vogtel 3 and 4 in Georgia—have operated for nearly 10 years. Costing $35 billionmore than double the original estimate and seven years behind schedule.

Gates thought completely different technology would help, and through TerraPower he funded a team of hundreds of engineers to redesign a nuclear power plant from scratch.

Today, all nuclear power plants in the U.S. use light-water reactors, which pump water into the reactor core, where it is heated by atomic fission and produces steam to generate electricity. Because the water is so high in pressure, these plants require heavy piping and thick containment vessels to prevent accidents.

TerraPower’s reactor, by contrast, uses liquid sodium rather than water, allowing it to operate at lower pressures. In theory, this reduces the need for thick shielding. In an emergency, the plant can be cooled with vents rather than a complex system of pumps. At just 345 megawatts, the reactor is a third the size of Vogtle’s, so it’s less expensive to invest in.

Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s chief executive, says its reactor should eventually generate electricity for half the cost of a conventional nuclear plant. “It’s a much simpler nuclear plant,” he says. “That gives us both a safety advantage and a cost benefit.”

TerraPower’s design is unique in another way. Most reactors can’t easily adjust their electrical output, making them difficult to adapt to fluctuating wind and solar farms. But TerraPower’s reactors will be equipped with molten salt batteries that will allow the plant to increase or decrease power generation as needed.

“It’s good for the economy,” Mr. Levesque said. “We can store energy and then sell it to the grid when it’s worth more.”

However, it remains to be seen whether TerraPower can actually reduce costs. In 2022, the company estimates that its Kemmerer reactor will cost $4 billion, and the U.S. Department of Energy Contribution up to $2 billionThat’s already more expensive than modern gas or renewable energy plants, and costs are likely to rise further.

Recent attempts to build nuclear power plants Hampered by delays and unforeseen expensesDavid Schlissel, president of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said last year another Idaho startup, NuScale Abandoned Plan After facing pressure from rising prices, the decision was made to build six small light-water reactors.

“There’s no evidence that these small reactors can be built faster or cheaper than large reactors,” said Mr. Schlissel, who argues that utilities should prioritize safer investments such as wind, solar and batteries.

Gates acknowledged that TerraPower’s first power plant might be particularly expensive as the company navigates the learning curve. But he said he could absorb that financial risk, while utilities and regulators couldn’t. Raised $830 million from outside investors.

The company says that if it can overcome initial hurdles and build multiple reactors, it could reduce costs to become economically competitive.

“We took that risk, and we feel very good about it because of our design,” Gates said. “But it also means you need very deep pockets.”

In Kemmerer, officials hope the gamble will pay off. This part of Wyoming has relied on coal, oil and natural gas since the first mine opened in 1887, but coal consumption in the U.S. has risen sharply. Down by half In the past twenty years.

The Norton coal plant, located south of town and dominated by sagebrush, employed nearly 250 workers in its heyday. When the utility that owns the plant, PacifiCorp, announced a few years ago that it would close it, many wondered what would replace it. (The closure has been pushed back to 2036.)

In 2021, TerraPower decided to build a new reactor at a nearby site because the company could reuse the coal plant’s transmission lines and retrain workers. (Gates said support from Kemmerer officials was helpful.) The plant will employ 250 people and create 1,600 temporary construction jobs.

“I’m getting people calling me all over the country right now saying, I want to do this job,” said Jerry Payne, business manager for Local 322 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents many coal plant workers. “It means a lot to Kemmerer.”

After decades of losing residents, Kemmerer is starting to show signs of recovery, with a new coffee shop, Fossil Fuel Coffee Co., and several businesses opening downtown, and two large residential developments planned for the outskirts.

Concerns about the project linger, particularly about its timeline. In 2022, TerraPower announced a two-year delay. Because it will no longer buy nuclear fuel from Russia And need to find new suppliers.

“People have been asking, ‘Can this thing ever be built?'” said Kemmerer Mayor Bill Teck. “But now we’re seeing the dirt moving, and that’s exciting.”

Last fall, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a hearing in town to answer questions from some nervous residents. Did regulators take earthquakes into account? (Yes.) Is there a permanent place to store the plant’s radioactive waste? (not yet.

“Some people are excited about the technology, but some people are uncomfortable with it,” said Madonna Long, who was born in Kemmerer and returned in 2020 after decades away to start a medical supply company. “But no one is knocking on our door and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to build something else.’ ”

Department of Energy It is estimated that there are hundreds of Coal plants being retired or closed across the country may be suitable candidates for building new reactors because they already have grid connections and water supplies. Doing so could also help coal communities avoid huge economic losses, the agency said.

In March, TerraPower submitted A 3,300-page application The company has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build the reactor, but the review will take at least two years. The company must convince regulators that its sodium-cooled reactor does not require many of the costly safeguards required for traditional light-water reactors.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Adam Stein, director of nuclear innovation at the Breakthrough Institute, a pro-nuclear research organization.

TerraPower’s plants are designed so that major components such as electricity-generating steam turbines and molten salt batteries are physically separate from the reactors where fission occurs. The company says those components do not require regulatory approval and can begin construction earlier.

A bigger hurdle may be procuring fuel, since Russia is currently the only supplier of specially enriched uranium used by TerraPower. $3.4 billion allocated to strengthen domestic fuel supplythis takes time.

The company does have one customer: PacifiCorp, which provides electricity to six Western states, plans to buy power from TerraPower’s first reactor and has expressed interest in buying additional reactors after that. Any cost overruns will be borne by TerraPower, not ratepayers, the company said. But the agreement has not been finalized, and some critics worry about the impact on household electricity bills.

“It’s normal for people to be skeptical because of the failures of nuclear energy projects,” Gates said. “A lot of things could go wrong or delay our plans. But this is a very important project, and I will basically support it financially. I do think it is completely different from other nuclear fission projects that are going on.”

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