Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates will build a next-generation nuclear plant at a soon-to-be-retired coal-fired power plant in Wyoming in the next several years, business and government officials have said.
The plant will feature a sodium reactor and molten salt energy storage system and will perform better, be safer and cost less than traditional nuclear power, Gates said.
Bellevue-based TerraPower, of which Gates is chairman of the board, and the PacifiCorp company, which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is working with Rocky Mountain Power, an electric utility serving Wyoming and other Western states, to put the Natrium reactor at one of four of the utility’s power plants in Wyoming, with the location to be decided later this year.
“We think Natrium will be a game-changer for the energy industry,” Gates said by video link to a news conference hosted by Wyoming’s Republican Governor Mark Gordon on Wednesday.
“Wyoming has been a leader in energy for over a century and we hope our investment in Natrium will help Wyoming to stay in the lead for many decades to come.”
Wyoming is the top uranium-mining state, and the reactor would use uranium from “in situ” mines that extract the heavy metal from networks of water wells on the high plains, officials said.
Wyoming is also the top coal mining state in the country. The industry has suffered a dramatic downturn over the past decade as utilities switch to cheaper and cleaner-burning gas to generate electricity.
‘Future of nuclear energy’
The reactor proposal creates common ground between Wyoming, one of the most Republican states, and Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
Wyoming is a top producer of greenhouse gases from its coal, oil and natural gas industries.
The Biden administration has halted oil and gas leasing on federal lands as it seeks to reduce carbon emissions by half, compared with 2005 levels, by 2030.
“The future of nuclear energy is here,” US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said by video link at the news conference. “It’s got a simpler design that will hopefully result in faster construction at lower cost. It’s going to create a smaller footprint. It’s going to be equipped with next-generation safety measures.”
If it is as reliable as conventional nuclear power, the 345-megawatt plant would produce enough power for roughly 250,000 homes. The plant also would produce hydrogen, which can power trucks and other vehicles with fuel cells.
Several coal-fired power plant closures are planned in the coming years, including some in Wyoming. A nuclear plant with hundreds of well-playing jobs, sending power over transmission lines already in place, could offset the economic blow of a coal plant retirement.
Will not ‘solve the nation’s waste problem’
The plant will be a “multibillion-dollar project” with costs to be split evenly between government and private industry, TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said.
The plant would produce two-thirds less waste by volume than conventional nuclear plants, Levesque said.
Proposals to store nuclear waste in Wyoming have failed to pass the state Legislature in recent decades. While some waste would need to be stored on-site, the plant is not going to be a way to “solve the nation’s waste problems”, Governor Gordon said.
Gordon announced last winter he would make Wyoming carbon negative, meaning the state would capture more carbon dioxide than it emitted. He is a proponent of carbon capture, or taking the greenhouse gas from power plant flue streams and pumping it underground. The technology has yet to be proven commercially viable on a large scale.
Gordon also has held open the possibility of suing states whose greenhouse gas goals lead to the shutdown of Wyoming coal-fired power.
However, he continued to stand by fossil energy Wednesday.
“I am not going to abandon any of our fossil fuel industry. It is absolutely essential to our state,” Gordon said.
First published on: Al Jazeera