Bill Gates’ TerraPower to Build First Small Reactor in US

The company plans to have one of the newfangled small modular reactors up and running in Wyoming by 2030.

Photo of a nuclear power plant
Photo by Lukáš Lehotský via Unsplash

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This is Bill Gates’ nuclear option. 

TerraPower, which was founded by Gates, intends to continue the Microsoft creator’s knack for innovation by introducing a new form of small-scale, low-cost nuclear power plant never before seen in America. 

The New Nuclear

For decades, nuclear plants have generally needed about one square mile of space — think of the power plant from “The Simpsons” with its massive cooling towers, but without the hundreds of donut-eating employees and secret tunnel system guarded by a giant spider. (We think.) But nowadays, the sector is pivoting toward the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), which take up less space and have an energy capacity of roughly one-third of standard plants’ output.

TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque told the Financial Times that not only would the company’s Natrium-branded reactor, which is slated to be built near a coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, be smaller than traditional nuclear plants, but it would also be cooled with liquid sodium instead of water, cutting operating costs by roughly half. 

Nuclear power has, to say the least, something of a stigma — bombs, horrific meltdowns, and radiation poisoning will do that. But it increasingly looks like the energy of the future, especially as nations attempt to mitigate their dependence on highly polluting fossil fuels:

  • Levesque told the FT that TerraPower would apply for a construction permit this month with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Regardless of when TerraPower receives approval, the company will start the non-nuclear part of construction this June, and Levesque expects it to be up and running by 2030.
  • TerraPower has the advantage of robust private and public funding. So far, it has privately raised about $1 billion — with some of that coming from South Korea-based SK Inc., Warren Buffett, and Gates himself — to go toward developing its Natrium reactors. It also secured $2 billion from the Department of Energy to complete work at the site in Wyoming. 

The Price of Power: Despite countries like the UK, France, and Argentina designing and developing SMRs, only a handful are operational. Two are located on a barge powering the small Arctic town of Pevek, Russia, and another is at the Shidao Bay Nuclear Power Plant in China. Even with building enthusiasm for SMRs, costs and confidence remain volatile. In November, NuScale, the first to receive approval to build an SMR in the US, said it was terminating its project with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems due to low subscriptions for the plant’s power. Early last year, the target price for power from the plant jumped 53% to $89 per megawatt hour. That’s enough to make someone start chopping wood.