A tiny city in the top US coalmining state of Wyoming is set to become the home of an experimental nuclear power project backed by Bill Gates.
The new Natrium nuclear power plant will be located in Kemmerer, officials announced on Tuesday, and will replace a coal-fired plant that is set to close in 2025.
“Our innovative technology will help ensure the continued production of reliable electricity while also transitioning our energy system and creating new, good-paying jobs in Wyoming,” said Chris Levesque, the CEO of TerraPower, the company behind the project that was founded by Gates about 15 years ago. Construction is set to begin in 2024.
The project will employ as many as 2,000 people during construction and 250 once operational in a state where the coal industry has been shedding jobs. Kemmerer, one of four cities in the running to host the project, is home to 2,600 people and is located about 130 miles (210 km) north-east of Salt Lake City.
If it’s as reliable as conventional nuclear power, the 345-megawatt plant would produce enough climate-friendly power to serve about 250,000 homes. The announcement came days after world leaders met at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow.
Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and chairman of TerraPower, in June announced plans for the Wyoming project along with officials from Rocky Mountain Power, Joe Biden’s administration and the state of Wyoming, which produces about 40% of the nation’s coal.
“We think Natrium will be a gamechanger for the energy industry,” Gates said at the project’s launch in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Proponents of the project, which will feature a sodium-cooled fast reactor and molten salt energy storage, say it would perform better, be safer and cost less than traditional nuclear power.
“Natrium will be that next improvement on safety. Importantly it won’t rely on outside sources of power, pumps and extra equipment to help the plant recover in the event of an emergency,” said Levesque, referring to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by a tsunami that knocked out emergency generators.
The high heat-transfer properties of sodium will allow the Natrium plant to be air-cooled. That will enable the plant to be quickly shut down in case of an emergency, and the absence of emergency generators and pumps will save on costs, Levesque said.
Others are skeptical about the benefits of sodium compared with water for cooling as in conventional nuclear plants.
“The use of liquid sodium has many problems. It’s a very volatile material that can catch fire if it’s exposed to air or water,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists science advocacy non-profit.
Countries including the US have experimented with sodium-cooled fast reactors for decades but only Russia has fielded such a reactor on a large, power-producing scale, Lyman said.
“Honestly I don’t understand the motivation,” Lyman said. “There are some people who are just strong advocates for it and they’ve sort of won the day here by convincing Bill Gates that this is a good technology to pursue.”