Bill Gates’ nuclear company picks coal site for new nuclear plant

Article by Adam Duckett

Frederic Legrand - COMEO /

BILL GATES’ nuclear reactor company plans to build its first sodium fast reactor at the site of a retiring coal plant in the US.

TerraPower, which was created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in 2006, has selected the town of Kemmerer in Wyoming as the preferred site for its first 345 MW Natrium reactor. The demonstration plant will take over the site of two coal units that are set to cease operations in 2025. TerraPower expects to submit its application to build the plant in 2023 and for the facility to be operational within the next seven years.

The reactor design, which is one of two demonstration projects being funded through the US Government’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, uses liquid sodium as a coolant and includes a molten salt-based energy storage system. The company says advantages of the technology include that it can boost output to 500 MW for more than five hours to help balance spikes in energy demand. Along with its integrated molten-salt energy storage system, which are also used in solar thermal projects, this means it can flexibly work alongside renewables where it would could dispatch stored energy to make up for any shortfalls in intermittent output or store surplus energy produced say during periods of high winds.

The company says using sodium as a coolant allows several design trade-offs that reduce the cost and complexity of the plant compared to traditional facilities. The higher boiling point of sodium means it can operate at atmospheric pressure so avoids the use of expensive pressure vessels. Sodium’s more efficient heat transfer capabilities allows for less equipment and a smaller plant; and its higher operating temperatures mean the design can provide process heat for other industrial applications including chemicals processing and desalination.

While the design from TerraPower and its partner GE Energy is novel, the nuclear industry has extensive experience with sodium fast reactors chiefly in Russia. There are plants operating in the country, with its first connected to the grid in 1980.

There are safety concerns with using sodium as a coolant. Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists told The Guardian: “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,”

In 1995, a sodium leak from the heat transfer system led to a fire at the Monju reactor in Japan.

In October 2020, the US Government gave US$80m to both TerraPower and X-energy to build demonstration plants. X-energy is developing a high temperature gas-cooled reactor for both electricity production and process heat. This funding is part of a multi-billion dollar programme to develop advanced nuclear reactors through the Department of Energy. 

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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