Billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have chosen a remote town in Wyoming to build a new small nuclear power plant intended to help replace the coal-fired plants dotting the state.
TerraPower announced Tuesday that it is awaiting approval by federal and state authorities to build the $3 billion 345-megawatt plant at Naughton, Wyoming. It will be located about 130 miles northeast from Salt Lake City.
It is smaller than the reactors used in U.S. Navy subs. It has received broad support from Wyoming’s conservative politicians and the Biden administration.
“The Natrium reactor is the future of nuclear energy in America. Wyoming is the US’s energy capital, so it makes sense that they have the reactor. Wyoming’s economy will grow from having this groundbreaking technology in our state,” U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said in a statement to USA TODAY. Wyoming’s abundant energy sources, which include coal, oil, natural gases, renewables and nuclear power, will ensure that good-paying job opportunities continue. Americans across the country will depend on Wyoming energy for decades and decades to come.”
Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is the owner of Naughton’s coal-fired plant. It will be shut down in the context of company efforts to switch to renewable fuels like wind and solar. Experts consider nuclear power plants to be an important step to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.
TerraPower, Gates’ subsidiary, is partnering up with GEHitachi in order to construct the plant. The federal authorities have mandated that it be operational within seven years. Putting the reactor adjacent to a coal-fired power plant takes advantage of existing infrastructure, including cooling water and high-capacity transmission lines. The plant would operate for 60 years, company officials said.
“This project is an exciting opportunity to explore what could be the next generation of clean, reliable, affordable energy production while providing a path to transition for Wyoming’s energy economy, communities and employees,” Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, a division of Berkshire Hathaway’s PacifiCorp, said in a statement.
TerraPower officials say about 2,000 workers will be needed for construction at the project’s peak, with about 250 people working at the plant once operating. The 345-megawatt plant would produce enough power for roughly 250,000 homes, with the capacity to provide 500 megawatts during peak demand. On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Federal funding was added to the federal match for the reactor. Kemmerer houses approximately 2700 inhabitants.
Wyoming’s elected officials view the proposal as a possible lifeline in a state that is heavily dependent upon coal mining.
“This is great for Kemmerer and great for Wyoming,” Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek said in a statement provided by TerraPower.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, the Wyoming Governor supports the plan. He argues that new nuclear power plants can be a way to sell the state’s huge radioactive uranium ore reserves.
The proposed plant uses uranium to heat liquid sodium metal to about 900 degrees F – natrium is an old word for sodium – which then makes steam to power a turbine to generate electricity. The reactor operates at lower pressures because liquid sodium is used instead of high-pressure coolant. This makes it less vulnerable to meltdowns like the one that occurred in 1979 on Three Mile Island, or the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy.
While similar systems for reactors have been constructed before, the Natrium project will be considered a testing ground by the federal government. The Federal Government is paying up to half the cost of the Natrium project. Because the Natrium plant is smaller and uses modern technology, its backers say it could be built faster and cheaper than a traditional large-scale nuclear power plant, primarily because it uses less expensive concrete to contain the reactor. Gates and Buffett said that once successfully demonstrated, the plant could be quickly expanded or replicated elsewhere.
“The energy communities that have powered us for generations have real opportunities to power our clean energy future through projects just like this one, that provide good-paying jobs and usher in the next wave of nuclear technologies,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.
Federal officials say the plant will produce nearly 3 million megawatt hours of carbon-free power annually and avoid almost 2 million metric tons of carbon that would otherwise have been emitted by a traditional power plant. It would be powered with fuel that is up to four times more powerful than the 5% enriched uranium typically used in nuclear power plants, and TerraPower is working with the federal government to develop a U.S.-controlled source of the fuel.
Today, the majority of electricity is generated by coal- and nuclear-powered plants in the United States. Renewables make up 20% and 40% respectively.
Wyoming is America’s most important producer of coal. It is burnt to produce electricity, serving mostly residents in Oregon and California. The United States has 55 nuclear power plants, with a total of 28. In Georgia, there is currently a second nuclear reactor under construction.
Company also considered Rock Springs, Gillette, and Glenrock in East-Central Wyoming.