TerraPower breaks ground for Natrium plant

11 June 2024

TerraPower's chairman and founder Bill Gates joined company colleagues, government officials, project partners, industry champions and community supporters for the ceremony at the site of the first-of-a-kind advanced reactor plant at Kemmerer in Wyoming.

The groundbreaking ceremony marks the start of non-nuclear construction work at the site (Image: TerraPower)

The 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system - which can boost the system's output to 500 MW of power when needed, allowing it to integrate seamlessly with renewable resources - is being built near a retiring coal-fired plant.

The ground-breaking ceremony marks the start of non-nuclear construction at the site, and comes weeks after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted for docketing TerraPower's application for a construction permit, submitted earlier this year. Nuclear construction will begin after the application is approved: the company is eyeing the start of work on the nuclear island in 2026. TerraPower would need to submit a separate operating licence application to obtain permission to run the reactor.

In his GatesNotes blog, Gates said the first-ever Natrium plant "will bring safe, next-generation nuclear technology to life right here in Wyoming. It's a huge milestone for the local economy, America's energy independence, and the fight against climate change.

"Today is a big one for Kemmerer - for the coal plant workers who will be able to see their future job site being constructed across the highway, for the local construction workers who will be part of a 1600-person skilled labour force building the plant, and for the local businesses that will take care of the new workforce."

He added: "For a project this big and this important to work, it takes private companies partnering with public leaders and governments." He went on to pay tribute to local leaders and communities who have "embraced" the project, as well as federal support for the project through the US Department of Energy's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, Wyoming's governor and senators, and TerraPower's investors and development partners, including Bechtel, GE Hitachi, PacifiCorp, and Berkshire Hathaway.

"While these first-of-a-kind projects can be big and risky, they are too important for our future to fail to act. I'm proud of all those who have helped ensure the most advanced nuclear project in the world gets built right here in the United States," he said.
"I believe that the next-generation nuclear power plant that TerraPower is building here will power the future of our nation - and the world. Everything we do runs on electricity: buildings, technology, and increasingly transportation. To meet our economic and climate goals, we need more abundant clean energy, not less. The ground we broke in Kemmerer will soon be the bedrock of America's energy future. Today, we took the biggest step yet toward safe, abundant, zero-carbon energy."

According to TerraPower, construction of the plant is expected to span five years and employ 1600 workers at the project's peak. Once operational, the demonstration plant will be a fully functioning commercial nuclear power plant, needing an estimated 250 people to support its day-to-day activities, including plant security.

"This groundbreaking represents the beginning of the next era of nuclear energy. The Natrium reactor is more than a design, it's a plant coming to life that will support both the clean energy transition and our historic energy communities," said Chris Levesque, TerraPower's president and CEO.

Visionary approach

Bechtel is TerraPower's engineering, procurement, and construction partner on the project. The company already has a history at the Kemmerer site. "Back in the early 1960s, we built the Naughton power station that is now being retired. Originally constructed as a 'mine mouth powerhouse' for a coal strip-mining operation, it too was a cutting-edge solution for what was considered an essential energy resource at the time," Bechtel President and COO Craig Albert said. "We take pride now in having the opportunity to help the Kemmerer community transition away from that past to a cleaner energy future."

The Natrium reactor does not need the complex containment structures, cooling water circulation, and redundant safety systems necessary for conventional nuclear generation, allowing a much smaller footprint and a reduced need for expensive concrete and steel, Albert said, describing TerraPower's approach to both the reactor and the building of the plant as "visionary".

"Their involvement of Bechtel from the very beginning means the entire project lifecycle, including construction, has been optimised at every stage, making the entire process cost-effective, fast, and repeatable," he said.

"Natrium will be the first nuclear project where the execution of those plans will benefit from Bechtel's suite of digital tools and systems, which have been proven to deliver exceptional results on other large energy facilities," he added.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News