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TerraPower advances plans for next-gen nuclear plants, earning Bill Gates’ praise

Alan Boyle
This cutaway graphic shows the design of the Versatile Test Reactor. (DOE Illustration)
This cutaway graphic shows the design of the Versatile Test Reactor. (DOE Illustration)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has gotten a boost on two fronts in its campaign to pioneer a new generation of safer, less expensive reactors.

On Monday, the Idaho National Laboratory announced that an industry team including TerraPower has been selected to begin contract negotiations to design and build the Versatile Test Reactor, a federally financed facility that’s meant to test advanced nuclear reactor technologies. The team is led by Bechtel National Inc., with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy among the other industry partners. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is also on the concept development team.)

“We received excellent proposals from industry, which is indicative of the support to build a fast-spectrum neutron testing facility in the United States,” Mark Peters, director of the Idaho Falls lab, said in a news release. “We are excited about the potential for working with the BNI-led team.”

The plan calls for work on the project to begin in 2021, and for the reactor to be completed by as early as 2026.

Then, on Thursday, the Bellevue-based venture announced that it’s working with GE Hitachi on a reactor architecture that could supplement solar and wind energy systems with always-on electricity.

The system architecture, known as Natrium, would involve building cost-competitive, sodium fast reactors as well as molten-salt energy storage systems. The heat generated by the 345-megawatt reactors could be stored in the molten-salt tanks, and converted into grid electricity to smooth out fluctuations in renewable energy.

TerraPower says the project has attracted the attention of numerous utilities through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Among the supporters are Energy Northwest, Duke Energy and PacifiCorp, which is a subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

“Our exceptional technology development capabilities, unmatched financing credibility and achievable funding strategy mean that the Natrium technology will be available in the late 2020s, making it one of the first commercial advanced nuclear technologies,” TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque said in a news release.

Bill Gates co-founded TerraPower in 2006 and serves as its chairman. Turning the Natrium concept into a reality will be “extremely difficult,” Gates said in a statement reported by Reuters, but he insisted that TerraPower team had “the expertise, commercial experience and the resources necessary” to follow through.

TerraPower had been working with Chinese utilities to build a demonstration reactor, but that plan had to be scrapped in 2018 due to changes in U.S.-China policy made by the Trump administration. Now Gates and TerraPower are focusing on the U.S. market: Last year, The Washington Post reported that Gates would be willing to invest $1 billion and raise another billion dollars in private capital if Congress upped its support for nuclear technology development.

Last month, the U.S. Senate passed the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, but that legislation still has to be approved by the House.

An artist’s rendering shows NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor plant. (NuScale Power Illustration)
An artist’s rendering shows NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor plant. (NuScale Power Illustration)

TerraPower isn’t the only Pacific Northwest nuclear power venture to report positive news. Oregon-based NuScale Power announced today that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has completed the final phase of review leading to design certification for the company’s small modular nuclear reactor concept.

NuScale said completion of the process means customers can now proceed with plans to develop NuScale power plants with the understanding that the NRC has approved the safety aspects of the reactor design.

“This is a significant milestone not only for NuScale, but also for the entire U.S. nuclear sector and the other advanced nuclear technologies that will follow,” John Hopkins, NuScale’s chairman and CEO, said in a news release.

NuScale says it has signed agreements with prospective customers in the U.S., Canada, Romania, the Czech Republic and Jordan.

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