Enlarge / In TerraPower’s design, the nuclear reactor is separated from the ability technology course of by molten salt warmth storage.

On Tuesday, TerraPower, the US-based nuclear energy firm backed by Bill Gates, introduced it has chosen a website for what can be its first reactor. Kemmerer, Wyoming, inhabitants roughly 2,500, has been the positioning of the coal-fired Naughton Power Plant, which is being closed. The TerraPower venture will see it changed by a 345 megawatt reactor that may pioneer numerous applied sciences that have not been commercially deployed earlier than.

These embrace a reactor design that wants minimal refueling, cooling by liquid sodium, and a molten-salt heat-storage system that can present the plant with the pliability wanted to raised combine with renewable power.


While TerraPower is the identify clearly connected to the venture, loads of different events are concerned, as properly. The firm is maybe finest identified for being backed by Bill Gates, now chairman of the corporate board, who has promoted nuclear energy as a partial answer for the local weather disaster. The firm has been chosen by the US Department of Energy to construct an indication reactor, a designation that ensures not less than $180 million towards development and will see it obtain billions of {dollars} over the subsequent a number of years.

The reactor itself can be not strictly a TerraPower venture. The reactor design is being developed collectively with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. An organization known as Bechtel will assist with the development, which would require a workforce equal to roughly 80 % of Kemmerer’s inhabitants.

The design will contain numerous applied sciences which have solely been tried hardly ever or under no circumstances. So this is not going to be a easy venture. TerraPower and GE Hitachi are calling the design Natrium, and so they have arrange an internet site to explain it. We’ll go over a few of its key differentiators right here.

Very completely different

To start with, the plant is not going to use water to switch warmth out of the reactor; as an alternative, it is going to use liquid sodium. This has a significant benefit in that sodium will not boil at any of the temperatures it must be uncovered to within the reactor. This signifies that not one of the {hardware} that holds the coolant will likely be uncovered to excessive pressures, which simplifies issues significantly. Sodium will, nonetheless, readily react with air and explosively react with water, which raises a definite set of issues.


Globally, solely about 25 main reactors have been constructed utilizing sodium coolant. Many have been solely constructed for analysis functions, and solely a handful stay operational. The final one within the US was in-built 1965, and the final operational one was shuttered in 1994. So, it is honest to say that the businesses haven’t got a lot hands-on expertise to attract on.

Sodium-cooled designs, in distinction to water cooling, do not sluggish the neutrons produced by fission reactions down; they’re also known as “quick reactors” for that cause. Fast neutrons have the power to rework isotopes that do not make helpful gasoline, permitting them to provide extra gasoline throughout operation.

In TerraPower’s case, its design surrounds a core of enriched gasoline with numerous less-useful isotopes. The reactor will likely be powered by the enriched core because it converts extra materials to helpful gasoline, which can take over as the primary will get exhausted. This course of can repeat via a number of layers of conversion, limiting the downtime wanted for refueling. But once more, it hasn’t seen industrial use earlier than.

The reactor could have numerous options that ought to enable passive security, inflicting its inside warmth to stay restricted even when cooling circulation fails.

Plays properly with others

Finally, TerraPower will not instantly convert the warmth extracted from the reactor into energy; as an alternative, it is going to retailer it as molten salt. As a end result, though the reactor will likely be rated as 345 MW, the plant will be capable of generate as a lot as 500 MW in periods of excessive demand or scale right down to decrease manufacturing when demand is diminished. This will enable the plant to raised observe every day cycles of demand. In addition, the warmth storage may even enable the Kemmerer website to raised combine with the rising use of renewable energy (Wyoming is a significant producer of wind energy).

Overall, any considered one of these variations entails dangers. The mixture of all of them in a single design means this will likely be a particularly troublesome venture to drag off, particularly on the deliberate seven-year timeline. Should it succeed, nonetheless, we will lastly get a way of whether or not the prices of superior nuclear designs can stay aggressive with the ever-shrinking prices of renewables backed by storage.


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