Bill Gates’ nuclear innovation startup TerraPower and Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiary PacifiCorp are looking to site a federally backed demonstration of their 345-MWe Natrium advanced nuclear reactor system at a retiring PacifiCorp coal power plant in Wyoming.
During a June 2 energy event in Cheyenne attended by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Bill Gates, and U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the companies said they plan to announce a plant site for the demonstration by the end of this year. While the companies are now still conducting “joint due diligence to ensure this opportunity is cost-effective” for PacifiCorp’s customers, their next steps will include “further project evaluation, education and outreach, and state and federal regulatory approvals prior to acquisition of a Natrium facility,” they said.
An ARDP Boost
The announcement is nonetheless significant because it provides a state-backed vicinity for one of the two much-watched demonstration projects bolstered by $80 million each in initial federal funding under the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). The ARDP envisions the two demonstration projects will be built and can begin operation within five to seven years.
Alongside the Natrium consortium, Rockville, Maryland–based X-energy won first-round funding under the first ARDP pathway in what was likely tough competition for the federal funding opportunity. X-energy will use the funding to deliver a commercial four-unit power plant based on its Xe-100 reactor design, an 80-MWe/200-MWth pebble-bed high-temperature gas reactor, which can be scaled as a four-pack to 320 MWe. X-energy, notably, will also leverage the award to deliver a commercial-scale fuel fabrication facility for its proprietary TRISO-X TRi-structural ISOtropic particle fuel (TRISO) technology.
Last December, a DOE official told POWER that X-energy had identified a nuclear site near Energy Northwest’s Columbia nuclear plant in Washington as its preferred site. Natrium, which reportedly said in its ARDP application it would make a site selection within the first year—the first budget period—after it was selected, had also identified a Washington nuclear power site but had “an option to go to Idaho National Lab,” the official said. Natrium was working on a site-use permit through the DOE organization, he said.
But according to Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, siting a Natrium pilot at a retiring PacifiCorp coal plant in Wyoming is suitable because it would generally demonstrate that an advanced nuclear reactor can solve challenges “utilities face as they work to enhance grid reliability and stability while meeting decarbonization and emissions-reduction goals.” The effort, he said, could create the “energy grid of the future where advanced nuclear technologies provide good-paying jobs and clean energy for years to come.”
A Pioneering Demonstration for a Technology Developer, a Host Utility, and a Fossil-Heavy State
TerraPower noted on Wednesday the demonstration will be “a fully functioning power plant and is intended to validate the design, construction and operational features of the Natrium technology.” As POWER has reported in-depth, Natrium—which TerraPower unveiled in September 2020—is designed as a “cost-competitive” advanced nuclear reactor system that will integrate a 345-MWe (840 MWth) sodium fast reactor (SFR) with a nitrate salt molten salt energy storage system under a unique energy system architecture.
Developed under a joint development agreement with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), it blends the “best of” TerraPower’s Traveling Wave Reactor (TWR) and GEH’s PRISM technology, but it boosts them with “additional innovations and improvements” to ramp up the SFR’s performance and economics, and render it competitive in the U.S. and other countries, the companies told POWER last year.
However, the technology’s end goal is a system that provides “firm, flexible power that seamlessly integrates into power grids with high penetrations of renewables,” they said. Its molten salt system has the potential to “boost the system’s output to 500 MWe of power for more than five and a half hours when needed.” Levesque said on Wednesday that flexibility will be crucial to the future of nuclear as the world transitions to an increasingly decarbonized system.
Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, a division of PacifiCorp, meanwhile, described the project as an “exciting economic opportunity” for Wyoming. “Siting a Natrium advanced reactor at a retiring Wyoming coal plant could ensure that a formerly productive coal generation site continues to produce reliable power for our customers,” he said.
Reliable power, Hoogeveen stressed, will require innovation in nuclear. While PacifiCorp supports the growth of renewables, “We know as a utility in the utility industry—like everyone else does in the utility industry—you can’t do 100% renewable and battery power and serve 24-7. Not with the current technology that we have. That’s what’s so exciting about today, because this technology can allow us to provide carbon-free electricity 24-7, 365, and that is amazing. There’s no other word for it.”
Wyoming Gov. Gordon: SMR Demonstration Not a Replacement for Carbon Capture
During the event, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon hailed the demonstration of a first-of-its-kind small modular reactor as a breakthrough that could transform Wyoming into a place where “innovative energy technologies are taken to commercialization.”
Wyoming, Gordon noted, has embarked on its own energy transition. This March, it set a remarkable goal to become a “carbon negative” state by capturing more carbon than it emits. The state has been the nation’s top coal-producing state since 1986. It accounted for about 39% of all coal mined in the U.S. in 2019, and holds more than one-third of U.S. coal reserves at producing mines. However, while coal-fired power plants produced about 80% of Wyoming’s electricity generation in 2020, wind power has more than doubled since 2009, contributing 12% of the state’s generation in 2020. The remainder mostly comes from natural gas-fired units and hydroelectric facilities.
Meanwhile, Wyoming has no nuclear power plants—but it is the state with the largest uranium ore reserves and the largest uranium mining operations in the U.S. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes, however, that in 2019, total U.S. uranium production fell to an all-time low, as most utility companies bought lower-cost uranium from other countries.
“I am not going to abandon any of our fossil fuel industry,” the governor declared on Wednesday. “It is absolutely essential to our state, and one of the things that we believe is our fastest course to being carbon negative,” he said. However, the demonstration “helps Wyoming meet the first part of that objective. Nuclear power is clearly a part of my all-of-the-above strategy for energy in Wyoming,” he said.
Still, though Gordon said he “fully supports moving ahead with this project,” he stressed that “it does not replace the need for utility companies and private companies to invest in carbon capture.” At the event, he pointedly urged the DOE to provide grants for the demonstration and commercialization of carbon capture facilities.
Natrium’s Tight Seven-Year Window
On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Granholm underscored the importance of the demonstration to the Biden administration, which has set net-zero ambitions for the nation by 2050. “I have a feeling Wyoming won’t be the only state in the country angling for one of these nuclear reactors once we’ve seen it in action,” she said.
“Fortunately for the rest of the country, this administration is committed to building more. We are ready to make major investments in nuclear technology so that communities all over the country can enjoy the benefits of safe, and reliable, and clean power that will leave them with lower energy bills and greater opportunities,” she added.
The DOE’s commitment may prove pivotal as Natrium sets out to meet its tight seven-year schedule under the ARDP. Owing to its first-of-a-kind attributes, the project needs to meet a long list of pioneering milestones as they relate to research, plant design, equipment testing and qualification, and procurement and construction.
Securing an adequate fuel supply could also prove a major challenge. While Gov. Gordon on Wednesday urged the use of “Wyoming uranium to furnish the feedstock” for the demonstration, TerraPower, like other advanced nuclear project developers, will be dependent on emerging advanced nuclear fuel development to energize its project. Last September, the company announced it would team with Centrus Energy to establish commercial-scale, domestic production capabilities for high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU).
Centrus, formerly known as U.S. Enrichment Corp. (USEC)—which was originally a government corporation—has a three-year $115 million (80%-20% cost-shared) contract that will allow it to deploy a small cascade of 16 AC-100M centrifuges at the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio. The project, also a significant DOE endeavor, is looking to demonstrate HALEU production by 2022.
In March, Centrus told POWER that at the conclusion of the demonstration program funding in 2022, its goal is “to continue production and scale up the facility in modular fashion” as demand for HALEU grows in the commercial and government sectors. However, it noted, “there are no guarantees about whether or when government or commercial demand for HALEU will materialize.” Commercial uptake of HALEU must also overcome a number of technical, regulatory, and economic hurdles before more advanced fuels and reactors can come to the market, it said.
Finally, the Natrium project will also need a Part 50 license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). While the NRC reports it is already engaged in pre-application activities with the Natrium consortium, the Natrium consortium’s timeline above suggests it is banking on receiving a construction permit by 2025 and an operating license by 2027.
Natrium Consortium Exploring Collaborative Framework for the Versatile Test Reactor
In this respect, the demonstration could benefit from its growing consortium expertise. Since Natrium’s unveiling in September 2020, its demonstration consortium has expanded to include nuclear plant engineering and construction giant Bechtel, which will act as the Natrium plant’s design, licensing, procurement, and construction partner. And, along with PacifiCorp, its utility backers include Energy Northwest and Duke Energy.
GEH and TerraPower, notably, are also part of a team led by Bechtel that was last year selected by Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) to spearhead the design and build phase of the DOE’s planned Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), a one-of-a-kind research facility designed to give U.S. companies access to fast-spectrum irradiation testing that can be used to develop advanced nuclear fuels, materials, instruments, and sensors.
The planned experimental fast neutron reactor that the DOE says will be crucial to support domestic advanced nuclear reactor research and development cleared “Critical Decision 1” in September 2020, paving the way for the engineering design phase to begin. During an in-depth industry dialogue jointly hosted by the VTR program and the Nuclear Energy Institute on May 26, Kemal Pasamehmetoglu, executive director of the VTR project, noted the 300-MW PRISM-derived pool-type sodium-cooled test reactor is currently in the final phases of completing an environmental impact statement.
The VTR team—which is now addressing comments submitted during a public comment period “with the objective of having a record of decision to proceed with the VTR”—anticipates it could announce a location for the test reactor by summer 2021. “The preferred location for the VTR is the Idaho National Laboratory but Oak Ridge National Laboratory is also being looked at as an alternative,” said Pasamehmetoglu.
The VTR’s next big milestone will be Critical Decision 2 and 3, which will mark the end of the engineering design, baselining the project, and the start of construction. “How quickly we get there depends on [Congressional] appropriations,” Pasamehmetoglu said. “We were targeting 2023 to achieve Critical Decision 2 and 3, however, we are also looking at alternative scenarios where yearly appropriations are spread over multiple years to make it affordable.”
For now, he said, the team anticipates the VTR’s startup will likely be pushed to 2026 through 2032. The VTR team plans to get there through public-private partnerships that “must be established to support national goals”—as opposed to individual projects—to support a strong commercial sector, starting with the cost-shared demonstrations, he said.
The VTR team is already collaborating with the Natrium consortium on a framework to best optimize available resources toward achieving the demonstration’s mission and the VTR’s long-term research and development mission, Pasamehmetoglu revealed last week. If the DOE inks a memorandum of understanding with Natrium to cement that collaboration, it could mean “properly adjusting the VTR schedule” relative to Natrium’s fixed schedule, given that the designs of both projects share design synergies, he said.
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).