There’s a coal power plant near Glenrock, Wyoming called the Dave Johnston Power Plant. Other than the local school district, the plant is the largest employer in Glenrock, employing about 200 people out of a population of 2,500. But the coal plant is more than 50 years old and the owner intends to shut it down by 2027, meaning the town could face a grim future.
But a nuclear energy company owned by Bill Gates is considering the site to build an innovative new nuclear reactor. If all goes as planned, TerraPower could open the new reactor just a year after the coal plant shuts down. And even before the plant opens, construction would bring hundreds of jobs to the area.
“We’ve been told it’ll be close to 250 people,” Glenrock Mayor Bruce Roumell tells FOX Business when asked how many jobs might be generated. “They’ve also said there would be around 1,500 people in the construction phase. That’s a pretty good influx into this area for us.”…
Robert Short knows these issues about as well as anyone in the community. He currently serves as a county commissioner in Converse County, where Glenrock is located, and owns the Higgins Hotel on Birch Street in Glenrock. That’s where we met for a conversation about the nuclear plans of Bill Gates and TerraPower.
Short, in addition to his involvement in local politics and business, has a background in nuclear science. He has worked all over the world as a researcher, and thinks now is finally the time for nuclear in the U.S.
“We took a hiatus from nuclear development quite a long time ago,” Short says. “Technology has evolved. Now we’re using that evolved technology to enhance designs and efficiency associated with nuclear fuel.”
The TerraPower reactor is a different design from most other reactors in the world. It’s a fast reactor, meaning it uses neutrons capable of releasing energy from U238 and not just from the relatively rare U235, which makes up less than 1% of natural uranium. They are also called breeder reactors because they can be used to create additional nuclear fuel such as plutonium. It’s not a new idea but Gates is betting that it’s an idea whose time has come:
The Natrium project, more than any other, offers the possibility to fulfill the nuclear community’s eighty-year-old nuclear dream to develop a nuclear power plant that can run on all mined uranium, not just on the relatively rare uranium-235 fissile isotope, as current reactors do, thereby vastly increasing fuel resources. It does this by first turning the inert uranium into plutonium and then using the plutonium as fuel. It can even “breed” excess plutonium to fuel new fast reactors. Those outside the nuclear community have no idea of the grip this captivating idea has on nuclear engineers’ minds. It has, however, serious practical drawbacks. What concerns us here is that plutonium is a nuclear explosive—a few kilograms are enough for a bomb, and it is an awful idea to have untold tons of it coursing through commercial channels.
Fast breeder reactors are not exactly a new idea. The DOE’s predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, pushed fast breeder reactors in the 1970s as the energy solution in what was thought to be a uranium-poor world. It turned out we live in a uranium-rich world, so the expensive project, whose safety problems had not been fully resolved, made no economic sense. Congress canceled the Clinch River Fast Breeder Reactor demonstration project in 1983. Enthusiasts tried but failed to revive fast reactors during the second Bush administration. That effort flopped. Now they are trying again with Natrium, a scaled-up version of a General Electric design for a small sodium-cooled, plutonium-fueled fast breeder reactor (natrium is German for sodium).
As mentioned, the other unique feature of TerraPower’s design is that it will use liquid salt instead of water for cooling. Liquid salt has a higher boiling point (nearly 900 Celsius) which means it can actually be used as an energy storage device. Here’s a brief video put together by TerraPower on the Natrium reactor:
A press release from TerraPower describes the planned reactor this way:
The project features a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. The storage technology can boost the system’s output to 500 MW of power for more than five and a half hours when needed, which is equivalent to the energy required to power around 400,000 homes.
If the Wyoming site is built on time and on budget, it could lead to the construction of similar reactors around the country.