Idaho National Lab director joins Bill Gates at future Natrium reactor site


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Jun 03, 2023

Idaho National Lab director joins Bill Gates at future Natrium reactor site

Idaho National Laboratory Director John Wagner participated in a May 5 community

Idaho National Laboratory Director John Wagner participated in a May 5 community meeting in Kemmerer, Wyoming, with Bill Gates, TerraPower founder and chairman, to share plans for the Natrium reactor and integrated storage system.

"I am proud to be investing in a next generation nuclear power plant in Kemmerer and supporting the state of Wyoming as an energy leader in the U.S.," Gates said in a news release. "TerraPower's Natrium reactor is an example of how energy innovation can create jobs and strengthen the American economy. That's why I am so excited to be here talking about the project with the community leaders that are making it happen."

"The (Natrium) project features a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system," a TerraPower news release said. The facility can provide up to 500 MW of electricity for 5.5 hours during peak demand times, which can power 400,000 homes.


"The entire world is watching this particular project," Wagner said. "It's because of the technology being demonstrated, of course Bill Gates adds a lot to that; the teaming with PacifiCorp who is a serious entity; and the potential future — this could be the first of many, potentially hundreds of coal sites that are repurposed for nuclear — so there's a lot at stake here."

Rocky Mountain Power is a subsidiary of PacifiCorp.

In preparation for the project, TerraPower has been collaborating with Idaho National Laboratory since 2013 to design and fabricate nuclear fuel.

"Idaho National Laboratory is critical to our project in a number of ways," said Jeff Navin, TerraPower's director of external affairs. "The first is the EBR-I and EBR-II, both sodium-cooled reactors, (which) operated for many years at INL. The data that we’ve been able to use and the learning from those experiences really drove our decision to choose this technology and have continued to inform how we think about designing this reactor to take advantage of these learnings."

TerraPower works with around 900 engineers worldwide on the Natrium project and reactor design.

"TerraPower was really a pioneer advanced reactor company," Wagner said. "They were the first in terms of a non-light water advanced reactor company. … They quickly understood that they had to work with the national laboratories. … They understood that they needed to go to the experts at Idaho and at Argonne for both the expertise, the knowledge as well as the data and the facilities to be able to advance their design and their licensing basis."

As a Generation IV non-light water reactor, the Natrium project is about one-third the size of larger U.S. reactors and will provide "better economics, improved fuel utilization, higher operating temperatures for industrial process heat applications and integrated energy storage systems, and the ability to close the fuel cycle," Natrium's website states.

The Wyoming project is being funded as part of a public-private partnership. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $80 million to TerraPower for the Natrium demonstration project in 2020, according to the Natrium website. The reactor's technology is being developed jointly with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. Bechtel serves as an engineering and construction contractor for the project.

Kemmerer is a community of about 2,400 people located a three-and-a-half hour drive from Idaho Falls. The project will be built near a retiring coal facility owned by PacifiCorp. Construction of the facility will generate 1,600 jobs, and 250 full-time employees will operate the plant when it is completed, its website said. It is scheduled to open in 2030.

"Their goal is to employ all of the current coal workers on this site, if they want to be employed at the nuclear site," Wagner said. "They are looking at the infrastructure, the grid access and so forth for what it brings to the project."

The May 5 meeting attracted high-level leaders including Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, PacifiCorp's Rocky Mountain Power President and CEO Gary Hoogeveen, and Natrium Project Director Tara Neider.

"Bill Gates toured the existing coal site," Wagner said. "He toured the new site and met with local community leaders and the coal plant site workers, talking about what they think and answering their questions."

In an October news release, TerraPower and PacifiCorp announced that they would study the feasibility of building "up to five additional Natrium reactor and integrated energy storage systems" by 2035. Locations are being considered at the sites of five retiring coal plants — including two sites in Hunter and Huntington, Utah, and three plants in Wyoming.

The Department of Energy issued a report in September that found hundreds of coal plants "could convert to nuclear power plant sites, adding new jobs, increasing economic benefit and significantly improving environmental conditions."

PacifiCorp supplies power to 2 million consumers. It operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming and Pacific Power in Washington, Oregon and California.

"PacifiCorp and TerraPower have a combined commitment to providing low-cost, carbon-free energy solutions, while maintaining grid reliability and integrating dispatchable power that can support intermittent energy resources," said Gary Hoogeveen, Rocky Mountain Power president and CEO, in the release.

Increasing demand for low-carbon emitting energy domestically and globally could make the Natrium project a model for the nation.

"We’re really happy to see there's so much activity in nuclear that's really happening in the Rocky Mountain West — our plant in Kemmerer, the NuScale project to be built in Idaho selling power into Utah, and these two additional plants in Utah as well," Navin said. "… We very much look forward to be able to provide affordable, clean carbon-free energy to the region.

"Having INL in that region to help us address people's concerns and also help us build enthusiasm for nuclear power has always been very much appreciated."

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