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Bill Gates and others break ground on nuclear project in Kemmerer

Four men and one woman stand in front of a pile of dirt, holding shovels, on a blue sky day.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media

Bill Gates (middle), Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon (second to the left) and several other stakeholders break ground on TerraPower’s nuclear project near Kemmerer.

A longer version of the story looking at local impacts will air on Open Spaces and be posted online June 14. 

Construction on the highly anticipated Kemmerer nuclear project began this week, and the groundbreaking brought out one of the world’s richest people.

Around 300 people in suits, ties and dresses milled about in a giant white event tent, plopped down in the sagebrush desert about six miles south of Kemmerer. It was a mix of local and national energy stakeholders. Graphics reading “TerraPower” were scattered about – that’s the company behind the first of its kind nuclear reactor.

After about half an hour, the lights in the tent dimmed and people took their seats. In a single file line, the main players involved with the project walked out, including Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon, TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque, and TerraPower founder and multi-billionaire Bill Gates.

People craned their necks to get a glimpse of Gates. He spoke briefly.

A large white event tent sits on a patch of leveled dirt in the middle of sagebrush, with two black vans and two men nearby.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
The event tent at the Terrapower groundbreaking site, in the middle of the sagebrush desert outside of Kemmerer.

“It's kind of a dream. And here we are, making it a reality,” Gates said about the project, adding that in 2005 he and his physics friends started scheming.

They wanted to develop a clean, reliable and cost-efficient source of power. The answer? Nuclear. But, his friends had an idea to revolutionize it.

“They talked to me about how if you started anew and were willing to embrace innovation,” Gates said to the audience, “how if you use digital simulation, a different cooling method, got rid of the high pressure, that you could build something that was both safer and cheaper.”

Explanations of the technology can easily get very technical. But it comes down to size and water needed. Conventional nuclear power plants are massive and require a lot of water. TerraPower’s design, known as ‘Natrium’, is much smaller and uses liquid sodium to cool it, supplying enough energy to power anywhere from 250,000 - 400,000 homes.

“This reactor exists in a virtual mode, it's working really well inside the computer. Little bit harder to make it work out there,” Gates said. “But that's what we're starting on, starting today.”

If the pilot is proven, Gates promised many more reactors in both Wyoming and across the nation to help supply energy to the power grid.

“This is a big step towards safe, abundant, zero carbon energy,” Gates said.

Kemmerer was chosen as the project site in 2021. The area was long known for its coal, which was a key point for TerraPower. The company has marketed its nuclear vision as a way to revitalize boom and bust coal towns.

Gov. Gordon acknowledged this in his speech at the groundbreaking.

“When you talk about different sorts of energy supply, what are the ones that are going to keep communities alive?,” he said. “What are the ones that demonstrated commitment to community? And it's things like Natrium that are going to make the difference.”

A brown and green hill side with bushes and sagebrush on a blue sky day.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
The desert landscape nearby the site of the TerraPower project.

About 1,600 workers will help construct the facility. After that, TerraPower estimates there will be around 250 long term jobs. The opening date is set for 2030.

Things that still have to happen before then: local housing and infrastructure development for construction workers, federal approval of the nuclear construction permit (this week’s groundbreaking is for the non-nuclear portions of the project), federal approval of the operating license, and sourcing domestic fuel. The latter is because the reactor requires a special kind of highly enriched uranium. Right now it’s only made in Russia, which is no longer an option after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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