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A Q&A with the Kemmerer Nuclear Project’s CEO

TerraPower will build its Natrium demonstration reactor at a retiring coal plant in Wyoming.
TerraPower will build its Natrium demonstration reactor at a retiring coal plant in Wyoming.

TerraPower is a nuclear company started by Bill Gates. It is building its first nuclear reactor, with a technology called Natrium, in Kemmerer. It will be the first of its kind not only in Wyoming but in the U.S.

The reactor will replace a retiring coal plant, and eventually when it is complete in 2028, one of Wyoming’s main electric utility suppliers, PacifiCorp, will operate it.

TerraPower’s CEO Chris Levesque recently sat down with Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan to explain the project and what is to come.

Caitlin Tan: Well, Chris, thanks for joining us in the studio today. Could you give folks a little bit of a primer and background on what makes Natrium technology so exciting, and some of the goals of the project?

Chris Levesque: It's a smaller reactor; it's about a third of the size of what we call the gigawatt scale reactor. So Natrium will have an output of 345 megawatts. So that's enough for something like 400,000 homes.

And then another really different thing about Natrium compared to today's reactors is it has energy storage. So with the big expansion of wind and solar, and the retirement of a lot of our fossil-powered plants, that's creating a stress on the grid, because coal is known for running 24/7 and being very reliable. And as we retire that 24/7 power and add lots of wind and solar, you're introducing more intermittent generation – stuff that can come and go. So that's really a challenge for utilities like PacifiCorp.

What they've seen in Natrium is that combination of providing the 24/7 steady baseload power, plus having the ability to increase our power to 500 megawatts for a few hours each day, and that's what's enabled by the energy storage aspect of the plant. That's, like, the ideal solution for PacifiCorp and other utilities.

CT: Can you give us any updates on what's going on with TerraPower in Kemmerer? Last we heard, there was $750 million raised, and part of that is going to help with the development of the nuclear reactor. Anything else you can share?

CL: That capital raise that TerraPower just announced was really successful. That was, like, a test, to say, “Hey, what's the confidence in this project? But also the ability of this project to turn into many other Natrium reactors.” But some other important things even before the recent capital raise are that this first Natrium plant is being built in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. So there's a program called the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program that was created because it's very hard to do one of these projects for the first time.

We appreciate [that] Wyoming wants to host this first project, but we also set it up so Wyoming ratepayers aren't going to be taking a risk that they shouldn't have to take.

CT: Do you see future projects in Wyoming?

CL: Oh, absolutely. There's going to be an increase in electricity needs. Electricity demand in the U.S. has been pretty flat over the last 30 years, because we've had efficiencies, LED lights, and we've lost a lot of manufacturing. But if you think of the next 30 years, we're going to have all these electric vehicles. So we think electricity demand is going to double in the U.S. between now and 2050. So it's going to be really dynamic. So there'll be a big need for these reactors all across the U.S. and overseas as well.

CT: Why did the company choose Wyoming for the first project?

CL: Two years ago we were thrilled to competitively win the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program grant. We started to look at different states that had retiring fossil assets, where there was a need for a new generation. After a period of time, Wyoming started looking like a better and better candidate. We also found people in Wyoming to be super knowledgeable on big projects and energy, which made it a lot easier.

CT: I want to talk about the inflation Reduction Act – a big piece of legislation recently passed by Congress. There are quite a few nuclear provisions in there. How do you envision it impacting the TerraPower project?

CL: Some people will say, “Gee, do we really need all the federal investment in nuclear energy?” And I would say, “We do.” The big reason we do is we're competing globally with government-owned companies in Russia and China. So to remain competitive in an industry that is geopolitically strategic – nuclear energy – we really need to do things in partnership with the government.

One thing we were missing was some investment in a new fuel supply chain. Natrium will use a higher enriched nuclear fuel called HALEU. China and Russia, sadly, have already developed this capacity and we haven't.

And so two key things in the inflation Reduction Act. One was significant funding for HALEU capacity development in the U.S. So that establishes that we're going to have U.S.-based fuel for Natrium. As you know, the Russian invasion of Ukraine really brought a lot of eyes to the importance of energy security and knowing where your fuel is coming from, and knowing where your components are coming from. Also, there are tax credits, which will make it much easier for companies like PacifiCorp to invest in new Natrium plants.

CT: Some thing I've heard anecdotally from people, there's kind of a fear of nuclear. How would you address that?

CL: Nuclear isn't well understood by a lot of folks. The industry needs to do better at explaining ourselves and explaining the technology, like the safety record of today's 92 operating reactors. Some of them are going on 50 years old, and they've just been operating in the background providing 20 percent of our electricity. So we need to keep working on that, helping people understand nuclear.

Wyoming is a great place because you have that high energy IQ. So you can explain things and people are like, “Oh, yeah, I get it.”

I've spent my whole career in nuclear energy, first as a submarine officer and then working on civilian projects. So I've always associated nuclear energy with something that kept me safe. You know, when I was on submarines, it brought us back to the surface, it helped us make water. But we have more work to do to explain our story to the public.

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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