Could we be witnessing nuclear power’s comeback?
After decades on the back burner, the sweeping climate change bill recently signed by President Biden includes multiple initiatives boosting existing and future nuclear plants. California this week took steps to keep its last reactor from shutting down and Germany is taking similar actions.
And TerraPower, the next-gen nuclear power company backed by Bill Gates, announced a massive $750 million investment round in August.
TerraPower is building its first demonstration plant in Wyoming — a sodium-cooled fast reactor that includes a molten salt-based energy storage system that can act like a battery for short-term energy boosts. At maximum output, the Natrium reactor should be able to power 400,000 homes.
The $4 billion project is largely financed by the new funding plus more than $1 billion in Department of Energy (DOE) support through a public-private partnership. The 16-year-old company employs 370 people.
Another company, X-energy, is building its own DOE-backed demonstration plant in Eastern Washington.
But while there’s momentum for nuclear, massive hurdles remain. There’s currently not a source for reactor fuel for TerraPower and many other new companies, thanks to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Federal regulators need to figure out the licensing for the cutting-edge reactors. And time is short: the two demo projects are supposed to start splitting atoms by 2028 under a schedule set by Congress.
We recently caught up with Marcia Burkey, chief financial officer for Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, to hear why she says theirs “will be the next reactor deployed in the U.S.” — and to address the challenges ahead. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
GeekWire: What part of the climate legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, will most help TerraPower?
Burkey: Among the most important things is the HALEU provision (short for high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel and pronounced hay-lou). That’s $700 million in support of HALEU. Today, Russia is the only place in the world that produces it.
By giving the [DOE] awards to two demonstration reactors, and other lower-tier awards that weren’t part of the two demonstrations, the U.S. government was committing to helping develop technologies that require HALEU. And so it was always the plan to have domestic capability and capacity. What this bill does is it really accelerates that domestic capability.
What gives you confidence that you’ll be able to meet your timelines and stay within budget?
Burkey: Yeah, it’s a legitimate concern. But if you look back decades, you’ll see that the U.S. has built power plants in five years or less. So we have experience doing it. And what gives me confidence is that our team is really working to try to use ready supply where available [versus all custom-made materials].
And we have a “whole-of-government” support behind us. So when there are issues that are bottle necked — what just happened on HALEU is a perfect example of that — when the Biden administration says whole-of-government, they really mean it.
And what about licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)?
Burkey: The NRC has never licensed a reactor of this kind. But I can see already in our work with them they’re very committed to trying to do what they can to stay within this demonstration schedule, because it was Congress that picked the seven years [timeline].
GW: What’s your trajectory, looking ahead?
Burkey: The U.S. invented nuclear. This will show that we can reinvigorate and continue to have a leadership role in the U.S. and in advanced nuclear.
We’ve had mission driven, courageous and committed investors, but we are a privately held company, we’re a for-profit company. So we need to sell commercial plants and earn a fair return for them. So in the 2020s we demonstrate [the technology], in the 2030s we sell the commercial reactors and reinvigorate that market to at least hold to 50%, if not greater, of [U.S.] carbon-free electricity provided by nuclear.
GW: Your goal is to bring the cost down from $4 billion to $1 billion for a reactor. How is that possible?
Burkey: With a demonstration, there are many first-of-a-kind things we have to build. There’s quite an expensive fuel fabrication facility that won’t be developed a second time. We have to get the NRC license, for instance. So there are many first-of-a-kind costs in the $4 billion that don’t recur in the commercial plant, which is typical in technology development.
GW: Are there limitations as to where you can build reactors?
Burkey: Access to shipping by rail, barge, or road for some of the fabricated parts is really important. It certainly helps if there is a strategy, either in a state or in a nation, to decarbonize, creating the urgency to deploy. We think that markets that need high reliability power, like data centers and steel and concrete that are big power users [are a fit.] We do need water, we need a grid, we need a stable geologic site.
GW: Is there a chance that you will wind up in Washington state? I know the Tri-Cities were so eager to have you out there.
Burkey: Quite possibly. Energy Northwest (which runs Washington’s sole nuclear reactor) is one of our partners and they bring much to the table on aspects of licensing and operations, for instance. So I think it is possible. I would love to see one in our state.
And the U.S. market generally is where we’re going to focus our initial attention, but clearly we’re talking to other markets around the globe.