TerraPower breaks ground for nuclear power plant

Gates in Kemmerer for ceremony

KEMMERER — Monday, June 10, may have started like a normal day for Kemmerer, but as black vans rolled in single file to pick up more than 200 people to shuttle them to the official TerraPower groundbreaking ceremony, it was apparent this was no ordinary day.

Heavy excavating equipment set against the big open sky with the Naughton coal plant — which is scheduled for retirement — across the way, served as an appropriate backdrop for the event.

Attached to a dozer and an excavator were the American and Wyoming flags, which blew gently in the breeze at the location of America’s first-ever advanced nuclear Natrium plant located in Kemmerer.

With shovels poised in the dirt, the event marked a historic moment as guests mingled and music played, all waiting to hear from Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates, who started TerraPower in 2008 with the goal of developing safe and cost-effective nuclear reactors to increase America’s energy security and fight climate change.

TerraPower CEO and President Chris Levesque took the podium and said he wanted to state how impressed he was with the support and high energy competence of the Wyoming region.

“We received a warm welcome,” he said, noting that adjacent to the site was the Naughton coal plant that has been in operation for over 60 years.

Reminiscing about early negotiations of Kemmerer’s candidacy for the place of next-generation nuclear technology, Levesque said, “That trust and cooperation has continued now for three years.”

Proudly noting that Kemmerer will be the place for the first advanced nuclear reactor in the world, he said, “Kemmerer Unit 1 is going to make history, and Wyoming will be a part of that.”

Some of the most notable features of the reactor are that it is smaller, cheaper and happening in small-town Wyoming.

Part of the cutting-edge technology includes liquid sodium — rather than water — as a coolant.

The project, however, is by no means a cheap endeavor and would not be possible without the strong backing of Gates.

“The ground we broke in Kemmerer will soon be the bedrock of America’s energy future,” Gates said at the ceremony. “I’m thrilled to see so much economic growth happening, because Kemmerer will soon be home to the most advanced nuclear facility in the world.”

Gates said that, in 2005, he took interest in nuclear energy and, in talking with his physics friends, learned that starting anew, embracing innovation and introducing a new cooling method could allow for a safer, cleaner and cheaper model of nuclear power.

“So, we started this company with a very bold idea that has revolutionized nuclear power. Ever since then we have been making progress,” he said.

“This is a big step toward safe, abundant, zero-carbon energy. It is important for the future of our country that projects like this succeed,” Gates said. “I’m thrilled that Kemmerer and Diamondville stepped up to be great partners and have been very welcoming.”

He also said this is a chance to build on the work from the past.

“I think this project will keep Kemmerer prosperous for decades to come,” Gates said, noting that more reactors could be built in the town in the future. “You are the pioneers that are going to make that happen.”

Another unique feature of the reactor is the ability to adjust its output to accommodate intermittent energy produced by wind and solar, creating a more balanced electrical grid.

Until recently, the project has been in concept only, as construction of the nuclear site just began in May.

Levesque said the project has not been very visible because TerraPower’s team has been focused on design.

After the recent acceptance from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of TerraPower’s construction permit application, the ball got rolling for non-nuclear construction.

Showing gratitude for the community’s trust in TerraPower while there was no visible progress, Levesque said, “As we mobilize today, we will have a continuous construction presence at this site until construction is completed in 2030.”

He said TerraPower plans to operate the plant for over 60 years.

“This marks the beginning of a whole new story of Wyoming’s energy future,” he said.

Bechtel Project Manager Mark Romano said now that construction at the site has started, people are realizing it is really happening.

“It is a key milestone for the project to be able to start construction,” he said.

The large sodium test facility, a non-nuclear building that will be adjacent to the Natrium plant, will allow testing of critical components using molten sodium, the same element used in the Natrium reactor.

“We have the environmental assessment for the test facility and now we are doing permitting for Kemmerer Unit 1,” Romano said.

He also said they hope to begin construction for the training facility near the entrance of the site around 2025.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, who is outspoken about diversifying Wyoming’s energy sources with an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, also spoke at the ceremony. Thanking Gates and Lincoln County for their commitment to providing reliable energy, Gordon said the country is experiencing tremendous amounts of electrical demand from data centers and artificial intelligence.

Gordon said Natrium is an energy source that will keep the local economy going and commended the state’s university and community colleges for pivoting in that direction.

“Forces have aligned; growth and change is happening,” he said.

Gordon used a quote that he attributed to James Cash Penney: “I have learned that good things come to those who wait, but you better hustle while you are waiting.”

Like J.C. Penney bet on Kemmerer for the humble beginnings of his empire, TerraPower is also betting that it will serve as the place of the world’s first Natrium nuclear plant.

 

 

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