Back in July Bill Gates’ nuclear energy company Terra Power was still trying to settle on one of four possible sites in Wyoming on which to build an innovative, small nuclear reactor called a Natrium reactor. At the time, it was believed Glenrock, Wyoming, a small town east of Casper, where an aging coal power plant was the largest local employer might be a leading contender. Today, Terra Power announced it had selected a different site, Kemmerer, Wyoming in the southwestern part of the state near the border with Utah.
TerraPower, a start-up co-founded by Bill Gates to revolutionize designs for nuclear reactors, has chosen Kemmerer, Wyoming, as the preferred location for its first demonstration reactor. It aims to build the plant in the frontier-era coal town by 2028.
Construction of the plant will be a job bonanza for Kemmerer, with 2,000 workers at its peak, said TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque in a video call with reporters Tuesday.
It will also provide new clean-energy jobs to a region dominated by the coal and gas industry. Today, a local power plant, a coal mine and a natural gas processing plant combined provide more than 400 jobs — a sizeable number for a region that has only around 3,000 residents…
The Kemmerer plant will be the first to use an advanced nuclear design called Natrium, developed by TerraPower with GE-Hitachi.
I’ve been to Kemmerer, Wyoming twice. It’s a very small town known for two things. First, it was the site of the very first JC Penney story which was opened by James Cash Penney in 1902. The store grew into a large national chain and one of the largest mail-order retailers in the country, though its fortunes have declined over the past few decades. Last year, JC Penney filed for bankruptcy and closed about a third of its locations.
The other thing Kemmerer is known for around the world is fossils. About 50 million years ago there was a large lake in what was then a sub-tropical environment. For some reason the fish, flora and even the occasional mammal that fell into the water were very well preserved in this location. The dig sites, which are now at relatively high elevations, produce thousands of fossils every year which are sold locally and around the world to collectors. That’s why I visited Kemmerer, first by myself and later with the entire family.
In any case, Kemmerer is a spectacularly beautiful place which doesn’t have a lot of jobs to support it. Adding 2,000 high paying jobs to the area, even temporarily, is going to be a huge boon to the town. The decision to place the new plant in Kemmerer, as opposed to three other sites, probably had to do with local infrastructure but having a cutting edge reactor built in a town best known for producing fossils is an interesting PR angle.
As for the reactor itself, the cost is expected to be $4 billion, half of which will come from Terra Power and the other half from the federal government. Initially it is designed to generate about 345 megawatts of power. The design is technically called a fast breeder reactor which means it can use readily available Uranium 238 instead of the relatively rare Uranium 235. The other unique feature of the reactor is that it uses molten salt for cooling instead of water. The hot salt is stored in large tanks which allow electricity to be generated from the accumulated heat whenever it’s needed. So, for instance, when wind power dies down or when the sun sets and solar power goes offline, the molten salt generated by the reactor could be called on to fill in the gap in power production. Here’s a brief video created by Terra Power about the project.