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TerraPower's CEO sees key role for advanced nuclear in clean energy transition

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TerraPower's CEO sees key role for advanced nuclear in clean energy transition

  • Author Zack Hale
  • Theme Energy
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"We think retraining of the coal plant workforce is totally possible," TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque said Nov. 9, 2021.
Source: TerraPower LLC

TerraPower LLC, the Bill Gates-backed nuclear innovation company, is poised to "change the face of nuclear energy" as power companies race to decarbonize their electric generation fleets while maintaining grid reliability, President and CEO Chris Levesque said Nov. 9.

The company is aiming to solve the challenge of how to provide enough clean, baseload generation as the U.S. power grid becomes increasingly dominated by variable renewable energy resources such as wind and solar.

In an interview on the sidelines of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., Levesque said TerraPower expects U.S. electricity demand to "at least" double by 2050. Meanwhile, electric utilities are steadily retiring older coal-fired generating units that power suppliers have traditionally relied upon.

Against that backdrop, TerraPower was selected by the U.S. Energy Department in October 2020 to demonstrate the commercial viability of its Natrium reactor, a 345-MW sodium fast reactor with a molten salt energy storage system.

The company, in partnership with Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiary PacifiCorp's Rocky Mountain Power division, is eyeing four towns in Wyoming with coal plants headed for retirement as potential sites to build the test reactor.

TerraPower's Natrium reactor is unique from traditional light-water nuclear reactors in that it can follow load, meaning the generator can quickly adjust its output in response to system conditions. Its molten salt energy storage system, designed to increase the facility's output to 500 MW for more than 5.5 hours, will also allow the generator to run at a high capacity factor even when electricity demand is low.

Sodium-cooled reactors already have roughly 400 reactor years of experience across the globe, but Levesque said the Natrium reactor's molten salt storage component is a technological breakthrough that occurred about three years ago. Now the technology needs to be proven through a successful demonstration project that enters service on time and within budget, the CEO said.

'Totally possible'

Levesque said sites housing existing coal-fired generators are ideal locations for future Natrium reactors because they are already interconnected to the grid.

"They have the grid connection at about the right power level, they have the cooling water, and importantly they have the human capital," Levesque said. The executive also noted that typical U.S. coal plants employ roughly the same number of workers — about 200 to 250 people — that TerraPower expects a Natrium reactor to require.

"We think retraining of the coal plant workforce is totally possible," Levesque said. "You might say, 'Oh, it's nuclear … it should be more complicated or harder,' but with advanced nuclear, it shouldn't be because we've shot for a plant that's simple."

TerraPower is already working with Rocky Mountain Power to install a Natrium reactor simulator to help train potential operators as the first facility is completing construction, Levesque said.

The company expects to announce the location of its first demonstration project by the end of 2021. The Wyoming towns under consideration are Glenrock, Gillette, Kemmerer and Rock Springs. Levesque said all four locations could eventually house Natrium reactors if the first project is a success.

Scaling challenges

Levesque said the U.S. will need further regulatory reforms at agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for TerraPower's technology to eventually be deployed at scale.

Under the DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, TerraPower's first demonstration project has a congressionally mandated seven-year development timeline.

That is "very fast by nuclear power plant standards, but if you go to other industries and talk about a seven-year project, that's long," Levesque said.

An ideal development timeline, including NRC licensing and construction, would be about four to five years, Levesque said. "It needs to really be competitive with other power plant projects."

TerraPower's ultimate goal is to partner with equipment manufacturers like GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Bechtel Corp. to produce hundreds of modular power generating units.

"We're not a giant company; we're a nuclear innovation company," Levesque said of the company's roughly 200-plus person size. "We need to partner with folks like GE Hitachi and Bechtel to achieve scale."

Levesque added that a recent boon for TerraPower was the passage last week of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to sign into law. The DOE initially awarded TerraPower $80 million in funding for its first demonstration project, with another $2 billion in grant funding subject to the availability of future appropriations. Levesque said the U.S. government's portion of the project is "virtually funded now."

"We have a really clear path, and we have the private investment ready as well," Levesque said.