Bill Gates-backed nuclear reactor delayed by at least 2 years, thanks to reliance on Russia

This could serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. to stop relying on adversaries for its resources.
Sade Agard
Bill Gates sitting for an interview
Bill Gates sitting for an interview

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TerraPower, a company backed by Bill Gates, will have delays of at least two years for its advanced reactor demonstration. This comes following the Ukraine war, which ended a trading connection with Russia- its sole fuel supplier. 

The company aimed to deliver power sustainably via its first reactor, Natrium, by 2028 in the Wyoming mining town of Kemmerer.

"The only commercial source of HALEU fuel"

The CEO of TerraPower, Chris Levesque, announced in a newsletter distributed on Wednesday (Dec .14) to subscribers, "TerraPower submitted a plan to meet this timeline, which assumed the use of HALEU (high-assay low-enriched uranium) from Russia for our first core load."

"However, in February 2022, Russia's invasion of Ukraine caused the only commercial source of HALEU fuel to no longer be a viable part of the supply chain."

Levesque revealed that in the ten months following the invasion, TerraPower, the Department of Energy (DOE), project stakeholders, and allies in Congress had vigorously investigated potential other sources for HALEU. 

However, it has now become apparent that domestic and affiliated HALEU manufacturing options won't achieve commercial capacity in time to satisfy Natrium's 2028 in-service date.

Delayed by a minimum of two years

"Given the lack of fuel availability now, and that there has been no construction started on new fuel enrichment facilities, TerraPower is anticipating a minimum of a two-year delay to being able to bring the Natrium reactor into operation," he said.

Significantly, the advanced nuclear reactor design uses high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, which is known to be far more enriched than that used in conventional nuclear reactors- up to 20 percent more. Nuclear energy supporters also believe that the technology produces less nuclear waste.

The existing fleet of nuclear reactors in the United States runs uranium-235 fuel enriched up to only 5 percent. Therefore it was concluded that the country lacked "the enrichment capacity to supply commercial amounts of HALEU fuel" to Terrapower. 

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As a result, the conpany had "assumed the use of HALEU from Russia for [their] first core load."

A wake up call for the U.S.

Still, Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming suggests this should be a wake-up call for America, according to a recent press release.

In response to TerraPower's announcement, he declared, "[This] underscores what I've been saying for years: America must reestablish itself as the global leader in nuclear energy."

"Instead of relying on our adversaries like Russia for uranium, the United States must produce its own supply of advanced nuclear fuel."

The press release also shared that Barrasso sent a letter to Joe Manchin, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, asking for a hearing on the availability of HALEU.

The letter argues that there are "sufficient stockpiles of excess and previously used uranium to meet TerraPower's needs." 

He criticizes DOE for failing to act quickly enough to guarantee a domestic supply of HALEU writing, "if DOE took a comprehensive approach and pursued multiple pathways it is feasible that DOE could produce sufficient HALEU to minimize schedule delays for Terrapower and other advanced nuclear reactors."

What we already know about Terrapower

Initially, Interesting engineering (IE) reported that TerraPower received an 80 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) two years ago to test its technology. The energy storage technology used in the advanced nuclear reactor is based on molten salt. It is being developed in collaboration with General Electric-Hitachi. It uses a sodium-cooled fast reactor. 

In June (2021) Terrapower decided to set up its demonstration plant in Wyoming, Natrium. Shortly after, this was approved, with the site being a coal-fired power plant scheduled for a shutdown by 2025.

Since then, Natrium has attracted four billion dollars in funding, with the U.S. Department of Energy providing half of it.

The prime role of the Natrium demonstration plant is to validate the design, development, and operation of TerraPower's technology. The plan is to have a baseload power of 345 megawatts, possibly increasing to 500 megawatts.

Now, 800 engineers are working on the plant's design. TerraPower will employ as many as 2,000 people to construct the facility by the middle of the 2020s (hopefully).