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TerraPower's Wyoming project could be America's next nuclear reactor

A rendering of TerraPower's Natrium advanced nuclear reactor in Wyoming

A rendering of an advanced nuclear reactor planned in Kemmerer, Wyo. Image: Courtesy of TerraPower

America's next new nuclear reactor could be built in Wyoming by TerraPower, the advanced nuclear energy developer co-founded by tech billionaire Bill Gates.

Why it matters: Advanced nuclear projects have struggled to move forward in the U.S., hit by financing constraints and a slow-moving regulatory process.

Driving the news: Last Friday, TerraPower said it filed an application for a construction license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for Unit 1 of its Natrium reactor demonstration project in Kemmerer, Wyo.

  • TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque tells Axios the submitted application makes TerraPower's project the only advanced nuclear plant currently in front of the NRC for a construction permit and "the next reactor scheduled to go online in the U.S."
  • The project "will be America's next reactor online in 2030," said Levesque.

Zoom in: The NRC confirmed with Axios that it received the application and said it's checking it for protected information before it's made public.

  • A spokesperson for the NRC said that it usually takes several weeks to determine whether an application is complete enough for a full technical review.
  • If TerraPower's application is complete, the NRC will start its technical work and give TerraPower an estimate for reaching a decision on the permit. Generally, technical reviews take about 36 months.
  • TerraPower's application will be the first time the NRC reviews an application for a commercial nuclear power plant using a sodium-cooled design.

Yes, but: Advanced small nuclear reactors like the one TerraPower plans to build have a history of getting delayed in the U.S.

  • NuScale was going to be the first American SMR, but the company ended up canceling the project as costs soared in November.
  • Other contenders for the next reactor include the restart of the shuttered Palisades plant in Michigan and the Tennessee Valley Authority's plan to deploy an SMR from GE Hitachi.
  • TerraPower's own project was previously delayed by two years because at the time Russia was the only source of fuel it needed (called high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU).

How it works: TerraPower's Natrium reactor design uses liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water, which the company says lowers costs.

  • The company has raised almost $1 billion and has a commitment for close to $2 billion from the Department of Energy to build the reactor.
  • Utility PacifiCorp will own and operate the plant as part of its energy generation fleet.

The big picture: The number of planned advanced modular nuclear projects globally has grown by over 65% over the last three years as power companies and countries turn to nuclear as a crucial carbon-free form of reliable power.

  • Long queues for transmission lines for solar and wind have also made next-gen nuclear an interesting option.
  • Yet construction costs have soared in recent years, partly due to inflation. Construction costs for the NuScale projects climbed from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion.

What's next: TerraPower will have to submit a separate application for a license to operate its reactor.

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