After decades on the back burner, the sweeping climate change bill recently signed by President Biden includes multiple initiatives boosting existing and future nuclear plants. California this week took steps to keep its last reactor from shutting down and Germany is taking similar actions.
And TerraPower, the next-gen nuclear power company backed by Bill Gates, announced a massive $750 million investment round in August.
TerraPower is building its first demonstration plant in Wyoming — a sodium-cooled fast reactor that includes a molten salt-based energy storage system that can act like a battery for short-term energy boosts. At maximum output, the Natrium reactor should be able to power 400,000 homes.
The $4 billion project is largely financed by the new funding plus more than $1 billion in Department of Energy (DOE) support through a public-private partnership. The 16-year-old company employs 370 people.
Marcia Burkey, chief financial officer for TerraPower. (TerraPower Photo)
Another company, X-energy, is building its own DOE-backed demonstration plant in Eastern Washington.
But while there’s momentum for nuclear, massive hurdles remain. There’s currently not a source for reactor fuel for TerraPower and many other new companies, thanks to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Federal regulators need to figure out the licensing for the cutting-edge reactors. And time is short: the two demo projects are supposed to start splitting atoms by 2028 under a schedule set by Congress.
We recently caught up with Marcia Burkey, chief financial officer for Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, to hear why she says theirs “will be the next reactor deployed in the U.S.” — and to address the challenges ahead. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
GeekWire: What part of the climate legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, will most help TerraPower?
Burkey: Among the most important things is the HALEU provision (short for high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel and pronounced hay-lou). That’s $700 million in support of HALEU. Today, Russia is the only place in the world that produces it.
By giving the [DOE] awards to two demonstration reactors, and other lower-tier awards that weren’t part of the two demonstrations, the U.S. government was committing to helping develop technologies that require HALEU. And so it was always the plan to have domestic capability and capacity. What this bill does is it really accelerates that domestic capability.