Bill Gates is at the forefront to incentivize the production of clean energy and the reduction of carbon emissions, objectives set as part of the Breakthrough Energy Catalyst initiative in which an ever-increasing number is participating companies, including Microsoft. The founder of the Redmond company is also among those who consider it appropriate to invest in nuclear energy to partially remedy to the climate crisis. To give substance to the project, Gates has financed and is the chairman of the board of directors of TerraPower , a company committed in the construction of new generation nuclear fission reactors .
Last Tuesday was an important day for Gates and his TerraPower, because the site where the first nuclear reactor developed by the company based on the Natrium project. The plant will be located in Kemmer , in Wyoming , a US citizen of about 2. 500 inhabitants. The plant will replace the Naughton coal-fired power plant, which will be closed permanently in 2025. A handover to which a symbolic value can also be attributed: from the old to the new solutions for energy production. TerraPower’s first reactor from 345 megawatt will in fact introduce a series of innovative technologies that have never been used commercially.
One of the peculiarities of the reactor is that it is cooled with liquid sodium . One of the advantages is that sodium, unlike water, does not boil at any the temperatures at which it should be found in the reactor. None of the components that contain the refrigerant will therefore be subjected to high pressures, with advantages from the safety point of view because the risks of explosion are reduced.
Another non-negligible aspect concerns the fact that the cooling systems can operate without an external energy source, a circumstance that limits the dangers in the event of an emergency stop – think about the causes which led to the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 when a tsunami blocked the diesel generators that operated the system of backup cooling. The heat accumulated by the molten salt which acts as a refrigerant can then be stored and used to create more electricity through the generation of steam (this extra production capacity allows you to switch between 345 nominal megawatts up to 500 megawatt ).
TerraPower’s nuclear plants are smaller than those built with more conventional technologies. This means that construction and maintenance are faster and cheaper. The Kemmer reactor will cost 4 billion dollars , but in the future the figures needed to produce similar reactors will they could reduce as much as $ 1 billion. To generate energy, the reactor uses a high-dose, low-enriched uranium metal fuel (HALEU), a new class of nuclear fuel in which the content of uranium isotopes – 235 is greater than 5% but less than 20% – current operational nuclear reactors in the United States use uranium fuel – 235 enriched up to 5% and this circumstance gives rise to some concern. One of the peculiarities of the fuel is the ability to improve the performance of the reactor, which can thus be smaller in size. The plants built according to the Natrium project also produce less waste, a by-product of the problematic nuclear fission process to be disposed of. have gained the experience in the field necessary for the management of a nuclear reactor with sodium coolant. It is estimated that around the world around reactors based on this technology, many for research purposes only and a few still operational. The last operating in the United States was closed in 1994.
Like any new technology, despite the encouraging premises – to examine the details of the Natrium project (here the official website) it seems there are only advantages – it will be necessary to concretely ascertain how much this solution is concretely feasible, how much really safe and how justified (also in terms of costs) compared to other sources of clean energy production. However, it must be said that TerraPower is not alone in the development of the project: the company has been selected by the United States Department of Energy for the construction of the reactor, with an initial allocation of 180 Millions of dollars. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is also involved in the design, while Bechetel will contribute to the construction that will require a workforce equivalent to the 80% of the population of Kemmer. TerraPower plans to apply for authorization to start construction in 2023, the plant is expected to become operational in the next seven years .