Bellevue-based TerraPower, chaired by Bill Gates, has received a $80 million federal Energy Department grant, the first installment of what is intended to be a seven-year effort to test, license and build its first advanced nuclear-reactor plant.
Possible U.S. locations for the plant include a site near Richland, where Energy Northwest, which is collaborating with TerraPower, operates Washington’s only commercial nuclear power plant, according to Energy Northwest officials.
The TerraPower design calls for a 350-megawatt nuclear unit to be coupled with a molten salt energy storage system. The goal of this technology — called Natrium — is the creation of a more flexible generating plant that, when demand surges, could tap into the heat in the molten salts to produce up to 500 megawatts of power.
“The award is a transformational event in nuclear energy,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president, who said such a plant would help meet the demand for firm power and storage to operate “in tandem with solar and wind.”
TerraPower is one of two companies awarded $80 million grants to each build next-generation nuclear power plants. This initial round of funding could, pending future congressional support for additional appropriations, eventually secure $3.2 billion in federal funds to , according to the Energy Department.
“These awards are a critical first step in a program that will strengthen our country’s nuclear industry,” said Energy Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette, in a statement release by the department.
TerraPower’s partners include GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Bechtel. TerraPower also will work with numerous utilities, including Duke Energy, PacifiCorp and Energy Northwest, to provide licensing, operations, maintenance and siting expertise, according to a statement from TerraPower.
The second company to receive an $80 million federal grant is Maryland-based X-energy, which also has selected Washington’s Energy Northwest as a collaborator. X-energy proposes to develop a four-unit, 320-megawatt plant that would use a specialized uranium-based pebble fuel and high-temperature helium gas to more efficiently produce heat and electricity.
If that plant goes forward, the Energy Northwest site at Hanford is the only location named in grant documents, according to Energy Northwest officials.
A partnership agreement with X-energy calls for Energy Northwest to assist with licensing the design, and if the Washington site is viable, “Energy Northwest expects to own and operate the plant, with the output provided to our public power partners to meet future retail load,” said a statement released by Energy Northwest,
Energy Northwest is a joint operating agency formed by the Washington state Legislature in 1957, and is now a consortium of 27 Washington public utility districts and municipalities that have more than 1.5 million customers.
Generating nuclear power does not produce the carbon emissions that drive climate change, and that has given it a boost in an era when some states, including Washington, are requiring utilities to phase out plants that produce greenhouse gas pollution. But the U.S. nuclear industry is dominated by aging plants, some of which have closed because they can’t compete in current electricity markets.
TerraPower was launched in 2008. A timeline on the company’s website lists milestones that include a 2015 memorandum of understanding with China for program development of traveling wave reactor technology. It also lists a 2016 $40 million Energy Department award to research and test a molten chloride fast reactor project.
X-energy was founded in 2009, and like TerraPower, seeks to develop nuclear technology that can be a part off a low-carbon energy future.
has sought to position itself as part of a clean energy future. X-energy was founded in 2009 to try to “reinvent nuclear energy.”
An Energy Department statement said both Terra Power and X-energy offer significant design innovations that improve on current nuclear power plants, and could help the U.S. develop a new portfolio of reactors for global markets.
Federal grants to TerraPower and X-energy are expected to pay about half the costs of building each of the two nuclear power plants, and cover initial design and licensing activities, said Greg Cullen, general manager of Energy Services and Development for Energy Northwest.
Cullen is hopeful that both projects will develop economically viable nuclear plants as options to natural gas and coal-fired power plants, which are expected to be largely phased out in Washington state under a law that requires zero-carbon emissions by 2045.
If Energy Northwest was tapped to operate one or both of the plants, there would need to be support from the region’s public utilities to purchase the power. Energy Northwest would also need to obtain financing for the rest of the cost, according to Cullen.