Bill Gates tours Kemmerer plant, says nuclear facility will help relieve energy problems

Bill Gates speaks to local residents and officials at the Best Western in Kemmerer. Gates’ nuclear development company TerraPower is planning to build a first-of-its-kind reactor at a site outside of town. This was Gates’ first visit to Kemmerer. (GAZETTE PHOTO/Rana Jones)

KEMMERER — Bill Gates had an event-filled day in Kemmerer on Friday, May 5, as he toured the Naughton Power Plant, saw the site where TerraPower will build a nuclear reactor and stopped by the Fossil Fuel Coffee shop before a press conference in the afternoon.

TerraPower president and CEO Chris Levesque thanked everyone for their support.

“We have noticed people in Wyoming have a high energy IQ,” Levesque told a packed room at the Best Western Fossil Country Inn. “You have been powering our country and economy with energy for decades and that makes this a great place to build this plant and develop this technology.”

Gov. Mark Gordon was in attendance, along with Wyoming’s lone U.S. Rep Harriet Hageman, who was in Kemmerer for a town hall meeting she held Friday morning.

Levesque introduced TerraPower Chairman and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, who was greeted with a round of applause. Gates said he looks forward to seeing the nuclear plant as it becomes reality and is thrilled to start a partnership with the community of Kemmerer.

“There are a lot of skills here that come from electric generation,” Gates said. “Today I learned that 80% of the skill sets in our plant are the skills that would come from any form of electric generation; 20% are going to be unique, so we have Western Wyoming Community College talking about training to make sure that piece goes well.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Gates said, “This is a very innovative plant design making nuclear even safer and more economic without large complex overruns and less waste. This is a design that has been 12 years in the making, and part of the reason it is such a powerful design is we are in an age where you can simulate all aspects of the reactor and test out the temperature and extreme conditions such as earthquakes.”

Aside from simulation, Gates acknowledged the project will likely see some bumps in the road.

“We will have challenges building it in real life, but we have put a lot of innovation in this to keep it simple and make sure we don’t run into surprises as we move along. Because this is the first of its kind, this plant is pioneering a lot of things. The dream is that this plant design will be used throughout the United States.”

TerraPower plans to use the design in other areas where there are coal plants converting to nuclear energy. Gates said there are first, second and third generation nuclear plants that are retiring over the next few decades and the company will look to mimic the model plant in Kemmerer.

“Getting things right here will be a big part of how we keep electricity reliable and keep the United States at the forefront of providing energy technology to the entire world. The United States has had some challenges with energy security, and bringing nuclear into the mix is going to help relieve those problems,” Gates said.

Gates expressed gratitude to the community, saying, “Thank you for your support and feedback. We are committed to the project and working closely with you. We are committed to listening to and addressing concerns. This will be exciting to create together.”

TerraPower Director of Plant Delivery Mark Werner gave an overview of the nuclear facility design. Werner said the test facility will be the first building on-site and will be operational while the rest of the plant is being constructed. Here they will be testing and qualifying equipment such as reactor coolant pumps, control drive mechanisms, and refueling equipment inside the reactor. These will be tested at temperatures equivalent to what is inside the reactor.

“This is a sophisticated facility,” Werner said. “There is none other like it in the country.”

He said the facility will be operated by about 30 to 40 engineers and operators.

In regard to fuel waste, Werner told the Gazette, “Much like traditional nuclear power plants, we refuel the reactor at some interval. Discharged fuel rods come out, we clean them of the sodium and put them in our spent fuel pool.”

The site will be able to store up to 10 years of spent fuel, at which point it goes into a dry cask system.

“The dry cask storage tanks are extremely robust,” Werner said. “Every nuclear power plant in the U.S. has them.”     

There was a question and answer session to conclude the TerraPower presentation. Gates responded to being asked about Wyoming’s role in the future of energy by saying, “There are people here that understand better than I the strengths of Wyoming’s energy — whether it is coal, natural gas, wind, solar or nuclear. Wyoming has strengths that it brings to every one of those forms of energy. I made a trip with Warren Buffett to the Powder River Basin, and that was fascinating. There are amazing companies there doing their work.”

Other questions that came up addressed utilizing the power generated by nuclear energy. Gates said, “The infrastructure is here. Over time, if the state is going to be transporting more power, the transmission capabilities will have to get even stronger.”

He also reiterated the necessity for proper training.

“The issue about skills is important,” Gates said, “and it is great to see the workforce training coming together.”

Levesque said he knows there is much anticipation about the nuclear project but as of yet there is not a great deal of activity in Kemmerer. He said most of the effort is still offsite, with around 900 engineers working on the project.

Concerning economic development, Levesque said, “There is a lot that will be coming Kemmerer’s way. There are many studies that nuclear plants are a great source of local tax revenue.”

He mentioned other communities with nuclear plants that have quality fire stations, police stations and schools.

“These communities have really well-paying jobs,” Levesque said. “We are proud to be enabling that for Kemmerer. We look forward to making power and helping this community pivot and be a part of creating a new future.”

TerraPower Vice President and Project Director Tara Neider said they are still on schedule with the project to be complete by 2030. The energy permit will be submitted by next spring to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Neider said they hope to get it granted by 2026. TerraPower will also have to submit an operating license after construction, as fuel cannot be loaded in the plant without licensing in hand.

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