Gates-backed nuclear plant breaks ground without guarantee it'll have fuel

TerraPower's atomic facility needs lots of low-enriched uranium and who mainly makes it ... ah, jeez

Unwilling to let a little thing like reality stand in its way, Bill Gates' TerraPower has broken ground on its Wyoming nuclear power plant without any guarantee it'll have the fuel needed to run the thing once it's finished. 

The Microsoft tycoon made no mention of that supply issue in a memo he published on Monday announcing the ground breaking in the former coal town of Kemmerer in western Wyoming.

Instead of dwelling on the fact that the world's large-scale producers of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) – needed for the plant's liquid-sodium-cooled reactor – are right now located in Russia and China and that difficulties in getting that fuel into the United States have already delayed his project, Gates chose instead to wax philosophical about the future of nuclear energy.

"As I looked at the plans for this new reactor [before the founding of TerraPower in 2006], I saw how rethinking nuclear power could overcome the barriers that had hindered it — and revolutionize how we generate power in the US and around the world," Gates, who co-founded TerraPower, wrote.

"That technology was just an idea in a lab and on a computer screen until today." 

We note that the reactor which so captivated the Windows billionaire prior to TerraPower's founding is still just an idea in a lab, however. The original plan was for TerraPower to develop a traveling-wave reactor (TWR) that slowly burns columns of depleted uranium as a safe power source. 

TerraPower planned to have an experimental TWR online in 2022, which never happened. Instead, the biz turned its focus away from TWR to the HALEU-fueled "Natrium" sodium fast reactor now under early construction in Wyoming, trading a development impediment for a fuel one. 

Two years ago, there was only a single concern in the US able to produce the needed HALEU fuel. Not much has improved on the nuclear fuel front since then, as President Biden signed a total ban on Russian uranium imports just last month, meaning US companies won't be able to go to Russia, at least, for their HALEU ingredients.

We can't imagine procuring HALEU from China will be particularly fun for American entities, either, assuming the Middle Kingdom can produce the goods at all at scale.

The one business we're aware of in the US producing HALEU fuel - American Centrifuge Operating (ACO) - only shifted its first HALEU in November 2023 - and a mere 20 kilograms of it at that. ACO parent Centrus reported it produced an additional 135kg in the first quarter of 2024, but that's still not enough.

The US Dept of Energy reckons America needs more than 40 metric tons of the stuff by the end of the decade to "deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors," and that amount is just for starters: Additional fuel will be needed each year. If ACO continued to produce 135kg of fuel each quarter for the rest of the decade, we'd still only be at around three metric tons by 2030.

Luckily, Centrus tells us it's ready to start scaling up production as soon as it gets necessary funding from the federal government. 

"There's a request for proposal out right now for the DoE's HALEU availability program," Centrus VP of corporate communications Dan Leistikow told The Register. Proposals were due back in March, Leistikow said, and he expects to hear something back within the next few months. 

"We can be at a commercial scale within four years of receiving funding," Leistikow said. 

There's also a British HALEU plant on the cards, scheduled to go online in the early 2030s, which might be able to supply the likes of TerraPower in America.

ACO is right now producing its samples of fuel from a demonstration cascade – a set of centrifuges working in tandem to produce enriched uranium – that is quite small, we're told, hence the limited production capacity. If ACO gets the DoE funding it desires, the business could begin work on a cascade that can output approximately six metric tons of HALEU per year, an installation that would take about 42 months to build.

Six months after the first proper cascade is operational, a second 6 MT cascade could be completed, Leistikow said. After that, ACO hopes to reach a one-cascade-every-two-months pace until it reaches a satisfactory production level of enriched uranium. 

Gates noted that construction has begun at Kemmerer on non-nuclear parts of the facility, with plans to begin building the "energy island" that will house the turbines and power-generating machinery next year. Construction on the "nuclear island" portion of the facility will begin in 2026, Gates said, and the plan is still to bring the plant online by 2030. (He had to use island, didn't he?)

ACO getting that Dept of Energy funding will determine in a big way whether whether Gates' plans have the possibility of coming to fruition. Leistikow told us ACO is still the only independent company in the Western world producing HALEU fuel, putting it in a pretty good position to get the nod from Uncle Sam. 

That's still one tight timeline

When TerraPower announced in late 2022 that its now-HALEU-based Wyoming plant had been delayed due to being able to secure uranium fuel supplies, the biz also said it was going to at least break ground in the state in 2023 – and it couldn't even get that started on time. 

Gates's sodium-cooled HALEU reactor doesn't have the same challenging form-factor as a small modular reactor (SMR) - the other new hotness in nuclear power - but its delays remind us of difficulties encountered by operators of SMRs and larger-scale plants.

A study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that nuclear plants - regardless of their form factor - pretty much never meet expected budgets or timelines. 

Of the four SMRs online or under construction, the IEEFA noted none were supposed to take longer than four years to build, yet none took less than 12 years to complete. Looking to older generations of nuclear power, similar issues arose when building Vogtle Unit 3, the first nuclear power reactor to come online in the US this century. That reactor was more than half a decade late and nearly bankrupted US nuclear giant Westinghouse.  

In other words, as much as we're fans of harnessing the atom, nuclear power goalposts have a history of being rather mobile, and so far TerraPower is readily embracing that. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like