In a regulatory realm known for delays and an industry plagued by cost overruns, TerraPower already faced an ambitious seven-year schedule to permit, construct and commence operations for its inaugural Natrium nuclear power plant in Kemmerer.
Then, nine months after unveiling its plan, Russia invaded Ukraine.
TerraPower, co-founded and backed by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, said this month it had cut ties with the Russian state-owned Tenex, which operates the only facility currently able to supply commercial volumes of the high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel the Natrium design requires. The company had been working with Tenex for its first shipment of fuel, which was to arrive in 2025.
“When Russia invaded Ukraine it became very clear, for a whole set of reasons — moral reasons as well as commercial reasons — that using Russian fuel is no longer an option for us,” TerraPower’s Director of External Affairs Jeff Navin said.
Whether the lack of a domestic or other alternative nuclear fuel supply might delay TerraPower’s plans to commence operations at its Wyoming plant by 2028 largely depends on congressional backing to boost an entire chain of domestic uranium enrichment facilities, according to Navin. It’s not just TerraPower that’s desperate for an expanded U.S. nuclear energy fuel supply, he added. The country is almost entirely dependent on foreign imports to power its existing nuclear power plant fleet. Russia provided about 16% in 2020.
There’s about $700 million in the federal budget reconciliation bill to help expand the nation’s nuclear fuel supply chain, but the legislation is currently held up in the Senate. Meeting the federally mandated 2028 in-service deadline for the Natrium plant in Kemmerer, Navin said, depends on federal financial backing and expedited licensing for new and expanded uranium enrichment facilities.
“We’re in kind of an emergency situation here,” Navin told WyoFile. “This was always a project that was ambitious in terms of its time frame, and we needed lots of things to go right for us.”
Others doubt that political ambitions to speed up the federal review timeline for the project are either enforceable or realistic. The forced pivot away from relying on a Russian source to fuel the Natrium reactor is likely the first of many inherent roadblocks for the project.
“I didn’t think it was doable before this monkey wrench was thrown in,” Union of Concerned Scientists’ Director of Nuclear Power Safety Edwin Lyman said. “I don’t think this reactor can be licensed with the same degree of safety and assurance as the current fleet under such an accelerated timeline.”
Pivoting on fuel supply
TerraPower claims many advantages for its liquid-sodium-cooled Natrium design compared to the common “light-water” nuclear reactors that make up much of the nation’s current fleet. It consumes less water and can deploy extra megawatts of electrical power when needed, according to the company. The Natrium demonstration project in Kemmerer would provide a steady 345 megawatts of electricity and could ramp up to 500 megawatts for a period of 5.5 hours.
But it requires a more potent — more radioactive — fuel than what feeds the nation’s current nuclear power fleet.
Now that TerraPower has cut ties with the Russian-owned Tenex, there are no other options for a commercial-scale supply of HALEU, not even among foreign nations that are not potential adversaries.
Centrus Energy Corp in Ohio operates the only NRC-licensed HALEU fuel enrichment plant in the U.S., but the research and development facility doesn’t yet have the capacity to provide a reliable feedstock for even a single Natrium power plant. Another uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico, Urenco’s UUSA plant, could expand its uranium enrichment capabilities to include HALEU, Navin said.
Those facilities — and others in the U.S. — are currently targeted for expansion via the DOE’s HALEU Availability Program initiated in 2020 to boost the domestic nuclear fuel supply chain. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only increased support for the effort, Navin said. Other options include tapping uranium enrichment facilities in places like France, or blending U.S. weapons-grade uranium down to the HALEU fuel grades.
Neither of those options are long-term solutions, Navin said. TerraPower is moving forward with its Natrium project in Kemmerer as planned — which it hopes to be the first of several such plants. Meantime, the future of what could be the next generation of U.S. nuclear power reactors hangs on the potential to produce HALEU at home.
“We cannot turn the reactor on until we have fuel,” Navin said. “A few months ago, we had a plan in place and I could have told you exactly how we were going to meet the fuel needs of the reactor. Now, there’s more of a question mark.”
A delay to allow for a domestic nuclear fuel supply — for the sake of geopolitical and national energy security — might seem inconsequential in the broader goal of deploying more nuclear power in the U.S. to help cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. But it could take an act of Congress to extend the 2028 deadline for the Kemmerer plant.
That’s because the plant qualifies as a “demonstration” project under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which aims to “speed the demonstration of advanced reactors through cost-shared partnerships with U.S. industry.” The federal government, through the ARDP program, will back TerraPower’s Natrium project in Kemmerer with $2 billion in taxpayer dollars — half the estimated $4 billion cost.
The federal backing, combined with TerraPower’s financial support from Bill Gates and other investors, should help the Kemmerer Natrium project bypass financing challenges that have plagued several U.S. nuclear energy projects in past decades.
The project is also supported on the federal regulatory front via the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, championed by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming). Among other provisions, the law mandates the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to expedite the federal review and certification process for “advanced” nuclear energy projects to fit within a five- to seven-year timeframe.
Such mandates and expectations, however, may give proponents a false sense of hope, Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said. The NRC is still engaged in a rulemaking process for how it will review “advanced reactors” such as Natrium.
If the Natrium plant in Kemmerer were to be licensed within the proposed time frame, “I think there would be serious safety issues associated with it,” Lyman said. Risk-mitigation measures associated with such reactor designs are mostly a modeling exercise on paper and haven’t been proven at scale, he said. “I think this compressed schedule, which is mandated by Congress without any real thought into how safely it can be done, is dangerous,” he said.
The NRC’s advanced reactor rulemaking is ongoing, however the agency is still able to review proposals for such facilities, according to NRC Public Affairs Officer Scott Burnell.
In fact, he said, the NRC is “already reviewing a construction permit application from [California company] Kairos for a test version of its advanced reactor design.”
Permitting and schedule
To maintain the advantage of $2 billion in federal dollars and an expedited certification time frame — neither of which relieve the NRC or TerraPower from satisfying usual federal and state review processes, according to Navin and the NRC — TerraPower must keep to a tight schedule.
TerraPower plans to file two separate applications to the NRC under the 10 CFR Part 50 two-step licensing process. The first application would be submitted in 2023 for construction of the Natrium nuclear reactor and the second in 2026 for a nuclear operating license. Often those applications are filed simultaneously and considered under one NRC review, but separating the applications should allow TerraPower to get an early start on construction of the “non-nuclear” components of the power plant — substations, warehouses and other facilities that do not fall under the NRC’s authority of all things related to “radiological safety,” according to TerraPower and the NRC.
Construction of those non-nuclear, non-NRC review facilities would begin in 2024, according to TerraPower. Construction of the nuclear reactor and other components that fall under the NRC’s radiological safety authority would begin in 2025.
The body of research, testing and other support for the technology is much more than theoretical, Navin said. The federal government’s own Idaho National Laboratory has tested the technology.
The Natrium schedule is ambitious, he added. It “will require [the NRC] to move at a pace that they might not be accustomed to,” Navin said. “It’s requiring us to move at a pace that the nuclear industry isn’t particularly accustomed to as well. Yes, it’s a first-of-a-kind commercial project, but we’re not starting from scratch. We’re building on a lot of previous efforts.”
Division of authorities
TerraPower has already participated in several “pre-application” conversations with the NRC — a critical process to ensure the company and its contractors will provide relevant, comprehensive information required for an efficient review, according to the NRC.
“This level of engagement doesn’t approve anything, but allows the agency and reactor vendors to get on the same page regarding technical topics,” NRC’s Burnell said.
In one sense, the NRC’s role is narrow. It doesn’t consider whether a nuclear power project is the best strategy to meet electrical demands or climate goals, and it doesn’t even promote the use of nuclear energy. The NRC is limited to reviewing all aspects of “radiological safety.”
“We’re really just the safety regulator,” Burnell said. “We are strictly interested in safety.”
That narrow scope in authority, however, is still comprehensive, Burnell said. It includes a full National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and public comment regarding the geology, seismic activity, water, wildlife and myriad other potential risks and impacts of the project.
Despite the scope, first-of-its-kind technology at commercial scale and expedited schedule, the NRC is confident it can provide a thorough, timely review — though it cannot guarantee a specific timeframe or outcomes, Burnell said. “We don’t have an application before us right now,” he added.
The NRC is also charged with reviewing and certifying the onsite storage of spent nuclear fuel waste — an exclusive NRC authority that compelled Wyoming lawmakers to clarify the state’s own authorities and responsibilities related to the Natrium project.
Gov. Mark Gordon signed House Bill 131 – Nuclear power generation and storage-amendments into law March 21. The core of the legislation amended state statutes that asserted state authority over the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel and clarified the state actually has no such authority over nuclear waste storage. House Bill 131 also amended Wyoming’s definition of “small modular reactors” to include the proposed Natrium plant.
The legislation appears to have satisfied the NRC’s concerns, which were raised in an August 2021 letter to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.