Bill Gates’ TerraPower Breaks Ground on a $4B Nuclear Energy Plant in Wyoming

Bill Gates is among a roster of tech billionaires funding nuclear energy projects.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates has invested more than $1 billion in TerraPower. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

On Tuesday (June 11), Terrapower, a nuclear energy startup founded by Bill Gates, broke ground in Kemmerer, Wyo. for a nuclear power plant on the site of a former coal-fired plant owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). The plant is based around TerraPower’s nuclear reactor, called Natrium, and will be “the most advanced nuclear facility in the world,” according to Gates. Once in operation, the plant will be able to power up to 400,000 homes on the grid and support hundreds of local jobs.

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How does TerraPower’s nuclear reactor work?

Natrium’s unique model is split into two “islands:” a nuclear island and an energy storage island, with the hope of streamlining safety and efficiency within the plant. The nuclear side utilizes sodium as a cooling agent for the reactor instead of water, with the aim of eliminating some of the glaring issues that have historically come with operating a nuclear power facility.

In a traditional nuclear plant, the water used to cool the reactors heats quickly, which can cause problems in the plant’s infrastructure and can be extremely dangerous in the event of a pipe burst. Swapping the water for sodium allows for a much more stable cooling process, as its boiling point is exponentially higher than that of water (allowing it to absorb a lot more of the excess heat generated in the reactor’s nuclear core). The molten sodium reserves are then transferred to a storage tank on the energy island, essentially acting as a thermal energy battery for the plant that can be pushed out to the grid surrounding the plant.

The Natrium reactor’s storage capability is critical to its success: On a grid powered by other non-carbon energy sources like wind and solar, weather variances can have a significant impact on the grid’s access to power. On a grid with a Natrium reactor, however, those lapses in power can be compensated for by the power reserves in the energy storage island of the plant.

Tech billionaires are funding nuclear energy

Bill Gates serves as the founder and chairman of TerraPower, founded in 2008. The retired Microsoft founder has personally invested more than $1 billion into TerraPower. The first nuclear reactor plant is expected to cost $4 billion. “It’s the kind of effort that will help America maintain its energy independence. And it will help our country remain a leader in energy innovation worldwide,” he wrote about his enthusiasm for the project on his blog, GatesNotes. 

Other major tech leaders have turned their attention to nuclear energy as well. In 2021, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman invested $375 million in Washington-based Helion Energy to support nuclear research and plant proposals. Ajay Ronan, co-founder of Mithril Capital, has invested millions in Helion as well. Jeff Bezos has backed a Canadian company called General Fusion to develop zero-carbon energy solutions.

Tech companies have also begun to shift towards nuclear sourcing, as their data centers require immense power to operate. An Amazon Web Services data center in Pennsylvania already draws its power from the nearby Susquehanna nuclear power station, and Microsoft signed a deal with Helion Energy just last year to secure nuclear power as a source for its data centers beginning in the next five years.

Bill Gates’ TerraPower Breaks Ground on a $4B Nuclear Energy Plant in Wyoming