How Bechtel plans to build Bill Gates’ next generation nuclear plant in Wyoming

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Bill Gates’ TerraPower has become the first US power company to break ground on what could be a new generation of smaller more efficient nuclear reactors. But can small modular reactors (SMRs) really ever be commercially viable? Lucy Barnard speaks to the man responsible for building it to find out.

As groundbreaking ceremonies go, the start of construction work by Bill Gates’ power company TerraPower at Kemmerer Unit One, the next generation nuclear reactor project in Wyoming, couldn’t have been more high profile.

Standing in front of a John Deere wheeled loader displaying the flag of Wyoming, Gates addressed a crowd of dignitaries, federal and state government officials and media. “It’s kind of a dream and here we are making it a reality,” he said. “This is a big step towards safe, abundant, zero carbon energy.”

Bill Gates (centre) breaks ground at the official Natrium project in Wyoming. Photo: TerraPower

Gates’ project, known as the Natrium Demonstration Project, has ambitious aims: To complete the first in a new generation in the US of small nuclear plants (SMRs) which experts say can be built more cheaply, easily and safely than traditional nuclear facilities and typically have a power capacity of 300MW or less – which is about a third traditional nuclear facilities.

And TerraPower is just one of dozens of companies vying to develop SMRs which proponents say could be the best way to resolve the climate crisis, producing plentiful carbon-free power in buildings the size of a few soccer pitches which could be hitched up to anything from towns to data centres using established technology which has been employed for decades in submarines and icebreakers.

Yet despite the very visible fleet of earth moving equipment churning up the dirt of the high desert plains outside the small city of Kemmerer, construction work on the site faces daunting obstacles:

The project has not yet received approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission; it cannot use enriched uranium from Russia as a fuel as originally planned; and the prospect of cost overruns and delays which have dogged most other western nuclear projects continue to loom large.

Certainly the economics of SMRs have yet to encounter the real world of construction. So far, outside of state-controlled nations such as Russia and China, no company has yet found a commercially viable way to build an SMR.

In November 2023, TerraPower’s rival NuScale, which had been the only company to have approval to build an SMR in the US, cancelled plans to build its first project in Idaho after projected costs soared from US$3.6 billion for 720 megawatts in 2020 to US$9.3 billion for 462 megawatts three years later.

Ahmet Tokpinar, principal vice president and general manager for nuclear at US engineering giant Bechtel, the man charged with achieving this feat and keeping construction work on the high-profile site on track.

Speaking exclusively to Construction Briefing, he says that, from a construction point of view, the TerraPower project is better placed than many US rivals to build the country’s first commercial SMR due to its reactor design.

Ahmet Tokpinar, principal vice president and general manager nuclear at Bechtel. Photo: Bechtel

“This particular reactor uses sodium in its liquid form as the coolant that captures heat from the nuclear reaction,” Tokpinar says. “Because sodium has a very high boiling temperature, the plant operates at atmospheric pressure. This is a huge change in the way nuclear plants are designed and the way they can be built. It means you don’t need heavy, thick-walled pipes that are necessary to avoid rupture for pressurised water. You don’t need a containment structure with thick concrete walls. You have less concrete, less steel, less heavy piping. And in the construction space this means a shorter schedule. It takes less time to build and costs less than a conventional nuclear reactor.”

As such, he argues, much of the reactor itself can be built off site in factories with the finished parts then transported by road for assembly – greatly reducing construction risk.

Another major factor in TerraPower’s favour is that its founder Bill Gates has deep pockets, and the project is not reliant on raising cash on public markets.

TerraPower has raised almost US$1bn in private funding and has secured pledges from the US government to provide up to US$2 billion towards construction work at the Natrium plant.

And, as well as being backed by Gates, currently the world’s ninth richest man, PacifiCorp, the utility company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the investment company belonging to Warren Buffet, the world’s tenth richest man, has pledged to use the Natrium Reactor for at least some of its energy requirements.

According to Tokpinar, Bechtel has been working with TerraPower as engineering, procurement and construction partner since the project’s inception with the aim of changing the way nuclear projects around the world are built in order to make them quicker, cheaper and safer.

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“Sometimes, what happens when a large nuclear project is planned is that the technology company goes ahead and designs it – and then you mobilise at the site and you find out that the design is not constructable,” he says.

Tokpinar knows this only too well. He comes fresh from stepping in as the fourth contractor to be involved in the construction of units 3 and 4 at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant near Waynesboro in Georgia, a traditional AP1000 nuclear power station which was reported to be at least seven years late and where costs were reported to have doubled to more than US$34 billion.

Lessons from Vogtle

“The Vogtle 3 and 4 plant has a wealth of lessons learned for the industry,” says Tokpinar. “At the Natrium project, we’ve been involved in the design of the plant since day one. Our construction people, who have a lot of experience from the Vogtle plant and other plants are sitting with design engineers reviewing the design to ensure that it can be constructed with ease and that there are not going to be construction issues at the site when we mobilise. It can really make a difference.”

As well as getting involved in the designing process from an early stage, Tokpinar also says that construction teams working on Natrium are attempting to get around complex nuclear licensing issues by separating the design of the reactor into two separate pieces – the bit where the nuclear reaction takes place, and the bit where the steam turbines generate power. This means that construction work on the non-nuclear part of the plant can carry on regardless of nuclear licensing red tape.

A rendering of the completed Natrium plant. Image: TerraPower

“The Natrium design would allow separating the sites into two segments,” Tokpinar says. “There is a nuclear island where the heat is generated, and that heat is conveyed through molten salt pipes to the energy island where you can store that energy in a storage tank and then it is converted into that goes to conventional steam turbines to generate power. That energy island can be built just like a conventional combined cycle gas plant so the ease at which you build the secondary part is significantly different from conventional nuclear plants.”

And, Tokpinar says Bechtel also plans to speed up construction and keep on top of costs, by implementing the sorts of digital delivery platforms it already uses on other major construction projects but has so far been unable to implement on nuclear construction sites. To this end the company is currently qualifying its digital delivery platform under its nuclear quality assurance programme and is committed to building the Natrium project fully digitally without any paper.

“If you go to a nuclear construction site and look at the amount of paperwork, you will be overwhelmed,” he says. “Construction quality inspections are of paramount importance – due to the safety related aspects of nuclear construction. But the paperwork itself slows everyone down because you are chasing paper, volumes and volumes of paper. Putting all of this information on a digital platform so it enables our field engineers to control and manage workflows - including signing off documents with the tablets - streamlines everything. It is a paradigm shift. It means craft workers don’t have to go through thousands of documents, giving more time on tools and increasing productivity.  It will reduce the need for many positions whose jobs were to facilitate all this paperwork.”

Tokpinar estimates that in the middle of construction, around 10,000 people were employed working on the two-unit gigawatt scale Vogtle plant including around 7,000 craft professionals. By comparison, the far smaller single unit megawatt scale Natrium project is expected to peak at around 1,600 workers on site.

Nonetheless, Tokpinar says that one of the biggest challenges he anticipates during the build is finding enough skilled craft professionals to work on the site.

“If you’re asking me from a technical perspective, what is your biggest challenge, I would say in the US it’s going to be a skilled craft labour in general,” he says. “The good thing is that for the Natrium project we only need 1,600 people not 10,000 but it’s still a challenge. We do labour surveys each year to understand what other projects may be planned within a 100 - 200-mile radius and we run programmes to incentivise more people into craft professions but there is still a gap.”

For Tokpinar and many other proponents of SMRs, the only way that contractors will be able to reduce construction costs and keep on schedule is by building out enough similar projects to make them routine and predictable.

Establishing a market for nuclear

He says that western companies attempting to build SMRs such as TerraPower and Bechtel are operating at a disadvantage compared with state-controlled rivals in Russia and China where more projects are taking place. Currently, following the completion of the Vogtle project, there are no new nuclear reactors under construction in the USA.

“Initial projects are going to be expensive,” he admits. “But you can only develop a robust industry when you have a backlog and a pipeline of projects initially funded or sponsored by the government. Then the industry develops – whether it’s your supply chain or your construction contractors. If you are only building one project every ten years, it is almost impossible to develop a healthy supply chain and workforce.”

“This is what China and Russia have done,” Tokpinar adds. “China has been building 20-25 nuclear projects at the same time for the last 15 years. You can only learn from replication and that means, you finish one project, you roll those crews and professionals onto the next job and then the second and the third. Each time you have significant improvements. By the time you get to the sixth or the eighth you improve the first-of-a-kind costs by 30% or 40%. It’s only then that you reach a place where you are competitive.”

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