EVERETT — U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm stopped by TerraPower’s Everett research laboratory on Tuesday for a tour of the a 65,000-square-foot facility.
The Bellevue company’s bid to develop smaller, safer and less costly sources of nuclear energy is being aided by a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Granholm, joined by David Crane, the director of the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations , said the growing demand for electricity — and now, soaring energy prices — has sparked a global race.
The United States faces stiff competition from Russia and China, whose governments are investing heavily in the development of advanced nuclear power plants, Granholm said. Russia is currently the largest exporter of nuclear reactors in the world with deliveries to China, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, Iran, India and Bangladesh, according to experts.
“Countries with state-owned enterprises are investing a huge amount. That’s historically not what the U.S. has done and we don’t want to do that,” Granholm told a group of workers and reporters at the lab. “We want to have public-private partnerships with innovative companies that can leapfrog the technology and go faster.”
The energy department’s recent Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program is an effort to pair the agency’s National Laboratories with innovative companies like TerraPower in a drive to further the technology, Crane said.
If TerraPower meets certain milestones, it could receive up to $2 billion in matching energy department funds for the development of small, modular nuclear reactors. The research facility near Paine Field, which opened in 2020, uses supercomputers to model, test and refine designs for those projects.
“You’re competing with Russia’s and China’s state-owned nuclear companies,” Crane said. “With American ingenuity and this partnership between innovative companies and the Department of Energy, we can run circles around the competition.”
“Once those designs are approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they can be built and sized appropriately for a community or an application, Granholm said.
Experts say that President Biden’s climate goals cannot be reached in the foreseeable future without a nuclear energy component, according to the Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
The next generation of advanced nuclear reactors — “which are smaller, cheaper and easier to deploy than their predecessors — need enriched uranium. ‘And right now the only way to get that is from Russia,’” said Lindsey Walter, deputy director for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program. To break that grip, the United States must develop its own supply, Walter told Climatewire, an energy policy publication.
Although controversial, nuclear power is considered a carbon-free energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases.
About 20% of the electricity consumed in the U.S. is generated by nuclear reactors. Another 60% of America’s electrical power comes from fossil fuels. The remainder is generated by renewables, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“The Department of Energy have been absolute leaders in getting the U.S. moving on advanced nuclear technology,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO. “Today we showed Secretary Granholm and Director Crane some of our experiments in support of Natrium,” a nuclear power plant TerraPower is developing.
Energy officials got a close look at the lab’s Integrated Effects Test, an enormous three-story structure that occupies a third of the facility.
Protected by blue hard hats and safety glasses, Granholm and Crane climbed three flights of yellow safety stairs to the top of the system, a vertical maze of steel girders, cable and pipes.
The test structure is a non-nuclear, externally heated multi-loop system that’s being used to develop and test the technology for Natrium, a molten chloride fast reactor.
The fast reactor operates at higher temperatures than conventional reactors, allowing it to generate electricity more efficiently and without emissions, the company says.
TerraPower is building a prototype of the Natrium nuclear reactor in southwest Wyoming, where it will test the power plant’s engineering, construction and function. TerraPower received an initial $80 million last year to construct the reactor demonstration plant through a competitive grant offered by the U.S. Department of Energy.
TerraPower’s pipeline portfolio includes two major nuclear power generation projects and a medical isotope it’s developing that could enhance the ability of current cancer fighting drugs.
Launched by Bill Gates in 2006, TerraPower employs about 400 people. On any given day, 50 to 75 people work in the Everett lab, the company said.
Granholm’s visit is intended to highlight the Biden Administration’s support of clean energy initiatives and tackling the climate crisis. According to a news release, the visit also serves to underscore the Secretary’s work to ensure that the investments from the President’s agenda — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act — are strengthening communities.