Bill Gates-backed reactor delayed on worries about fuel from Russia

A nuclear energy project in Wyoming, backed by Bill Gates and the U.S. Energy Department, is delayed by at least two years amid worries about supplies of a special fuel currently made in Russia, the head of TerraPower, the company building it said on Wednesday.

TerraPower LLC, a venture founded by billionaire Gates, said last year its $4 billion Natrium demonstration plant would be built in Kemmerer, Wyoming on a site where a coal plant is set to shut in 2025.

U.S. companies including TerraPower are trying to develop a new generation of small nuclear plants to help cut carbon emissions but only one firm sells the fuel it needs, and it is Russian. The fuel, called high assay low enriched uranium, or HALEU, is enriched up to 20%, much above the up to 5% level today’s reactors use.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused the only commercial source of HALEU fuel to no longer be a viable part of the supply chain for TerraPower, as well as for others in our industry,” said Chris Levesque, president and chief executive of TerraPower.

“TerraPower is anticipating a minimum of a two-year delay to being able to bring the Natrium reactor into operation,” he said. The 345-megawatt plant had been slated to open in 2028.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is looking to downblend some of its stockpile of weapons-grade uranium to help provide fuel for the reactor projects. Levesque said TerraPower will provide a schedule update next year when it knows more about HALEU supply including the availability of DOE material for downblending.

The DOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Instead of relying on our adversaries like Russia for uranium, the United States must produce its own supply of advanced nuclear fuel,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, who has introduced a bill to boost domestic production of HALEU.

Only one company outside Russia, U.S.-based Centrus Energy Corp (LEU.A) is licensed to produce the fuel but it is years away from making commercial amounts.

TerraPower said it will continue to work with PacifiCorp, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N), to study adding up to five more Natrium reactors by 2035. “We are confident the federal programs to catalyze the production of HALEU will be operational in a time frame that works for these plants,” Levesque said.