US-based TerraPower has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the UAE’s Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) on the sidelines of COP28 to explore opportunities for the commercialisation and global deployment of Terrapower’s Natrium technology. “Bringing advanced nuclear technologies to market is critical to meeting global decarbonisation targets,” said TerraPower President & CEO Chris Levesque. “TerraPower and ENEC are leading the way in deploying nuclear plants, and this agreement allows us to share our expertise and design experience, and explore the opportunity for deployment of Natrium reactors around the world including additional locations in the United States.”

TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy are developing the Natrium technology, which features a 345 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. The storage technology can boost the system’s output to 500 MWe for more than five and a half hours when needed. According to Terrapower, this “allows a Natrium plant to integrate seamlessly with renewable resources and leads to faster, more cost-effective decarbonisation of the electric grid while producing dispatchable carbon-free energy”. The first Natrium plant is being developed in the US in Kemmerer, Wyoming, near a retiring coal plant and is planned to enter operation within a decade. Development of the first Natrium demonstration plant is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP).

The UAE has a strong civil nuclear programme which began operation in 2020. Construction of its Barakah NPP began in 2011. Korea Electric Power Company (Kepco) led the consortium that is building the plant comprising four APR1400 reactors. To date three units have been connected to the grid and unit 4 completed hot functional testing in July 2023 in preparation for commercial operation in 2024.

ENEC Managing Director & CEO Mohamed Ibrahim Al Hammadi, said nuclear is at the heart of UAE’s clean energy progress and strategy. “Our new agreement with TerraPower will facilitate cooperation in taking nuclear energy technology to the next level, by accelerating its deployment and its use for innovating new solutions including the production of clean molecules and hydrogen.”

TerraPower founder and Chairman Bill Gates attended the MOU signing ceremony along with David Livingston, Senior Advisor & Managing Director for Energy for the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate along with other US Government officials. Terrapower the agreement helps advance the US-UAE Partnership for Accelerating Clean Energy (PACE), which was launched in November 2022 and aims to help catalyse $100bn in clean energy and decarbonisation projects by 2035.

A few days before, TerraPower signed an MOU with the US Uranium Energy with objectives of reestablishing domestic supply chains of uranium fuel. TerraPower and UEC will explore the potential supply of uranium for TerraPower’s Natrium reactor and energy storage system. Terrapower said small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced reactors represent “the fastest growing segment of nuclear energy in the United States and need a secure, domestic fuel supply chain”. The first step of the supply chain is uranium, “and UEC’s Wyoming resources have the critical mass to be a highly reliable source of uranium for American HALEU [high assay low enriched uranium] and a good strategic fit to supply TerraPower’s Natrium reactor”.

Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon stated: “This MOU is a great step forward for the Wyoming uranium industry, which is host to the largest uranium reserves in the United States. It makes no sense to depend on Russian uranium and enrichment technology, when a fully domestic fuel source can be found here in Wyoming and manufactured in the United States.”

UEC President & CEO Amir Adnani welcomed the prospect of providing the uranium needed to operate the Wyoming Natrium reactor. “In these geopolitically complex times, UEC’s vision is to be the leading provider of conflict-free, American uranium for the existing, as well as the new reactors that will come online.”

UEC’s Wyoming production platform includes a portfolio of over 20 uranium projects, that in total contain the largest S-K 1300 compliant resource base in the United States. Four of the projects in the Powder River Basin are fully permitted for in-situ recovery (ISR) production including the Irigaray Central Processing Plant and Christensen Ranch ISR facilities in Johnson County, Wyoming where UEC’s initial production will be focused.

In August, Terrapower selected four suppliers to support its Natrium Reactor Demonstration Project saying the contracts will help to establish key elements of the supply chain that the advanced reactor industry will require as new reactors are brought to market. In July Terrapower and US Centrus agreed to collaborate to ensure the demonstration reactor has access to HALEU to ensure that the project’s 2030 operation date can be met.

Nine of the ten advanced reactor designs selected for funding under theARDP, including two planned demonstration reactors – Natrium and X-energy’s XE-100 High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor – will rely on HALEU, which is enriched to nearly 20% with uranium-235 compared with the 5% used in power reactors. TerraPower and Centrus have been working together since 2021 to help expedite the commercialisation of domestic enrichment technology at Centrus’s Piketon, Ohio, facility.

In December 2022, TerraPower said it expected operation of the Natrium demonstration reactor to be delayed by at least two years from 2028 to 2030 because of the lack of commercial capacity to HALEU in time to meet the proposed targets “We had a plan. It was a very aggressive timeline; we felt pretty confident that we could meet it. But it was all predicated on having our first core load of fuel come from Russia,” Terrapower said at the time.

However, even if sufficient HALEU is available, the 2030 target date may be optimistic. Natrium is a sodium-cooled fast reactor. Currently the USA has no expertise in fast reactor technology and no facilities to support its development. The US closed down its fast reactor programme in the 1990s and is only now making moves to revive it. DOE in July 2022 issued a record of decision to build a sodium-cooled fast test reactor at Idaho National Laboratory. If appropriated by Congress, the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) would be the first fast reactor to operate in the USA in nearly three decades.

Image: TerraPower’s Natrium is an advanced reactor that could pave the way for the next generation of nuclear energy (courtesy of TerraPower)