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A nuclear plant in a volcano zone? What could possibly go wrong, Mr Gates?

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NOT content with being the biggest private landowner in the US, blotting out the sun and jabbing the world, Bill Gates is getting over his divorce by building a ‘next-generation’ nuclear power plant in Wyoming.  

The Republican state’s governor Mark Gordon announced the deal between Gates’s TerraPower Company, PacifiCorp owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and the US government on June 2.

He said the multi-billion-dollar project, called ‘Natrium’, is to be constructed on the site of a ‘soon-to-be-retired coal-fired plant over the next several years’. TerraPower President Chris Levesque said costs would be split evenly between government and the two billionaires.

No information has been published about the contractual elements of the deal or the likely rate of return to Messrs Gates and Buffett but this is a ‘commercial not a charitable’ effort.

According to the press release, the nuclear plant will feature a 345-megawatt sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system, which will produce enough power for 250,000 homes. New storage technology will be able to boost output to 500 megawatts of power for about five and a half hours, equivalent to the energy needed to power 400,000 homes.

Wyoming is both a leading coal mining and uranium mining state, and Governor Gordon promised that the development did not signal any lack of commitment to fossil fuels or to making the state ‘carbon negative’.

He said, ‘I am not going to abandon any of our fossil fuel industry – it is absolutely essential to our state and one of the things that we believe very strongly is our fastest and clearest course to being carbon negative. Nuclear power is clearly a part of my all-of-the-above strategy for energy.’

Last month Gates’s TerraPower signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) which they called ‘the next step towards developing a prototype’.

Wyoming is a glorious, sparsely populated state of 97,000 square miles and 580,000 people. It is also home to a ‘hyperactive volcanic region’, the 3,472-square-mile Yellowstone National Park.

At the park’s centre lies a bubbling caldera that is the scar of a supervolcano eruption 640,000 years ago. The Norris Geyser Basin to the northwest of the caldera has more than 500 hydrothermal features, with dynamic geysers and pools that often change from day to day, but a much larger transformation has been taking place as well. For more than two decades, an area larger than Chicago centred near the basin has been inflating and deflating by several inches in erratic bursts.

Daniel Dzurisin, a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory, and a co-author of new research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, explains why the land is so unstable.

To be clear, the research does not indicate that the supervolcano that created Yellowstone’s caldera is any more likely to erupt now. Instead, researchers speculate that the changes below Norris may mean an increased chance of hydrothermal explosions taking place throughout the basin.

In March 2014, a magnitude 4.9 earthquake rocked Norris Geyser Basin. The ground fluctuated between sinking and rising until early in 2019, when it began to subside. The basin today is five inches higher than it was in 2000.

Researchers suspect that magma-derived fluids are sitting just beneath the entire surface of the region. Hydrothermal craters caused by geologic pressure cookers of boiling water may violently explode on to  the surface, an event that is all but impossible to forecast.

In the Northwest, on the borders of Yellowstone, the Teton Mountain Range rises along the Teton Fault Line which forms part of one of the most seismically active areas in the Intermountain US. The entire area is prone to storms and considerable earthquakes.

These facts will increase the many challenges of delivering a safe nuclear power plant, as well as protecting it from hackers, ‘green activists’, and domestic or foreign terrorists.

An example that Gates and Buffett could learn from happened in Japan on March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami caused a severe nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The risk of tsunami had been engineered into the plant design but underestimated the potential flood risk. Three of the six reactors sustained severe core damage and released hydrogen and radioactive materials. Explosion of the released hydrogen damaged the reactor buildings and impeded onsite emergency response efforts.

None of this data prevents the building of a nuclear power plant in Wyoming but it highlights the requirement for authentic public consultation, absolute transparency, and perhaps, humility in the face of nature – behaviours that have not hitherto been associated with the global activities of either Gates or Buffett.

A nuclear power plant, built in partnership with two of the world’s most notorious egoists with funding from questionable sources, using technology developed in tandem with the Chinese, and sited on one of the most active seismic systems on the planet. What could possibly go wrong?  

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Kate Dunlop
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