The world’s only coal-fired nuclear reactor has just been launched in Wyoming

Yesterday, Bill Gates’ TerraPower company broke ground on the Natrium nuclear power plant, making it the first advanced reactor design to begin construction.

Once operational, the Natrium demonstration plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, will become a fully operational commercial power plant. According to Gates, founder and CEO of TerraPower, Natrium will be “the most modern nuclear facility in the world, significantly safer and producing significantly less waste than conventional reactors.”

It is being built close to the decommissioned Naughton coal-fired power station and is the world’s only ongoing nuclear transition project from coal. TerraPower, which will employ 200 to 250 people at the Natrium plant, wants to hire 110 former coal workers to leverage their transferable skills.

The TerraPower nuclear plant is expected to “potentially” come online in 2030. TerraPower will build the non-nuclear parts of the plant first while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers TerraPower’s construction permit application, which it approved last month.

Construction will begin in 2025 on the “energy island”, where steam turbines and other energy-generating machines will be built. Construction of Natrium will take several years and at its peak will create 1,600 jobs in the construction industry.

On this project, TerraPower is working with the U.S. Department of Energy in a public-private partnership, as well as with the energy company PacifiCorp.

How the Natrium nuclear reactor works

The project includes a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt energy storage system. The storage technology can boost the system’s output to 500 MW when needed, which is equivalent to the energy needed to power approximately 400,000 homes. Energy storage capability enables the power plant to be seamlessly integrated with renewable resources, and it is the only advanced reactor design with this feature.

Gates explained on his blog yesterday why the Natrium demonstration plant is so much safer than any existing nuclear plant:

The Natrium plant uses liquid sodium, whose boiling point is more than 8 times higher than the boiling point of water, so it can absorb all the additional heat generated in the nuclear core. Unlike water, sodium does not need to be pumped because as it heats, it rises, and as it rises, it cools. Even if the plant loses power, the sodium will continue to absorb heat without reaching dangerous temperatures that could cause melting.

Gates says Natrium also includes an energy storage system that will allow it to control the amount of electricity it produces, which is unique among nuclear reactors.

Watch this video to see exactly how the Natrium nuclear reactor works:

Read more: Should the United States convert coal plants to nuclear plants? The DOE seems to think so

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