DOE funds facilitate nuclear reactor project at site of old coal plant in Wyoming

DOE funds facilitate nuclear reactor project at site of old coal plant in Wyoming

June 9, 2021

Department of Energy (DOE) partner TerraPower on June 2 announced plans to build its Natrium reactor at a retiring coal plant in Wyoming, thanks to a DOE investment of nearly $2 billion to support the licensing, construction and demonstration of this first-of-a-kind reactor by 2028.

This is an opportunity for the state, which currently receives almost 90% of its electricity generation from fossil fuels, to pivot to cleaner energy sources. The Natrium design represents the future of advanced nuclear reactor technology and is well-suited to provide clean and efficient power to communities across the United States, including the Mountain West.

The Natrium project will create thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs once the plant is online. It will not only leverage the existing energy infrastructure already in place at the coal plant but also the local power plant workforce who can work with utilities to transition or apply their skills to higher paying jobs in nuclear energy.

The new look of nuclear

TerraPower leads one of two teams awarded initial funding through the DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program to test, license and build their advanced reactor within the next seven years. The Natrium reactor offers significant improvements over today’s nuclear power plants and will help set the tone for a new portfolio of U.S. advanced reactors that are under development to ultimately compete in the U.S. and global markets.

Natrium is a sodium-cooled fast reactor that is paired with a molten salt energy storage system to flexibly operate with renewable power sources. Its simplified design and advanced construction methods will make it faster and more affordable to build, and its constant high operating temperature can be used to generate carbon-free heat or electricity to drive other energy-intensive manufacturing processes.

Natrium will be the first commercial reactor ever in the state of Wyoming and one of the first advanced reactors to operate in the United States, expanding the state’s already impressive energy portfolio.

Bringing Jobs Back to Wyoming

Wyoming is an energy-rich state and our nation’s largest producer of coal, natural gas and crude oil. Roughly 80% of its electricity production comes from coal-fired power plants that have been steadily declining since the mid-2000s.

In 2019, the state’s largest utility, PacifiCorp, announced it would reduce its coal fleet by two-thirds by 2030 and some local economists project the state could lose around 1,600 coal jobs over the next decade. These closures will directly impact the communities built around the plants—losing millions in state and local tax revenue that help pay for public schools and infrastructure projects.

By demonstrating the Natrium reactor at a retiring coal plant within the state, TerraPower can not only take advantage of the existing energy infrastructure that is in place (such as cooling water intakes and electrical distribution), but also the workforce. This project leverages innovations from the concentrated solar power, tunneling, and combined cycle gas turbine industries. It also intends to utilize the latest advanced construction and manufacturing methods to bring thousands of jobs back to the area.

Fabricated parts will need to be made, thousands of skilled construction workers will be required to build the nuclear and energy islands, and hundreds of plant operators, maintenance crews, and security staff will be needed full-time to operate one of the most-advanced nuclear reactor systems in the world.

Natrium’s thermal energy storage system also provides opportunities for new markets to evolve in the region. The high-temperature heat or electricity generated by the reactor can be used to produce hydrogen to create carbon-free synthetic fuels or decarbonize the oil refining process. It can also be directed to power local mining operations in the area to help lower emissions in the extraction of coal, natural gas, and uranium fuel.

Gaining access to nuclear

The Biden-Harris Administration believes no community should be left behind. This investment at a retiring coal plant will not only bring back jobs to the area, but cleaner air and improved health for the community.

Once operating, the Natrium plant is estimated to produce nearly 3 million megawatt hours of carbon-free power each year and avoid almost 2 million metric tons of carbon. It will also avoid other pollutants that lead to smog and acid rain to improve the overall air quality in the region.

The Western United States currently has three nuclear power plants in operation. By siting this advanced reactor in Wyoming, TerraPower is also expanding access to communities in the state and the Mountain West that have not had the opportunity to benefit from the clean and reliable attributes of nuclear power.

Along with Natrium, two other advanced reactors are also expected to operate in the Northwest region. X-energy announced its plans to site its Xe-100 reactor in the state of Washington and NuScale plans to operate its first advanced small modular light water reactor system at Idaho National Laboratory—making this region the new hub of nuclear innovation.

What’s next?

TerraPower identified several possible sites for the Natrium demonstration project and has since narrowed its selection down to four locations in Wyoming. The company will base their final selection on a variety of factors, ranging from access to existing infrastructure to regional electricity demands and business opportunities with the future utility owner.

A final location is expected to be selected by the end of the year.

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