Giving coal communities a second carbon-free life: Advanced nuclear reactors can replace retiring coal plants
- March 1, 2022: Vol. 9, Number 3

Giving coal communities a second carbon-free life: Advanced nuclear reactors can replace retiring coal plants

by Emma Derr

The climate crisis has shown that it is imperative to move away from carbon-emitting sources of energy, including coal. Now, areas across the United States are facing the closure of coal plants that have economically sustained the surrounding communities. Nuclear energy, which has zero operating emissions, can play a key role in giving these communities a second, carbon-free life.

The Good Energy Collective, a policy research organization focused on nuclear energy, released a report in December that details opportunities for advanced reactors to be deployed on the sites of retiring coal plants. The report shows the programs and policies supporting coal communities, the potential for a workforce transition from coal to nuclear, and a survey of retiring coal plants.

Over the past decade, more than 600 coal-fired units generating nearly 100 gigawatts of electricity (GWe) went offline. Another 25 GWe of coal-fired power is slated to go offline in the next four years, including 2.7 GWe in 2021 alone. This creates a huge electric — as well as economic — gap, and nuclear is uniquely positioned to fill the void.

Nuclear energy can utilize existing water, transportation and transmission infrastructure from the retired coal plants. Nuclear plants can also provide higher paying jobs, jobs beyond the energy sector, and tax revenue. This is essential in many coal-dependent areas that are rural and have fewer employment opportunities outside the coal industry.

According to the report, the median hourly wage in the nuclear industry has been estimated at $39.19, which is nearly 105 percent higher than the national median and about a quarter higher than the median hourly wage of the coal industry, $28.69.

Fossil fuel workers possess skills and training that are transmittable to a job at a nuclear power plant, and many have experience helping nuclear plants refuel. NuScale released a report that concluded most of the coal jobs could be transitioned to small modular reactor (SMR) jobs.

A white paper by energy consulting firm ScottMadden found an SMR could provide at least 237 onsite jobs, far more than a typical coal plant.

The advanced reactor technologies necessary to make this transition are nearing demonstration, and the coal-to-nuclear project is gaining momentum.

Advanced reactor developer TerraPower is partnering with energy company PacifiCorp to advance its Natrium design at a coal plant scheduled for retirement in Wyoming. TerraPower worked with multiple communities in the state to help determine the best place for deployment, deciding on the town of Kemmerer. The report details how it is essential to work with communities affected by coal plant closures to help them decide their path forward in the wake of the clean energy transition.

Advanced reactors being pursued by other developers could also support a coal-to-nuclear transition as well.

The Good Energy Collective’s report examined the big picture — it looked at sites of coal plant closures across the country to determine which would be a good fit for a nuclear power plant. The analysis considered state policy restrictions, safety, infrastructure compatibility and potential for community support. The report identified 80 retired and retiring coal plants that would work well for coal-to-SMR repowering.

There’s so much innovation happening in this space, and this analysis will help to inform the conversations policymakers and stakeholders are having about how to make this opportunity a reality.

A just energy transition uplifts frontline communities, and nuclear energy can provide critical job opportunities for coal-closure areas that may face economic hardships. As we make this unprecedented transition to clean energy, coal to nuclear provides a wholistic solution: carbon-free, reliable, affordable energy, as well as economic revitalization.


Emma Derr is digital communications manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute. Read the original version of this article here.

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