Nuclear power generation surpassed coal generation in the United States for the first time in 2020. As utilities continue to retire coal-fired plants, reusing the shuttered sites to host nuclear reactors could help the nation reach the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and prove economically beneficial both for nuclear deployments and for the communities impacted by fossil fuel generation. That’s according to a Department of Energy report released this week, detailing how hundreds of U.S. coal power plant sites that have recently retired or plan to close within the decade could be suitable for new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power’s high capacity factors mean those plants could deliver an added benefit—delivering more baseload power to the grid from the nameplate capacity replacement.
The DOE report was released as plans are already underway to site nuclear power plants at coal sites in “early adopter communities,” including the town of Kemmerer, Wyo., which is set to host TerraPower’s demonstration Natrium sodium fast reactor at the nearby Naughton power plant, a 448-MWe coal-fired facility with two units scheduled for retirement in 2025. Other reactor developers, including NuScale Power and X-energy, are also eyeing coal sites.
Key questions, answered: A study team of individuals at Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory produced the report for the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy under the Systems Analysis and Integration Campaign. The team wanted to answer three key questions: (1) Where are retired coal facilities located and what factors make a site feasible? (2) What factors of technology, cost, and project timeline drive investor economics over such a decision? and (3) How will the coal-to-nuclear transition impact local communities?
In the 127-page report, Investigating Benefits and Challenges of Converting Retiring Coal Plants into Nuclear Plants, the team concludes that, “The short answers to these questions are that advanced reactors smaller than a gigawatt scale are amenable to siting at 80 percent of the [coal power plant] sites that passed the first round of screening; repurposing [coal power plant] infrastructure may lead to savings on overnight capital costs that range from 15 percent to 35 percent; and depending on the nuclear design under consideration, job growth could increase by over 650 new, permanent jobs leading to nearly $270 million in new economic activity, and [greenhouse gas] emissions in a community could fall by as much as 86 percent.”
“This is an important opportunity to help communities around the country preserve jobs, increase tax revenue, and improve air quality,” said assistant secretary for nuclear energy Kathryn Huff in a September 13 DOE press release. “As we move to a clean energy future, we need to deliver place-based solutions and ensure an equitable energy transition that does not leave communities behind.”
Digging deeper: For the report, the researchers performed a siting analysis, a techno-economic analysis with decision modeling, and economic and environmental impact analyses. The siting analysis applied OR-SAGE (Oak Ridge Siting Analysis tool for Power Generation Expansion) to publicly available Energy Information Administration data.
After screening hundreds of recently retired and active coal plant sites to exclude plants that retired more than 10 years ago and those that are not owned by a utility or independent power producer, the team evaluated the remaining sites based on a set of 10 parameters, including population density, distance from seismic fault lines, flooding potential, and nearby wetlands, to determine if they could safely host a nuclear power plant. That evaluation identified a total of 157 retired and 237 operating coal plant sites as potential candidates for a coal-to-nuclear transition. In detail:
- Looking at those the 394 potential sites, the team found that about 80 percent of the sites, hosting about 250 GWe of coal capacity, were good candidates for advanced small modular reactors or non–light water reactors. Specifically, 125 recently retired sites with 64.8 GWe of capacity and 190 currently operating plant sites with 198.5 GWe of capacity could host SMRs or advanced reactors.
- Twenty-two percent of the 157 recently retired sites and 40 percent of the 237 sites still operating could potentially host large light water reactors. The site analysis ruled out LWRs if population density within a 20-mile radius exceeded 500 people per square mile. (In the case of advanced reactors, the radius was set at four miles—twice the two-mile emergency planning calculations included in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Clinch River environmental site permit application.)
- The report analyzed the potential impacts of a coal-to-nuclear transition at a hypothetical but representative coal power plant site in the Midwest—a site with two 600-MWe coal generators, one that had retired in the past 10 years and one announced for retirement in the coming decade.
- Nuclear overnight costs of capital could decrease by 15 to 35 percent when compared to a greenfield construction project through reuse of infrastructure, depending on the reactor type and on how much equipment is repurposed. The analysis considered different scenarios for using the coal plant’s transmission lines, switchyards, cooling ponds or towers, and civil infrastructure such as roads and office buildings.
Next steps: The study methods could be applied to site-specific analyses by interested utilities, the researchers note. The study did not consider transitioning other retiring fossil fuel–powered sites, such as steel facilities or petrochemical plants, to nuclear generation, and the researchers note that “there may also be an economic opportunity for communities and owners of emitting assets like natural gas turbines or refineries.”