New DOE guidance on coal-to-nuclear opportunities

April 2, 2024, 3:06PMNuclear News

The Department of Energy issued new guidance this week for converting coal-fired plants to nuclear units—an idea that has gained traction in recent years as the United States looks to cut carbon emissions.

A 2022 DOE study found potential for more than 300 coal-to-nuclear conversions across the country. While the process is complex, it would result in significant environmental and reliability benefits to the grid.

“The pivot away from carbon-emitting sources, such as unabated power plants—while beneficial for reducing carbon emissions—has left many surrounding energy communities with economic uncertainty,” explains the new Stakeholder Guidebook for Coal-to-Nuclear Conversions. “Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s coal plants are projected to retire by 2035. In some communities, coal plants have already shuttered, resulting in loss of jobs, local tax revenue, and economic activity.”

Role of advanced reactors: The DOE points to the smaller physical size of advanced nuclear reactors as being a good fit for retiring coal sites.

Small modular reactors have lower construction costs and enhanced safety features, compared with legacy large-scale nuclear plants. The DOE’s 2022 study found that new nuclear plants could save up to 35 percent in construction costs through repurposing coal site assets, such as electrical equipment and civil infrastructure.

Additionally, the DOE found that conversion to nuclear would provide economic assets and more jobs—with coal workers being able to easily transition to jobs at nuclear plants—in host communities.

“As we work to transition to a net-zero economy, it’s absolutely essential that we provide resources to energy communities and coal workers who have helped our nation's energy system for decades,” said Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy. “This is a core promise of the Biden-Harris administration: to deliver place-based solutions and ensure an equitable energy transition that does not leave energy communities behind.”

Questions to ask: The DOE lists the following questions as beneficial for utilities to ask as they consider a coal-to-nuclear transition.

  • How much power should the new nuclear plant provide?
  • Would the replacement nuclear plant be built on the site of the original coal plant or nearby?
  • What existing coal plant infrastructure can be reused for a nuclear plant?
  • Can the project support a gap in operations between the two plants?

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