Advanced Nuclear Energy can Support a Just Transition for Communities that were Reliant on Coal

The White House demonstrates its continued support for fossil fuel communities during the  current clean energy transition by standing up the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization (“Working Group”). The Working Group aims to deliver federal resources to revive the local economics of coal, oil and gas areas, particularly in the Appalachian Region.

On April 28th, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center hosted a “fireside chat” on an equitable low carbon energy transition in the Appalachian region. One of the panelists, the Honorable Joe Manchin, U.S. Senator from West Virginia, emphasized the significance of supporting former coal towns. He stated “coal miners have made this country what is today” and he wants to ensure the wages and jobs associated with the clean energy transition are comparable. In response to the idea of the Appalachian Region housing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), Sen. Machin said the best manufacturing sites in West Virginia are situated by water and tied to the existing grid system, making the transition to advanced nuclear technologies a quicker than manufacturing wind mills or solar panels.

The more the U.S. relies on advanced nuclear technologies as a clean energy source, the more jobs the nuclear industry creates. This is particularly critical in communities where fossil fuels traditionally consume the economic footprint. In 2019, nearly 1.7 million people worked in fossil fuel industries to include extraction activities, mining, utility construction, pipelines, and related manufacturing. And while the coal industry is declining, these jobs tend to cluster across metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and Houston, to mountainous counties in Wyoming and Pennsylvania, and expansive locations in West Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. Fortunately, many current fossil fuel hubs are ideal locations for advanced nuclear reactor siting and clean energy production.

Why Former Coal Hubs Are Suitable for Advanced Nuclear Siting

A critical aspect for expanding the use of nuclear energy is the availability of suitable sites for new plants. For example, optimal factors for the use of current light-water reactors include the need for adequate water supply and a reasonable distance from population centers to mitigate accident risk. As coal plants around the country close, these facilities could be retrofitted to site advanced nuclear reactors, keeping costs down, using existing infrastructure, and supporting the same community otherwise negatively impacted by the coal plant closure.  Coal plants are typically built next to water and the transmission structures are often still in place.

In contrast, with new advanced reactor technologies, the need for large supplies of water is often minimized due to their design. This makes counties in states with closing fossil fuel production facilities, like in West Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and North Dakota, viable options for revamping clean energy initiatives. It is also easier with advanced reactors to line up the lost megawatts from coal with the replaced megawatts from advanced nuclear due to their smaller size and scalability.

Additionally, with a much lower risk of accidental release, the emergency planning boundaries (known as emergency planning zones) for a plant could be significantly reduced. This is especially true for SMR designs (both light-water and nonlight water) which have a lower fuel loading and lower potential core damage frequency. These designs in turn may allow siting opportunities closer to population centers—perhaps as replacements for existing coal and gas generating plants.

Siting Advanced Nuclear Reactors in Former Coal Towns Will Alleviate the Job Market Pressure in those Communities

Training former coal plant workers to operate an advanced nuclear or small modular reactor presents efficient and natural transitions. President Biden stated that reaching 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 means “good-paying jobs.” The clean energy commitments and programs announced at the Climate Summit will require personnel support across the entire manufacturing, fuel cycle, operation, and oversight spectrum. This spectrum includes opportunities “deploying carbon pollution-free electricity generating resources, transmission, and energy storage, and leveraging the carbon pollution-free energy potential of power plants retrofitted with carbon capture and existing nuclear.”

While the clean energy revolution will create “good-paying, union jobs,” the initiatives made at the Climate Summit included projects that could involve former coal communities converting workers to clean jobs, transitioning to clean energy, and utilizing traditional ecological knowledge. For instance, the Working Group identified nearly $38 billion in existing federal funding that could be accessed by energy-viable communities for infrastructure, environmental remediation, union job creation, and community revitalization efforts. This funding includes support for abandoned mine land predominantly in Appalachia where communities have experienced job loss from coal power plant closures. This is also where some of the most competitive counties in wind and solar are concentrated.  And according to a White House report following the Climate Summit, funding designated for clean energy options, to include advanced nuclear technology, will be strengthened when tied to the historic energy relations within the Appalachia, as is also described in the American Jobs Plan. As discussed in a previous Hogan Lovells blog, the U.S. government investment in advanced nuclear technologies, through the American Jobs Plan supports, “high quality jobs.”

For more information, please contact one of the blog authors.


Authored by Amy Roma, Sachin Desai, and Stephanie Fishman.


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