New DOE Report shows former coal plants can support new nuclear plants and a just energy transition

A recent report released last week by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) shows that hundreds of coal plant sites could host new nuclear reactors.  Siting new nuclear at retiring coal sites, referred to as the “coal-to-nuclear” transition, offers positive economic and environmental impacts—with nuclear’s vast amount of carbon-free power and more limited environmental impacts.  Many of these coal plants are already or otherwise slated for retirement, and a new nuclear plant on these sites would boost the availability of well-paying jobs, and generate economic activity in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The report, called “Investigating Benefits and Challenges of Converting Retiring Coal Plants into Nuclear Plants”, was prepared by Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and assessed the possibility of converting coal power plants to nuclear sites in a bid to boost the country's net-zero drive.

The 127-page DOE report concludes that hundreds of United States coal power plant sites could be converted to nuclear power plant sites, adding new jobs, increasing economic benefit, and significantly improving environmental conditions. As part of the study contained in the report, the research team examined over 400 retired and operating coal plants based on a set of ten screening parameters, including population density, distance from seismic fault lines, flooding potential, and nearby wetlands, to determine if the sites could safely host a nuclear power plant. After screening, the research team identified 157 retired coal plants and 237 operating plants as potential candidates for a coal-to-nuclear transition. The report determined that 80% of those potential sites, with over 250 GW of generating capacity, are suitable for hosting advanced nuclear power plants, and that while these nuclear power plants vary in size and type, they could be deployed to match the size of the site being converted.  See DOE Report at pp. 2, 22, 71. 

In addition to evaluating existing sites, the research team analyzed hypothetical but representative coal power plant sites and the surrounding region to investigate the detailed impacts and potential outcomes of this transition. See DOE Report at pp. 2-3, 21.  The researchers’ economic and environmental impact analysis was based on a hypothetical 1,200-MW coal-fired power plant in the Midwest that is replaced with a 924-MW nuclear plant (referred to in the report as the “study”).  

While these coal plant sites possess the basic characteristics needed to house nuclear reactors, the report noted that further investigation is required before a coal-to-nuclear transition can occur, including a closer look into plant ownership, an in-depth evaluation coal power plant infrastructure, and a consideration of other factors that could pose siting challenges.

Ultimately, the report concluded that this feasible coupling would dramatically increase the supply of firm and dispatchable clean electricity to the grid and deliver huge gains to the nation’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.  We walk through the key benefits of the coal-to-nuclear transition contained in the report, some of which we also discussed in a previous blog.

Environmental benefits

  • Increase emissions-free capacity.  According to the report and the DOE summary of the report, the coal-to-nuclear transition could help increase nuclear capacity in the U.S. to more than 350 gigawatts (GW), compared to the existing fleet’s combined capacity of 95 GW which currently supplies half of the nation’s emissions-free electricity.
  • Improve air quality.  In addition to increasing emissions-free electricity capacity, a coal-to-nuclear transition could significantly improve air quality in communities around the country. The report found that for the study of the 924 MWe plant, generally greenhouse gas emissions in a region could fall by 86% when nuclear power plants replace large coal plants, which is equivalent to taking more than 500,000 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles off the roads.  See DOE Report at pp. 3, 62, 70.

Boosts the economy and jobs

  • Increase permanent jobs.  In the study on replacing coal capacity with 924 MWe of nuclear capacity, the report concluded that the coal-to-nuclear transition will add 650 new, permanent jobs to the region of analysis, and specifically boost the economy in disadvantaged communities. See DOE Report at pp. 2, 71-72.
    • These jobs would be distributed across the nuclear plant, the supply chain supporting the plant, and the community surrounding the plant.  For reference, prior to the coal site closure, employment at the case study site was estimated at 150 jobs. See DOE Report at pp. 2, 51, 56, 66, 72.
  • Boost to the economy.  In the study on replacing coal capacity with 924 MWe of nuclear capacity, regional economic activity could increase by as much as $275 million.  The $275 million gained from the impact of long-term jobs, implies a 92% tax revenue increase from the nuclear plant for the local county when compared to a scenario of all coal to one of all nuclear. See DOE Report at pp. 70, 71-72.

Cost Savings

  • Costs saved by using the existing infrastructure.  High construction costs have consistently plagued the nuclear energy industry for years, but a coal-to-nuclear transition can help lower these costs—especially for first-of-a-kind development projects.  According to the report, reusing coal infrastructure for new, advanced nuclear reactors could reduce costs for developing new nuclear technology and save around 15-35% in construction costs.  See DOE Report at pp. 2, 71-72.  
    • Additionally, projects could use the existing land, connection to the grid, and office buildings and the coal plant’s electrical equipment (transmission connection, switchyard, etc.) and civil infrastructure (roads, buildings, etc.) to save millions of dollars upfront. See DOE Report at pp. 2, 29-32.

Current initiatives mentioned in the report

  • The report comes as states and the federal government are looking for ways to take advantage of transmission lines and other equipment that was built to serve coal-fired power plants, in part, to support the communities around the retired or soon-to-be shuttered generating facilities.
  • Coal states such as Wyoming, Indiana and West Virginia are eyeing the potential of nuclear power and passed legislation this year as a first step toward encouraging the development of advanced reactors as a replacement for aging fossil fuel generation.
    • Already, nuclear company TerraPower has plans to build its first advanced reactor in Wyoming, at the site of Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton coal-fired power plant, which is due to close in 2025.  See DOE Report at p. 6.
    • NuScale is also examining the impacts of coal plant closures on reliant communities and on the need to ensure a just economic transition and how the NuScale VOYGR could replace decommissioned coal facilities facilities while helping to maintain the economic vitality of the workers and their communities.  See DOE Report at p. 5.

Additional reading to support evaluating a Coal-to-Nuclear Transition

We have evaluated transitioning retiring coal plants to nuclear power a number of times in the past and wrote about a coal-to-nuclear transition supporting a just energy transition in a prior blog post, available here.  Our evaluation concluded that many current fossil fuel hubs are ideal locations for advanced nuclear reactor siting and clean energy production, and highlighted the expected economic benefits that a transition to nuclear from coal would create for the local community and the state—on top of the immense amount of carbon-free power that it would generate.

A number of other recently published writings, reports, and legislation help support this transition.  We have covered many of these in recent blog posts, which contain hyperlinks to the underlying reports.  A few useful resources published in the last year or so are provided below:

  • UN Report. In a blog post, we analyzed a recent report from the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) released earlier this year, entitled “Life Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Options” (UNECE Report; Report).  The Report analyzes the environmental profiles of the full lifecycle of various technologies in order to evaluate their “all in” environmental costs—such as greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), human toxicity, water use, and other environmental and health metrics of different electricity sources—including wind, solar, coal, gas, hydro, and nuclear. In a finding that may be very surprising to many, but likely not those in the nuclear field, nuclear had some of the smallest impacts on the environment out of all the electricity sources analyzed.  So for an energy replacement source, the energy and environmental justice aspects of nuclear bode well.
  • IEA Report. In another blog post, we noted that nuclear’s unique role in the clean and secure energy transition was recently examined in a report released earlier this summer by the International Energy Agency (“IEA”), “Nuclear Power and Secure Energy Transitions: From Today’s Challenges to Tomorrow’s Clean Energy Systems.”  The IEA report examines how nuclear can address the two major crises the world is facing today—energy and climate— explaining that “[a]mid today’s global energy crisis, reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels has become the top energy security priority. No less important is the climate crisis: reaching net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century requires a rapid and complete decarbonization of electricity generation and heat production. Nuclear energy…contributes to both goals.”
  • Recent Legislation:
    • In the recently enacted CHIPS and Science Act passed into law in August, summarized here, we explained how the new legislation provides that DOE will establish a program to provide Federal financial assistance to eligible entities to support the research, development, and demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors, and that DOE is instructed by Congress to prioritize projects that would be located in communities that have retired or retiring fossil fuel electric generation facilities (coal plants), among other things.
    • The new Production Tax Credit for advanced nuclear in the Inflation Reduction Act passed into law in August, summarized here and here, provides a technology-neutral clean energy production credit that is 0.3 cents times the kWh base rate for ten years and starts in 2025. For energy communities, which includes coal communities, the PTC is increased to an extra 10% on top of the clean energy credit. Financial incentive such as these tax credits demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to a clean energy transition.
  • In Congressional testimony, blog author Amy Roma has explained how nuclear energy can support a clean energy transition, including by creating of number of wide-ranging skilled jobs, which pay, on average, higher than other power generation sources (testimony available here).  In fact, nuclear energy has the highest paying jobs in the entire electric power generation sector, with the average mid-wage workers earning somewhere between 22% and 25% more per hour than the next best paying electric power generation sector (e.g., coal and natural gas, respectively).  Additional information on jobs and nuclear is available in the following two reports:  Energy Futures Initiative and the National Association of State Energy Officials, U.S. Energy and Employment Report (see pages 108, 113 and 119 (2020) and American Nuclear Society, The U.S. Nuclear R&D Imperative: A Report of the American Nuclear Society Task Force on Public Investment in Nuclear Research and Development, at 13 (Feb. 2021).​​​
  • IPCC Report.  When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report (IPCC Report) on August 9, 2021 saying that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, it likely came as no surprise to anyone.  What was surprising, however, was how confident the report was in its key messages, including that climate change is humans’ fault; it is “unequivocal” that human activity has caused global warning, causing rapid and widespread warming of the atmosphere, ocean, and land; climate change is happening faster than we thought; world carbon dioxide levels are at an all-time high; changes like this to the climate system haven’t happened in thousands of years; and every place on the planet is being affected right now. In this blog post, we examined the IPCC report findings and the unique role that nuclear can play in the energy transition.
  • A World in Energy Crisis.  In this blog post, we examine how the invasion of Ukraine, coupled with the impacts of climate change (such as more extreme weather events) are pushing a number of countries towards developing new nuclear.

 

 

For more information on the coal-to-nuclear transition, please contact Amy Roma, Partner, or Stephanie Fishman, Associate.

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Contacts
Amy Roma
Partner

 

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