Washington, DC – American utilities are shifting away from coal for economic and environmental reasons, displacing traditional energy communities across the country. To keep the next generation of energy jobs and production in these communities, a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center assesses the opportunities and hurdles for retiring coal plants to be replaced by advanced nuclear small modular reactors (SMR). It finds that transitioning to a nuclear SMR would result in a net-increase of local jobs while delivering the flexibility to scale clean, firm, dispatchable power generation that maintains grid reliability.
The coal power plant industry lost 12% of its workforce between 2019 and 2022, and one quarter of U.S. coal plants are currently scheduled to retire by 2029. The report, Can Advanced Nuclear Repower Coal Country?, points out that among the benefits for communities interested in replacing aging coal plants, 77% of coal plant jobs are transferable to nuclear plants with no new workforce licensing requirements.
“Often, coal plants are the largest and highest paying employer for rural towns. Plant closures have economic and social impacts that can ripple through an entire community,” said Lesley Jantarasami, managing director of BPC’s Energy Program. “Replacing retired coal plants with advanced nuclear could be a lifeline for displaced workers and communities, while also reaping major air quality and climate benefits.”
Advanced nuclear’s small land usage is notable when compared to renewable technologies. Per 1,000 MWh, solar requires 68 sq. miles, wind requires 268.9 sq miles, while the average nuclear plant requires only 1.1 sq miles.
The report also highlights the cost-savings for nuclear developers, finding that, depending on the infrastructure reutilized, nuclear plants constructed at the site of outgoing coal plants can potentially reduce costs by 15% to 35%, compared to standalone projects. In addition, the recently enacted CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act include funding and tax credit support for coal-to-nuclear plant transitions, making these projects more attractive to investors.
However, there are important challenges that community leaders should debate when considering SMRs: Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and technological infancy create uncertainties for SMR construction timelines; and to ensure a smooth transition for the local energy workforce, the coal plant retirement and nuclear operation dates must be aligned.