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Can Advanced Nuclear Repower Coal Country?

With nearly a quarter of the U.S. coal-fired fleet scheduled to retire by 2029, replacing retiring coal power plants with advanced nuclear, specifically small modular reactors (SMR), has been put forth as a strategy to maintain local employment and economic opportunities for existing energy workers and communities, while simultaneously pursuing national climate goals. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) recent and groundbreaking certification of the country’s first SMR design pushes the technology closer to maturity. As SMRs shift toward commercial deployment, identifying the existing opportunities and hurdles is vital to create a pathway for future coal-to-nuclear transition projects.

This report analyzes the benefits and challenges of a coal-to-nuclear transition and highlights recent legislation that may hasten such a transition.

SMRs Unlock New Possibilities:

  • 80% of evaluated coal plants have the basic characteristics needed to be repowered by an SMR, according to a Department of Energy study analyzing recently and soon to be retired coal plants.
  • SMRs have flexible power output levels, allowing SMR developers to match the output of a retiring coal plant and capacity restrictions of equipment, unlike the fixed capacity of traditional nuclear plants.
  • Small land usage required for nuclear plants combined with SMRs’ unique flexibility to scale power generation make the footprint of SMRs suitable for replacing a retiring coal plant.

Potential Benefits of Coal-to-Nuclear Projects:

  • Nuclear energy provides firm, dispatchable clean energy, maintaining grid reliability while pursuing climate goals.
  • 77% of coal plant jobs are transferable to nuclear plants with no new workforce licensing requirements.
  • Net increase of more than 650 jobs could be created in regions where SMRs repower retiring coal plants.
  • Jobs at nuclear plants provide higher wages compared to coal plants, which would boost local tax revenue.
  • SMRs can reuse coal plant transmission infrastructure, reducing SMR construction cost and avoiding some permitting challenges.
  • SMRs can reuse coal plant electrical equipment and steam-cycle components, which, combined with reuse of transmission and administrative buildings, can reduce SMR construction cost by 17% to 35%.

Challenges to Address:

  • Coal plant retirement and SMR operation dates must be aligned for a smooth workforce transition and to prevent existing transmission and water infrastructure from being utilized by another project.
  • NRC licensing and technological infancy create uncertainties for SMR construction timelines.
  • 23% of coal plant positions require extensive retraining or licensing to transfer to a nuclear plant, including operators, senior managers, and technicians.
  • Coal plant equipment reutilization may be limited due to coal plants having multiple, smaller units with less capacity than what’s needed for an SMR.
  • Some states have laws restricting new nuclear development, which can limit overall coal-to-nuclear opportunities.

Recent Policy Progress:

  • Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits that make advanced nuclear projects and new energy investment in coal communities more attractive to investors.
  • Fission for the Future Act, included in the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, authorizes $800 million to support coal-to-nuclear projects.
  • Some states overturned bans on new nuclear, including Montana, West Virginia, and Connecticut.
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