Advanced Reactors Can Help Coal Country Transition to a Carbon-Free Future

  • Jun 02, 2021
  • NEI

Policymakers, climate advocates and innovators agree that we need to begin a major shift away from carbon emitting fuel sources and use every carbon-free energy source we can to reach our climate goals.

For over 50 years, the U.S. has relied on coal-fired power plants to produce the majority of its electricity, but in the effort to reduce emissions, utilities are looking to cleaner sources of energy. Innovations like carbon capture and storage will be an important development for the path to a carbon-free future and could bring a second life to some coal facilities, but moving from fossil fuels to clean energy means coal plants will continue to close.

It is vitally important to reduce emissions, but closing any major power plant can harm communities that have come to rely on the jobs and tax revenues those plants provide. Plus, this transition also creates a void in our energy system as coal facilities provide reliable electricity around-the-clock.

Enter nuclear energy. Nuclear is uniquely positioned to fill the void created by coal plant closures and ensure that no communities are left behind in the transition to a carbon-free future. In fact, the possibility of transitioning retired coal plants to nuclear power has been gaining steam.

Today, advanced reactor developer TerraPower LLC announced that it will partner with energy company PacifiCorp to advance its Natrium design at a coal plant scheduled for retirement in Wyoming.

TerraPower received $80 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program last year to deploy the Natrium reactor, a design that features thermal storage to provide flexible power and integrate with renewable energy sources. Now the developer will advance a demonstration project at a coal plant designated for retirement and operated by Rocky Mountain Power, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp.

“I think that’s how we can lead fossil energy communities who have literally powered our country and our economy for decades,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. “We can lead them into the clean energy future. They have powered our past, we want them to power our future as well.”

“This is what innovation and energy innovation looks like in America,” added Sen. Barrasso (R-Wyo.)

Other companies pursuing advanced reactors, like the Tennesse Valley Authority and NuScale Power LLC, have expressed interest in retired coal plants as sites for advanced reactors as well. And so have states like Montana, North Dakota, Utah and West Virginia.

“It’s really exciting to see the opportunities that we would have,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) at an Atlantic Council event when discussing the possibility of siting advanced reactors on coal plants slated for retirement.

There are two distinct advantages to replacing retired coal plants with small modular reactors (SMRs) and other advanced reactors.

First, the next generation of reactors will provide reliable, clean energy 24/7, pairing well with wind and solar energy as part of a cleaner grid. Coal has historically been used as baseload generator running at all hours of the day. Maintaining a reliable grid will require technologies that can produce electricity during those times that were previously served by coal generation.

Second, transitioning retired coal plants to nuclear energy creates new career opportunities for the existing coal workforce and supports those local communities that had been home to them. The coal industry has a significant amount of existing talent that the nuclear industry is well positioned to utilize, especially since many of the functions needed to run a new nuclear plant have direct analogs in coal plants. The nuclear industry also offers the highest median wage across the energy sector.

“Many of the skills required, like operating a steam turbine, are highly transferable. I know that firsthand,” said NEI President and Chief Executive Officer Maria Korsnick. “When I worked at a nuclear plant in Maryland and later managed one in New York, workers from fossil-fuel plants would come work hand-in-hand with us for our scheduled refueling outages.”

“Workers from across energy sources built today’s nuclear fleet,” she continued. “Workers from those same energy sources can help build the fleet of the 21st century.”

SMRs and advanced reactors will also be able to take advantage of the land, grid interconnection and cooling water available at existing coal plants to reduce the cost of providing electricity.

TerraPower’s announcement is an important step towards our climate goals.

While the nuclear industry is in a strong position to support the transition of existing coal plants and workers to new nuclear plants, there isn’t a guarantee that this will happen organically. Well-designed policies can help facilitate the connection between communities and companies as well as accelerate the window to build and begin operating a new nuclear plant.

The path to a carbon-free future will transform the entire economy with innovation and opportunity. Through new approaches to siting advanced reactors, nuclear energy is poised to eliminate carbon emissions and provide jobs to more communities in the process.