Should US coal plants become nuclear? The DOE agrees.

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Should US coal plants become nuclear? The DOE agrees. According to research published yesterday by the US Department of Energy (DOE), 80% of existing coal power plant sites in the US could be repurposed as nuclear power plant sites, bringing the country closer to its goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

The study team found that out of 237 active coal plant sites and 157 decommissioned coal plant sites, 80% could host advanced reactors with a capacity of less than one gigawatt. Generally speaking, smaller nuclear reactors are safer and more cost-effective.

Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory collaborated on the study for the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. They found that there is the potential for 64.8 GWe to be back fit at 125 sites, all of which are at plants that have recently been retired. This equates to a possible backfire capacity of 198.5 GWe at 190 sites, all of which are active power plants.

The authors admit that the hypothetical case study only informs at a “general level,” but they do note that “nuclear overnight costs of capital could decrease by 15% to 35% when compared to a greenfield construction project” if the infrastructure of a coal plant with 1,200 MWe generation capacity was reused. This range is dependent on the choice of nuclear technology and the size of the nuclear reactors. What follows next in the report:

Because nuclear power facilities operate at higher capacity factors than coal power plants, plans to replace them can have a smaller capacity size. The example study revealed that if coal capacity was replaced with nuclear power (924 MWe), the regional economy might grow by as much as $275 million and gain 650 permanent jobs.

The Department of Energy estimates that “coal-to-nuclear conversions might save millions of dollars by reusing the coal plant’s electrical equipment (e.g., transmission lines, switchyards), cooling ponds or towers,” as well as “civil infrastructure” including roads and office buildings.

More importantly, the study discovered that if nuclear power facilities replaced huge coal plants, emissions in a (fictitious) region might fall by 86%, which is equivalent to taking almost 500,000 gas automobiles off the road.

Considerations from Electrek.

The United States is a major polluter and immediate action to cut emissions is required. In order to meet the 1.5C Paris Agreement target, emission reduction promises need to be seven times greater by 2030, according to a new multi-agency assessment dubbed United in Science (organized by the World Meteorological Organization).

When asked about the unprecedented scale of weather disasters this summer, UN Secretary-General António Guterres replied, “There is nothing natural about the new scale of these tragedies.” They are the result of humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels.

According to the US Energy Information Administration and Thomson Reuters statistics, US power firms aim to retire or convert roughly 14,500 megawatts of coal-fired units to natural gas in 2022.

Spending billions switching from one fossil fuel to another is wasteful and harmful.

Although nuclear has many benefits, it also has major downsides. Reactors are frequently located near coasts for convenient access to water for cooling, but this puts them in danger from natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. In contrast to their fossil fuel counterparts, nuclear power plants produce zero emissions during operation; they are also more reliable and constant than their coal and gas counterparts.

Also, nuclear power plants generate zero emissions when they are running.

The environmental community is split on the issue of nuclear power, as my colleague, Jameson Dow pointed out in a recent article. It’s extremely energizing and doesn’t release any carbon into the atmosphere, but it’s expensive and there’s no long-term plan for dealing with radioactive waste.

Electrek is staunchly in support of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and we believe they should be given top billing. However, the world is currently experiencing a climate emergency, making it imperative that the United States, as a major emitter, take immediate action to transition away from fossil fuels.

Bringing online nuclear plants also takes a long time, so if the DOE has a plan to shorten this period of time, we’d like to hear it.