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Study Analyzes Opportunity to turn Coal Plants into Nuclear Facilities

Researchers from the Bipartisan Policy Center recently released a report assessing the opportunities and challenges associated with repowering former coal-fired power plants with nuclear energy. The report, titled “Can Advanced Nuclear Repower Coal Country?”, was published in March of this year.

A quarter of the country’s coal-fired power plants are set to retire by 2029. This reality, coupled with the current state of advanced nuclear energy, presents a major opportunity, according to the study.

Advanced nuclear energy simply refers to new technologies that have been developed beyond a traditional system. Such technologies include fourth-generation reactors with improved efficiency and safety and small modular reactors, or SMRs. Advancements in the latter, according to the study, are the technology that provides new opportunities for coal plants.

SMRs are, as their name suggests, simply smaller-scaled nuclear power plants. The advantages include a smaller facility footprint and a modular nature allowing for easier maintenance and changes to the facility, all while still being able to generate up to 300 MW of energy per reactor.

According to the study, existing coal infrastructure, and well as the workforce, is uniquely suited for SMR deployment. Eighty percent of “evaluated coal plants” currently have the characteristics necessary for an SMR retrofit and 77 percent of existing jobs within a coal plant are transferable to nuclear facilities. Deployment of SMRs could create over 650 new jobs, all of which pay higher wages compared to coal-fired plants, according to the report.

Most importantly, there is funding for such a transition. As part of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden Administration has earmarked $450 million specifically for the development of clean energy projects at former coal sites, as well as several tax credits and other economic incentives for generating zero-emission nuclear energy. The Fission for the Future Act allots another $800 million for coal-to-nuclear developments.

There are significant challenges, however, most importantly the infancy of SMR development. The first SMR design was just approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in January of this year, but won’t come online until 2029 at the earliest, thus illuminating another complication: timing. For SMRs to be efficiently and effectively deployed, there needs to be coordination between a coal plant’s retirement and the construction of the SMR as a replacement.

However, nuclear technology has been improving rapidly and the available federal funding for research and development should further encourage its advancement in the coming years.

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