Coal to Nuclear (C2N) Transitions
As local governments, industries, and policymakers explore the different pathways in the clean energy transition, another innovative option has entered the conversation: transitioning former coal facilities to nuclear plants. A coal-to-nuclear (C2N) transition would install a nuclear reactor at the site of a retired coal power plant. Indeed, if demonstrations perform as anticipated, a C2N has the potential for deep and long-lasting environmental and economic benefits and provide robust zero-carbon energy.
The Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act both have incentives for the nuclear industry and provide guidance to prioritize coal communities. A September 2022 report from the Department of Energy (DoE) supercharged the nuclear conversation by outlining many of the benefits of a C2N transition, including that C2N could be “a way to replace the retiring coal generation capacity while utilizing what would otherwise be stranded assets” and help lower costs for nuclear infrastructure by 15-30%. The report estimates that a C2N transition could provide more than 250 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity (compared to the current capacity of 95 GW) as well as provide economic opportunities to owners, jobs, and environmental benefits to the surrounding communities. It specifically identified 157 retired coal power plants (CPP), 80% of which were conducive for siting advanced non-light-water reactors (ARs), and 22% of which were amenable to siting large light-water reactors (LWRs). Similarly, the report identified 237 CPP sites that were still operational, 80% of which would be amenable to siting ARs and 40% of which would be amenable to siting LWRs.
C2N is still in its infancy, but cautious optimism is growing. Major coal and fossil fuel-producing states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and others are rethinking their approach to nuclear altogether. In 2020, DOE awarded funding for the first domestic C2N demonstration project in Wyoming. The public-private partnership has a goal to build two reactors that can be operational within the next seven to ten years. (The war in Ukraine has caused supply chain challenges and a delay in the original timeline.) X-energy, a Maryland-based energy company, and Frostburg State University have also received grants from the Maryland Energy Administration to explore a C2N transition. And Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, Breakthrough Energy, and TerraPower, one of the key players in the Wyoming project, recently visited West Virginia to explore the potential for additional nuclear energy activities in the heart of coal country.
Technology aside, a nuclear workforce remains a common question for C2N transitions. Although not explicitly tied to nuclear, Executive Order 14008 established the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization aimed at providing funding and re-skilling opportunities for former coal workers, which could further facilitate a C2N transition and provide the workforce needed to achieve widespread economic and environmental benefits. There is natural overlap in the energy communities identified in the Working Group’s 2021 Initial Report with the CPPs listed in the DoE report, and since several coal-dominant regions like Appalachia already have dedicated grants to fund transition activities, the financial and administrative infrastructure already exists to build the future workforce. And as The Good Energy Collective points out, “the long, multi-year lead times ahead of a plant closure…gives power plant owners comparatively more time to develop strategies on providing alternatives for their workforces.” Likewise, many jobs are transferable, including project managers, supervisors, engineers, mechanics, and security. As such, even though the final demonstration is years away, the foundations for workforce and infrastructure transition are in place.
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