The US Department of Energy (DOE) yesterday released a study stating that 80% of US coal power plant sites could be converted to nuclear power plant sites in order to help the US achieve net zero by 2050.

Out of 157 retired coal plant sites and 237 operating coal plant sites that the study team identified, 80% have the potential to host advanced reactors smaller than the gigawatt scale. (Smaller nuclear reactors are cheaper and considered to be safer.) 

The study, which was conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory and sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, states:

For the recently retired plant sites evaluated, this represents a capacity potential of 64.8 GWe to be backfit at 125 sites. For the operating plant sites evaluated, this represents a capacity potential of 198.5 GWe to be backfit at 190 sites.

Based on the study’s hypothetical case study, which the authors say only informs at a “general level,” it notes 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 of 1,200 MWe generation capacity was reused, depending on nuclear technology choices and sizes. The report continues:

Nuclear replacement designs can have a lower capacity size because nuclear power plants run at higher capacity factors than coal power plants. In the case study replacing coal capacity with 924 MWe of nuclear capacity, the study team found regional economic activity could increase by as much as $275 million and add 650 new, permanent jobs to the region of analysis.

The DOE says that “coal-to-nuclear transitions could save millions of dollars by reusing the coal plant’s electrical equipment (e.g., transmission lines, switchyards), cooling ponds or towers, and civil infrastructure such as roads and office buildings.” 

Further, the study found that emissions in a (hypothetical) region could fall by 86% if nuclear power plants replace large coal plants, which is the equivalent of removing more than 500,000 gas cars off the road. 

Electrek’s Take

The US is a leading polluter, and it needs to reduce emissions now. Just this week, a new multi-agency report called United in Science (which the World Meteorological Organization coordinated) revealed that 2030 emissions reduction pledges need to be seven times higher in order to align with the 1.5C Paris Agreement goal.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres cited the summer’s global weather disasters and said, “There is nothing natural about the new scale of these disasters. They are the price of humanity’s fossil fuel addiction.”

Reuters notes that US power companies plan to retire or convert over 14,500 megawatts of coal-fired plants to natural gas in 2022, according to US Energy Information Administration and Thomson Reuters data.

It’s pointless and destructive to spend millions to move from one fossil fuel to another.

But nuclear also has some big drawbacks. Nuclear meltdowns are catastrophes, and reactors are often placed on coasts for easy access to water for cooling, and that’s where tsunamis and earthquakes occur. But nuclear plants are clean to run unlike fossil fuel plants, they’re more reliable than coal and gas, and they’re not an intermittent source of power.

And nuclear reactors do not produce emissions while they’re operating.

As my colleague Jameson Dow recently wrote, “Environmentalists are of two minds about nuclear power. On the one hand, it is highly energetic and produces zero carbon emissions; but on the other hand, it is costly and there is no permanent solution for radioactive waste.”

We at Electrek cannot stress enough that we are first and foremost in favor of wind and solar renewable energy, and those renewables should be prioritized. But we are in a climate emergency, and the US, as a major emitter, needs to do whatever it takes to get off of fossil fuels quickly.

Nuclear also takes a ton of time to bring online, so if the DOE can figure out a way to do that more quickly, then we want to hear what its strategy is.

Read more: California sets 2045 net-zero goal, keeps nuke plant open, and more


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About the Author

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in White River Junction, Vermont. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at michelle@9to5mac.com. Check out her personal blog.