Old coal-fired power plants could gain a second life as sites for nuclear units, DOE says
Energize Weekly, September 21, 2022
Old coal-fired power plants could have an economical, second life as sites for a new generation of nuclear power projects, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Siting nuclear capacity at coal power plants (CPPs) could boost local economies and, by taking advantage of existing infrastructure and grid access, decrease the construction cost of a nuclear plant by 15 percent to 35 percent, when compared with building on a vacant or “greenfield” site.
The study – done by researchers at the Argonne, Idaho, and Oak Ridge national laboratories – identified 198 operating coal-fired plants that could accommodate 200 gigawatts of nuclear capacity and 125 retired plant sites that could house another 65 gigawatts.
“The study team estimates that 80 percent of retired and operating coal power plant sites that were evaluated have the basic characteristics needed to be considered amenable to host an advanced nuclear reactor,” DOE said.
The study focused on locating so-called, new generation nuclear plants at the old power plant sites using NuScale Power’s modular plants and TerraPower’s fast reactors. Both are smaller, and less expensive to build that traditional light water reactors, but both are still in development.
TerraPower does have a project underway to build one of its Natrium sodium fast reactors (SFR) at the site of the Naughton coal-fired plant in Kemmer, Wyoming, which is slated to be closed in 2025. The TerraPower project is not scheduled to come online until 2028.
The size of the nuclear replacement units can be smaller than the old coal-fired plants because they run at a higher capacity factor, the study said.
“Environmental and climate change concerns place pressure on utility plant owners to retire CPPs,” the study said. “Greater emphasis on a decarbonized economy and increasing competitive economic pressure … have caused utility owners across the United States to retire many CPPs.”
In the face of this wave of closures, the DOE said, a switch from coal to nuclear could provide a variety of potential positive economic impacts.
In a case study, replacing coal capacity with 924 MW 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.
One of the major concerns for counties facing the closure of coal-fired plants is the loss the tax base, but the study calculated that the addition of a nuclear plant would actually boost tax revenues 92 percent when compared to a scenario of all coal to one of all nuclear.
The coal-fired plant sites offer the opportunity to reuse the electrical switchyards and grid connections and possibly the steam system at the facility, as well as other buildings, creating potential savings.
Siting a 500-megawatt SFR at a coal-fired plant could save between $493 million and $872 million on the $2.46 billion price tag of a project built on a greenfield site, the study estimated. The report used a metric that calculates all the costs for a project all at once – as if it were built overnight.
“The cost savings estimated for the overnight capital cost are significant, especially when considering the total value of nuclear projects,” the DOE said.
“Many communities across the United States and around the globe rely heavily on aging coal facilities and are looking at options to develop or buy clean energy to meet their future needs,” Judi Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, an industry trade group, said in a statement.
“Repowering coal plants with advanced nuclear energy advances decarbonization while taking advantage of a local workforce with experience running energy facilities,” Greenwald said.