Reuters' SMR Panel: Experts Discuss Coal to Nuclear Transition

May 5, 2023

Reuters' SMR Panel: Experts Discuss Coal to Nuclear Transition

ATLANTA — May 5, 2023 — At Reuters SMR & Advanced Reactor 2023, Anthropocene Institute sponsored the panel, "Recommissioning Sites & Re-Engaging People," with Dr. Leslie Dewan, CEO, RadiantNano as moderator and expert panelists Christine King, Director of Gateway for Acceleration in Nuclear Initiative (GAIN); Kirsty Gogan, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, TerraPraxis; and Adam Stein, Director, Nuclear Energy Innovation Program, The Breakthrough Institute.

The panel delved into the benefits, issues, and possible paths forward for repurposing coal plants using advanced nuclear reactor technologies. Dewan began by asking King how the cost and time of repurposing coal plant infrastructure compares to building a new nuclear power plant.

Coal plants: early adopter market for advanced reactors
Said King, "As I look at achieving a cleaner economy, and how much we need to build, not just technology but many technologies, you start to understand the importance of preservation of assets. And then when you think about the retirement of these coal stations and the communities they're in, if you are not compelled to help those energy professionals continue to be energy professionals, I'm not sure you've got a heart."

She added that the plan should include transitioning the workforce, training, the economic impact on the community, and technical details, including potential direct connection to the steam supply, water and rail assets, and permitting. "Coal stations could be our early adopter market," she said.

The ins and outs of siting
Stein discussed the site characterization process, which includes assessing boreholes, weather data, coal ash remediation, and other factors. He noted that some coal sites have been collecting data for decades that can be used to determine suitability. "Assuming there aren't barriers that prohibit you from using the site, an existing site is a shorter path than a greenfield site that you have no data on," he said.

The need for speedy action
Dewan asked the panelists to discuss the implications of coal ash contamination at existing sites. Answered King, "If you consider this early enough ahead of the plant's retirement, you can plan for the remediation that supports the transition. If you wait until you've decommissioned that site, that's a missed opportunity for remediation of the coal ash. So, the key is early action."

The panel discussed ways state laws and regulations could be adopted to facilitate the transition from coal to nuclear. Said Stein, "In our models, we see somewhere between 100 and 150 gigawatts of coal being replaced by nuclear, but those see an expected gap of somewhere around 17 years, and that gap is infeasible to keep the community together and keep the assets viable if you are reusing them. So, a policy that intentionally reduces that gap is vital."

Dewan then asked Gogan the most critical factors in siting, the environment, and meeting stakeholders' needs. Gogan noted that it is a $2 trillion opportunity globally, but it is challenging because we need the energy, and the communities rely on coal plants for jobs and reliable power. Said Gogan, "Given the scale of the new clean energy infrastructure needed, we need to value the existing coal plant assets and honor the communities operating the plants and supplying the United States and many other nations worldwide with energy, leading to prosperity."

She added that the key aspects to be considered include:

  • Optimizing the existing infrastructure as much as possible.
  • Using the current transmission.
  • Transferring skills.
  • Rapid timing to mitigate the risk of losing the existing fleet.

"Whether you are supplying clean steam to the existing turbines or co-locating a new power plant and using the auxiliary services and transmission lines, we need to act quickly to keep the workforce and communities available for the transition, but to do that at scale.”

King noted that some early screening has already occurred and is published in a Department of Energy report, citing that hundreds of retiring coal plants could convert to nuclear. Said King, "What I'm excited about is not only do we have the production tax credit for producing clean energy with nuclear that's available. We also have a new announcement from the administration about a month ago. If you deploy that clean energy in coal and fossil fuel communities, there's an additional 10 percent…Nuclear is on sale."

The U.S. paving the way toward a massive opportunity
Other considerations include varying ownership models for coal plants, the need to understand nuclear technology better, and the need for standard site permits. Gogan advocates for a project development-led approach. "In wind and solar, for example, you can see that there's much more of a project-development-led industry because the products being deployed are being made in factories with very predictable costs and schedules, and they're being installed on-site very quickly. And that makes a powerful investor case."

Gogan added that the world is watching the United States' clean energy transition and its ability to demonstrate its potential to the rest of the world, but first, the NRC needs to increase simplicity and efficiency in permitting and licensing without sacrificing safety.

All agreed there's a need to eliminate silos, think more broadly about how nuclear can help the energy transition, and consider combining many technologies, depending on the community and the situation. "The scale is huge," said Stein. Added Gogan, "We're thinking about coal because it's the single largest source of global carbon emissions. How many Boeing 737s get made every year? The answer is 700 — three per day. We are good at making highly regulated, high-performance, massive machines at scale, and we should be able to apply that industrial capability to producing these reactors. We are already finding huge markets for emissions-free heat, power, and steam supply for important industrial activities that keep our global economy moving."

King concluded by saying the U.S. can take the lead in the transition and help other countries make it as well. On a regional level, the transition can positively impact the economies of multiple states and communities. Said King, "This is everything. When I speak to the mayor of Saint Johns, Arizona, he does not want to see his grandkids move away. These are families that have lived in these towns for generations. They don't want to move. If that does not compel each of you to lend a little bit of your time and leadership in this space, I don't know what to say."

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