Retired coal sites seen as prime location for SMRs

Old, retired coal-fueled power plants are the perfect sites for small modular reactors (SMRs) as they provide usable infrastructure, an experienced workforce, and a compelling narrative of swapping dirty energy for clean, say company heads, industry experts and legislators.

Communities, such as this in front of the coal-fired William H. Zimmer Power Station in Ohio, would readily take on an SMR if the coal plant closed (Source: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

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Over the last year, SMRs have made major advances toward full licensing, seen increased government support on the back of more aggressive carbon reduction goals and gained traction amongst a new wave of environmentalists looking  to reduce emissions.

The rising public acceptance of SMRs and the new generation of advanced nuclear reactors has, in recent months, prompted developers to begin proposing potential sites and old coal facilities are emerging as clear front runners.

“As people come to grips with the reality of closing down coal plants, they’re realizing the huge impact on the local economy, including lost jobs and all of the economically vital contributions that the coal plant has been providing, and they’re asking what to do about that,” says Nuclear Energy Institute’s (NEI) Director of New Reactor Development Marc Nichol.

“Wind and solar just don’t bring the jobs or the economic benefits a nuclear power plant does. Nuclear plants bring a lot of high paying jobs and will continue to reinvigorate the economic situation of our communities. That’s the driving forces and why it’s become so important now.”

Local support

Nichol testified as an informational witness in February to make the case for converting one of the western United States’ largest coal plants, in the town Colstrip, Montana, into a nuclear power plant. The Montana Senate Energy and Telecommunications committee voted 9-1 to approve the bill, known as SJ 3, for a study on the feasibility of replacing coal-fired boilers with SMRs.

Units 1 and 2 of the Colstrip plant was closed in early 2020 and the remaining two units, with a combined capacity of 1,480 MW, will be affected by coal power bans in those states starting in 2025.

“I don’t remember any negative testimony,” says Nichol. “The most interesting testimonies were from the community, with the mayor saying the town wanted (the SMRs) because it was a way to retain jobs that would be lost.”

Even the local fossil-fuels association said they wanted SMRs because they recognized coal plants were on their way out and the community needed the power and the jobs, says Nichol.

During a press conference to announce that TerraPower would build its first-of-a-kind Natrium demonstration project at the site of a retiring coal plant in Wyoming, state governor Mark Gordon said the move was “game changing and monumental.”

“What has me most excited about this decision is that TerraPower has chosen to use a retired coal plant site which is using the existing energy infrastructure to bring new economic life into the surrounding community,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said at the same event which also included an appearance by TerraPower Chairman and co-founder Bill Gates.

Out with the old…

In 2015, coal plants generated 39% of power generated in the United States, or some 286 GW of capacity, but climate change concerns, couple with tightening environmental regulations, and aging infrastructure – more than half coal generating capacity is over 40 years old – means the fossil fuel’s contribution is falling rapidly.

The United States plans to retire 73 coal plants by 2030, representing some 38 GW of generating capacity, and by 2040, more than 200 coal facilities are slated to be taken offline, according to a study by NuScale whose SMR was the first ever to receive Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) design approval after completing its Phase 6 review last August.

Notably, however, coal is not the fuel that will see the greatest level of decommissioning this year.  

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest inventory of electric generators, 9.1 GW of electric generating capacity is scheduled to retire this year, with nuclear accounting for 56% of total capacity retirements, followed by coal, at 30%.

...and in with the new

SMR operators argue that their generators can fit nicely into an existing coal-fired plant property, much more so than a wind or solar plant which could also be under consideration as states move to cleaner power generation.

A nuclear energy facility requires about 1.3 square miles (3.4 square kilometers) per 1,000 MW of installed capacity, according to the NEI, compared to 94 square miles for wind and 17 square miles for solar for the same amount of electricity.

“Four of the most important features that coal plants have that a replacement thermal power plant needs are: a sufficient amount of land to site the new plant, a transmission system connection, a suitable source of cooling water, and a workforce trained in, and capable of, operating and maintaining the power plant,” says NuScale’s Vice President for Marketing and Communications Diane Hughes.

According to the NuScale study, on average $100 million of existing coal plant infrastructure could be reused for one of their power plants.     

An SMR can utilize existing energy infrastructure including the transmission system connection, cooling water delivery systems, as well as administrative, warehouse and other existing buildings.

Comparison of employment and life cycle cost and environmental impact of various power plants

(Source: NuScale SMR Technology. An Ideal Solution for Repurposing U.S. Coal Plant Infrastructure and Revitalizing Communities) 

Approval needed

While administrative offices, railway and road connections, and warehouses can be reused without triggering safety concerns, some systems will need to seek regulatory approval before they are plugged into a brand-new reactor.

An existing water-cooling delivery system would need an engineering assessment to ensure it could meet all the requirements for use with a nuclear plant, including heat removal capacity, flow rates, water quality etc, NuScale’s Hughes says.

An appropriate engineering evaluation would also need to be performed to confirm the usability of existing transmission lines to ensure the energy output from the new plant is within the capacity of the existing lines.

Personnel would also need to be retrained.

“Considerable overlap exists between job functions at a coal power plant to a nuclear power plant. In fact, nuclear is uniquely positioned to redirect skilled workers from the coal power industry to new nuclear plants, while historically offering the highest median wage across the entire energy sector,” TerraPower says in an emailed response to questions.

“Thousands of highly skilled workers will be needed to build the Natrium plant and hundreds more workers to operate it for decades to come. A big part of the reason TerraPower is interested in these sites is the workforce that is already available in these communities.”

A 600 MW SMR plant, around the size of an average coal plant, would bring around 300 permanent jobs, says the NEI, with many coal plant jobs – including mechanics, welders or electricians - directly transferrable to a nuclear plant.

“Of course, differences do exist in typical coal-fueled plant operations, safety culture, programs and processes, procedures, systems, structures, and components (SSCs) that create a knowledge/ability (K/A) gap; however, performing a K/A gap analysis will inform and support a training and position placement plan,” says NuScale’s Hughes.

And retraining for those that do need it will be provided by the incoming operators, Hughes says.

“The nuclear industry is very well established at training people into the workforce. We’re not talking about long training programs of six or seven years, we’re talking about a yearlong or less training program in most cases,” said NEI’s Marc Nichol.

The important thing for local and state-wide legislators looking for reelection is that they can assure local communities that jobs will stay in the area, a vital piece of the puzzle for an industry that desperately needs local support to succeed and reflected in Gate’s own speech during the TerraPower announcement in Wyoming.  

“We will build Natrium in a community that knows what it takes to support a major energy project. By doing so we’ll help launch a new era in energy by building off the foundation laid by Wyoming’s energy sector workforce. We need your expertise and skills to help make this a reality,” Gates said.

By Paul Day