SMR Technology: Repurposing Coal Plants to Revitalize Communities

By: Dr. José Reyes, NuScale Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer

Last year, about 9.2 GW of coal generation retired and another 3.2 GW is expected to go offline this year - a small sliver of the changes happening to the generation mix of our national energy infrastructure. Overall, approximately 73 coal plants are expected to retire across the U.S. by 2030, and a decade later, energy experts expect a total of more than 200 coal plants will shutter due to the increasing desirability of carbon-free energy sources.

We all know that these coal plants are economic anchors in their communities and deeply intertwined with the local economy. Schools, public infrastructure, and local businesses depend on the direct and indirect economic benefits these plants provide and the effects of plant closures can ripple throughout the community and beyond.

Local leaders, community members, and our state and national governments know how challenging this transition away from our existing energy infrastructure will be, and they want to ensure that no community is left behind. For example, in April 2021, the Department of Energy announced that it will dedicate $109.5 million of funding to directly support job creation in communities impacted by changes in the energy economy.

But the question remains on how to use this support in the most effective and impactful way while meeting several requirements. Our nation needs to replace 145 GW of baseload energy by 2050, while maintaining grid reliability, achieving climate goals and preserving jobs and economic benefits. We’ve already seen coal plants in the United States retrofitted to become natural gas plants, which is a great reuse of existing infrastructure, but ultimately does not support our national climate goals – achieving 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2045. And unfortunately, renewables like solar and wind cannot completely substitute for fossil fuel plants when it comes to providing around-the-clock energy.

Adding new nuclear technologies to the generation mix can help replace this lost baseload energy with reliable, carbon-free energy. Currently, nuclear power provides around 20% of the electricity in the U.S. and already generates more than half of our country’s carbon-free electricity. Advanced nuclear could increase this share to reliably meet energy and climate needs, while complementing intermittent renewable sources.

Groundbreaking companies are developing smaller, safer nuclear technology that can fit within the physical footprint of an existing coal plant, and reuse some plant infrastructure, like costly transmission connections to the grid. On average, $100M of existing coal plant infrastructure could be reused for a NuScale Power plant.

Each 12-module NuScale plant would also create an estimated 1,600 jobs over the construction period of the plant, in addition to 270 operations jobs and 667 indirect jobs in the region over the estimated 60-year lifetime of the facility. Many coal plant jobs are directly transferrable to a nuclear plant: like electricians, mechanics, welders, equipment operators, and engineers. Additionally, each year, an operating nuclear power plant in the U.S. generates, on average, $470M in sales of goods and services in the local community and pays around $16M in state and local taxes.

There are many opportunities across the U.S. to replace coal plants with SMRs to provide clean energy to meet America’s increasing energy demands, while preserving the jobs, the tax base and the economic vibrancy that these plants currently provide. And on the local and state level, policymakers, organizations, environmentalists and energy experts are beginning to recognize this expansive opportunity before them. Just this summer, the Chief Executive and President of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – the largest public power utility in the U.S. with five active coal plants – noted the viability he saw in using retired plants location as SMR sites. And earlier this year, the Montana State Legislature approved a joint resolution to study the feasibility of replacing coal-fired boilers with SMRs in the state.

Our country’s coal consumption peaked more than 13 years ago, and in April, the largest coal miners’ union accepted the Biden administration’s plan to move away from fossil fuels with the caveat that the transition provide good jobs. The momentum to repurpose and revitalize coal communities is already here. We must seize this opportunity to create the most sustainable, economically viable future by using the best-fit solution – new nuclear.