Converting Coal Plants into Nuclear Plants

The coal-to-nuclear (C2N) transition was the subject of study conducted by eight scientists from the Idaho National Lab, Argonne National Lab and Oak Ridge National Labs during 2022. They looked at three key issues: 1) what factors make a site transition feasible; 2) what factors involved in the transition drive project economics; and 3) how will a C2N shift impact the local community. 

The study team screened both recently retired and still operating coals plants to those with nuclear-feasible locations.  They identified 157 potential candidates of retired coal sites and 237 operating candidate sites and found that 80% of the candidate sites have the basic characteristics needed to make a transition to nuclear feasible.  About 125 recently retired coal sites could be economically transitioned to produce a potential of nearly 65 GWe of clean energy and 190 operating site could be transitioned to generate almost 200 GWe of clean energy.

The report evaluates the potential outcomes of a C2N transition using a case study looking at replacing a 1,200 MWe coal plant. It found that the nuclear overnight costs of capital could decrease by 15% to 35% as compared to a greenfield construction project, because of the ability of the nuclear plant to retain and use existing coal plant infrastructure.  The replacement nuclear designs can be sized to be smaller than the coal plants, for the case study down to 924 MWe of nuclear generation, since nuclear has a higher capacity factor. Additionally, regional economic activity was estimated to increase by as much as $275 million and add an estimated 650 permanent jobs to the region, all while decreasing GHG emissions in the community by as much as 86%.

Based on the results of the study, four key high-level conclusions are drawn:

  1. Economic potential exists for owners of CPPs and communities where such plants are located. The study results suggest tangible, economic value in C2N transition for entities that own CPPs. The cost savings estimated for the overnight capital cost are significant, especially when considering the total value of nuclear projects. The second takeaway with respect to economic potential is that C2N transitions may be an economic boost for disadvantaged communities. This implication is balanced on the environmental side with the study finding that GHG emissions in the region can decrease by as much as 86%.

  2. Opportunities likely exist for firstmover projects. Building on the last point, the study results suggest economic potential for communities and firms that pursue C2N transitions. An implication of this is that there is a potential advantage for interested coal communities to be first movers in what could be a series of many C2N transitions across the United States. Working with local ownership of the CPPs, early adopter communities can “get ahead” of the transition by working with utility management to update integrated resource plans with a focus on C2N transitions. This may be especially important for a utility ownership that does not currently have nuclear as part of their energy generation portfolio. The utility stands to save on capital costs from repurposed infrastructure, and the community stands to mitigate negative outcomes from shutdown of the local power

  3. Extensions of this analysis. This study looks at a single strategy for decarbonizing the U.S. economy: C2N transition where the modeled transition is CPP sites to NPP sites. A limitation of the study is it does not evaluate impacts to the coal mining sector and other upstream (beyond the region of analysis) supplychain issues. Related to supplychain analysis is the assessment of life cycle GHGs. Recognizing that constructing NPPs creates emissions is also not reflected in this study. This leaves open the opportunity in a broader, supplychain analysis to evaluate this impact. Also, related to supply chain is the unions’ role in facilitating workforce transition.
  4. How can this study be used to set up sitespecific analysis? The generallevel findings of this study may be informative for casespecific applications. Examples of how the findings could be used to set up a more indepth analysis of C2N transition include:
    a) Using the findings in the TEA portion of the study to compare alternative nuclear designs with plant specific characteristics at a CPP; b) The systembysystem analysis can inform an approach for analyzing in robust detail the extent of how CPP infrastructure that can be repurposed at a new NPP site and the results of such analysis could then be used to refine the extent of cost savings; c) The TEA also dealt with many of the project planning and implementation aspects of a transition that should be
    considered, which will be informative with respect to the time gap, and therefore, the revenue gap, between shutting down a CPP and the point where revenue generation begins at the NPP.

Click here to view the report, Investigating Benefits and Challenges of Converting Retiring Coal Plants into Nuclear Plants, prepared for the DOE by J. Hansen, W. Jenson, A. Wrobel (INL); N. Stauff, K. Biegel, T. Kim (ANL); and R. Belles, F. Omitaomu (ORNL); released September 13, 2022.