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Small modular reactor advocates see opportunity in former US coal towns

Swapping coal-fired generating stations with nuclear power plants could be a win-win for utilities and coal towns, minimizing costs and creating jobs, according to industry experts.

The opportunity to bring new energy investment to coal communities arose Oct. 24 at two nuclear energy events hosted by the American Nuclear Society and the Atlantic Council.

That prospect may be closer to reality thanks to small modular reactors, or SMRs, a new type of reactor built in a factory and assembled on-site.

A recent U.S. Department of Energy study identified over 250 GW of coal units, operating and retired, that could be converted into nuclear power plants. The study, based on NuScale Power Corp.'s SMR design, also estimated each conversion would add about 650 jobs to the host community.

"Coal plants have been the cornerstones of many, many communities in the same way nuclear plants have," Carol Lane, X-Energy LLC's vice president of government relations, said at the American Nuclear Society panel. The difference, Lane added, is that conventional nuclear power plants are often sited further away from community and industrial centers than coal plants.

However, "with SMRs, we're able to base them closer to the community," Lane said. The technology has a smaller footprint than today's commercial reactors and can be deployed as a stand-alone unit, providing power to a single manufacturing facility or in small clusters as a grid-scale power plant.

Coal-to-nuclear advantage

Building a nuclear power plant in an old coal town still has several advantages over building a nuclear plant from scratch, according to panelists. The first is local buy-in.

"When you talk to coal communities that have been working in a power facility for their entire life [about] waste and safety, you're generally over that conversation in about 10 minutes," NuScale CEO John Hopkins said at a nuclear energy conference hosted by the Atlantic Council. "For them, it's about jobs. High-paying jobs."

The Inflation Reduction Act has also incentivized investment in what the Biden administration calls "energy communities," or communities with an economy revolving around the fossil fuel industry. The recently signed act provides tax credits for nuclear and other clean energy projects, with those incentives set to increase by 10% for projects located in energy communities.

Separately, the Inflation Reduction Act authorized the DOE to lend up to $250 billion to projects bringing old energy infrastructure, such as retired coal plants, back to life.

Former coal towns come with other assets, including a trained workforce, land, water and transmission infrastructure.

"We have come to the conclusion that it is technically feasible to transition to an advanced reactor," said Patrick Burke, vice president of nuclear strategy at Xcel Energy Inc. The utility has been exploring alternatives at several coal-generating stations that are due to retire, including its 441-MW Hayden plant in Colorado.

But SMRs must overcome "significant challenges" in order to be deployed, Burke said. The amount of time to get a new nuclear reactor design certified, built and online could take years, giving utilities little time to meet states' aggressive decarbonization goals. In the meantime, inflation can drive up the price of materials, forcing facilities to refinance.

Other challenges may arise with this "first-of-its-kind" technology, Burke added.

"We need to actually build some of these things to see how they operate and how efficient they are," Burke said.

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