Advanced nuclear technology, particularly small modular reactors, could bring a net increase in local jobs to communities hard hit by the retirement of coal plants, according to a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center.
According to the report, Can Advanced Nuclear Repower Coal Country?, the coal power plant industry lost 12 percent of its workforce between 2019 and 2022, and another one quarter of the nation’s coal plants are scheduled to retire by 2029. The report also noted that 77 percent of coal plant jobs are transferable to nuclear plants with no new workforce licensing requirements.
The report estimated there could be a net increase of more than 650 jobs in regions where small modular reactions replace retired coal plants. In addition, workers at nuclear plants earn higher wages compared with workers at coal plants, which could provide a boost to local tax revenues.
The report’s authors highlight that several recent developments lend support to a coal-to-nuclear transition, specifically the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s issuance of a final rule certifying NuScale Power’s small modular reactor design.
In addition, they noted the Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits that make advanced nuclear projects and new energy investment in coal communities more attractive to investors, and the Fission for the Future Act, included in the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, authorizes $800 million to support coal-to-nuclear projects. And some states have overturned bans on new nuclear projects, including Montana, West Virginia, and Connecticut.
By design small modular reactors have many characteristics that make them well suited to replace coal plants, for instance, their modular design allows for flexible electrical output and gives them the ability to match the output of a retiring coal plant, the report’s authors said.
Using a retired coal site for an advanced nuclear plant also has cost advantages, the report said. Small modular reactors can reuse coal plant transmission infrastructure, reducing construction cost and avoiding some permitting challenges. A retired coal plant’s electrical equipment and steam-cycle components, as well as its transmission and administrative buildings, can be repurposed, cutting construction cost by 17 to 35 percent, the report said.
There are, however, challenges that would have to be overcome to accomplish a nuclear-to-coal transition, the report’s authors said. For instance, coal plant retirement and small modular reactor operation dates would have to be aligned for a smooth workforce transition and to prevent existing transmission and water infrastructure from being utilized by another project.