A new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study found hundreds of coal power plant sites could convert to nuclear, dramatically increasing dispatchable, carbon-free energy as the country strives to meet its net-zero emissions goal by 2050.

According to the Investigating Benefits and Challenges of Converting Retiring Coal Plants into Nuclear Plants report, a coal-to-nuclear transition could increase nuke capacity in the U.S. to more than 350 GW.

Among the report highlights: DOE says the transition could bring benefits to coal communities with additional jobs, economic development and improved environmental conditions.

The study is relevant as companies like NuScale and Bill Gates-backed TerraPower are working to commercialize and deploy small modular reactors (SMRs) at coal sites in the U.S. Proponents say SMRs offer a lower initial capital investment, greater scalability and siting flexibility than larger conventional nuclear reactors.

MORE: Replacing coal is a ‘natural for us’: One-on-one with NuScale’s John Hopkins

A deeper look at the study

DOE study teams evaluated potential coal power plant sites based on a set of ten parameters, including population density, distance from seismic fault lines, flooding potential, and nearby wetlands.

After screening recently retired and active coal plant sites, researchers identified 157 retired and 237 operating coal plant sites as potential candidates for the transition.

The teams found that 80% of those sites, representing over 250 GW of generating capacity, were suitable for hosting advanced nuclear power plants.

But DOE says more investigating is needed for this coal-to-nuclear transition, including into ownership of the plant, an in-depth evaluation of the remaining coal plant infrastructure and a consideration of other factors that could pose siting challenges.

Construction costs and economic impacts

DOE examined economic and environmental impacts based on the evaluation of a composite, four-county region surrounding a coal plant site in the Midwest.

The study weighed hypothetical scenarios involving NuScale and TerraPower reactors.

According to DOE, depending on the technology used, nuclear overnight costs of capital could decrease by 15% to 35% when compared to a greenfield construction project, through the reuse of infrastructure from the coal facility.

In a case study replacing a large 1200 MW coal plant with NuScale’s 924 MWe of nuclear capacity, the study teams found regional economic activity could increase by as much as $275 million and add 650 new, permanent jobs to the region analyzed. Nuclear can have a lower capacity size because it runs at a higher capacity factors than coal power plants.

In general, DOE says the occupations that would see the largest gains from a coal-to-nuclear transition include nuclear engineers, security guards, and nuclear technicians. Nuke plants could also benefit from preserving the existing experienced workforce in communities around retiring coal plants sites.

Click here for a look at DOE’s full report.

America’s existing nuclear fleet currently has a combined capacity of 95 GW and supplies half of the nation’s emissions-free electricity.

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