Retired coal-fired power plants in the U.S. could be repurposed as nuclear power plant sites and contribute to the attainment of net-zero emissions goals by 2050. A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study has identified 157 retired coal plant sites and 237 operating coal plant sites as potential candidates for a coal-to-nuclear transition.

Such a transition could help increase nuclear capacity in the U.S. to more than 250 GW. The existing nuclear fleet currently has a combined capacity of 95 GW and supplies half of the nation’s emissions-free electricity. Repurposing coal-fired power plants would also bring tangible benefits in terms of new employment opportunities and improved environmental conditions.

The feasibility of site repurposing was based on 10 parameters, including population density, distance from seismic fault lines and flooding potential to determine if candidate coal sites could safely host a nuclear power plant.

About 80% of the potential sites, with over 250 GW of generating capacity, are deemed suitable for hosting advanced nuclear power plants. Small modular or advanced reactors could be installed at 125 recently retired sites with 64.8 GWe of capacity and 190 currently operating plant sites with 198.5 GWe of capacity. The assessment also finds that 22% of the 157 recently retired sites and 40% of the 237 sites still operating could potentially host large light water reactors.

Greenhouse gas emissions in a host region could fall by 86% when nuclear power plants replace large coal plants. The reuse of coal infrastructure for advanced nuclear reactors could also reduce costs for developing new nuclear technology, saving from 15% to 35% in construction costs. Coal-to-nuclear transitions could save millions of dollars by reusing the coal plant’s transmission lines, switchyards, cooling ponds or towers, and civil infrastructure such as roads and office buildings.

To contact the author of this article, email shimmelstein@globalspec.com