“What happens when America’s coal plants die?” asked The Guardian in 2021. The answer: economic hardship for the surrounding community. When the Navajo Generating Plant closed in 2019 more than 700 people lost high-paying jobs. Arizona’s Coconino County, where the plant was located, lost more than $40 million in tax revenue. For the Hopi Tribe, 85% of whose budget had relied on revenue from the plant, the closure meant challenges in the ability of the local government to provide public services.
Coconino County is not alone–in many communities with coal plants, the plant employs a large number of people with high-paying jobs and provides substantial (in some cases up to 50%) local tax revenue. In part because of a cultural attachment to coal, many local economies housing coal plants are unprepared for the economic impact of plants’ closure.
A potentially symbiotic relationship between the nuclear power industry and former coal plant communities may offer a solution. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) found that of 394 retired and operating coal power plants analyzed, 80% have infrastructure well-suited to nuclear power generation: both nuclear reactors and coal plants produce power using steam turbines. Both need systems to evacuate heat and connect to the electrical grid. Theoretically, much of a coal plant’s infrastructure can be reused for nuclear power generation. DOE modeling in the midwestern U.S. found that such coal plant repurposing could save up to 35% of historically high nuclear plant production costs. Repurposing coal plants for nuclear generators could be an economically feasible way to provide reliable zero-carbon electricity and revitalize economic activity in areas where plants have closed.
Such economic revitalization is critical: by 2035, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that 28% of current coal-fired power plants will go offline. Over the past decade, the percentage of electricity generated in the U.S. by burning coal fell from 40% to around 17%, with coal industry employment decreasing by 50% to around 40,000 in 2023. This decline is a result of both static electricity demand (after a sharp decline during the Great Recession) and the fact that coal now costs more than renewables (solar, for example, is around 30% cheaper). The coal mining industry is projected to face additional challenges under ambitious climate policies such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Meanwhile, at least 60% of nuclear’s lifetime costs are incurred during construction, making the possibility of reusing existing coal infrastructure all the more attractive. Unlike coal, however, nuclear power has the potential to play a substantial role in zero-carbon power generation. Nuclear reactors can produce energy reliably, a shortcoming of renewable energy sources. Nuclear power generation also requires more employees than renewable power generation, generating important economic activity.
The benefits of nuclear power have thus far not led to any meaningful increase in generation capacity. The IRA, which incentivizes the adoption of clean energy technologies, attempted to address this issue by making tax credits available for the construction and operation of nuclear power plants. Research shows that these subsidies, however, would have to be coupled with a $19 carbon tax, or be significantly more substantial, to make nuclear power cost-competitive with natural gas.
Much of these costs are the result of strict regulations aimed at managing the considerable and unique safety concerns of nuclear power. Nuclear waste is highly dangerous; if it leaks, it can cause adverse health effects or death to those nearby. While nuclear waste is a concern, it pales in comparison to the adverse health impacts faced by coal power plants’ pollution. Coal causes 820% more deaths than nuclear per terawatt-hour of electricity produced. It is estimated that in 2018, more than 8 million people worldwide died from air pollution associated with fossil-fuel use. Burning coal also contributes to acid rain, global warming, and groundwater pollution.
In addition, promising new technological developments may reduce the danger of nuclear waste. The U.S. Department of Energy has identified several new reactor technologies that reduce the volume of toxic waste produced through power generation and that are even capable of consuming the waste they do produce. These advances in reactor safety, combined with the economic benefit nuclear power could provide to former coal plant communities, make scaling nuclear power an important goal.
Unfortunately, there has been limited private sector interest in coal-to-nuclear projects. Government investment could change this, and doing so would be consistent with President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative goal that “40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments…flow to disadvantaged communities,” like “existing energy communities.” Right now, though, subsidies afforded to nuclear plants under the IRA are insufficient. By increasing such subsidies, the government could make coal-to-nuclear plants economically attractive, increasing investment in coal plant communities while increasing the nation’s supply of zero-carbon electricity.
This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.