EnergyShut U.S. coal plants seen as potential sites for small reactors

Timothy Gardner
3 minute read
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File photo: Steam rises from a cooling tower on September 7, 2007 at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tennessee, 50 miles south of Knoxville. REUTERS/Chris Baltimore

Recently shut U.S. coal-fired power plants could serve as sites for a new generation of small nuclear reactors, the head of the nation's largest public power utility and a U.S. senator from West Virginia said on Wednesday.

Hundreds of coal plants have been shutting due to competition from cheap natural gas and falling costs for renewable power, resulting in massive job losses in communities that depend on mining and power generation. Since 2010 more than 250 U.S. coal-fired power plants have shut.

"I see those sites as very viable small modular reactor (SMR) sites," Jeff Lyash, president and chief executive of the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, said during a virtual Atlantic Council event.

TVA first started using coal-fired plants in the 1950s, but has begun to retire older, less efficient units in keeping with its commitment to generate cleaner energy. It has three traditional nuclear reactors.

Shut coal power plants would be ripe for SMR development because of their available water resources and existing power grid connections, Lyash said.

SMRs are regarded by some as a critical carbon-free technology that power grids will need to supplement intermittent sources like wind and solar. They have been touted by the last three U.S. administrations, but face high costs and delays.

"Some of our better manufacturing sites are the coal-fired power plants," said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia. "You could come online much quicker and we could accomplish this at a much faster rate than anything else we could do," he said about the SMR potential.

The first U.S. small-scale project, NuScale Power LLC, majority-owned by construction and engineering firm Fluor Corp (FLR.N), is planning to develop 12 60-megawatt modules at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory.

The estimated cost has shot to $6.1 billion, up from $3.6 billion in 2017.

Last year, the Trump administration approved $1.35 billion for the project over 10 years, funding that depends on annual approval by Congress, on top of $230 million the DOE had pumped into the project since 2013.

This year, Montana's state senate approved a study on building SMRs at old coal plants.

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