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Repurposing Coal Power Plant Sites with Low Carbon Nuclear


"Preserving Communities Through a Coal to Nuclear Just Transition" event held in the Atoms4Climate Pavilion at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on 6 December 2023. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

As coal consumption continues to rise worldwide despite global efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions, several countries are eyeing a strategy for using advanced nuclear power including small modular reactors (SMRs) to reduce reliance on the most polluting fossil fuel. At an event today at the IAEA’s Atoms4Climate pavilion, speakers from Canada, Romania and the United States shared their experience and plans repurposing former coal sites for nuclear power—and thereby ensuring a just energy transition by reaping the economic and environmental benefits of switching to this clean and reliable technology.

The Canadian province of Ontario is one of the world’s leading examples of how replacing coal with nuclear can decarbonize electricity production and clean up local air pollution, and was highlighted in the book A Bright Future. The last coal fired electricity plant in Ontario was mothballed in 2014 and replaced with refurbished nuclear reactors that had previously been shut down. The results: electricity generation in Ontario produces about 25 grams of CO2 per kWh, well under levels consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement (50 grams), compared with 230 grams of CO2 per kWh previously.

The effort also cleaned up local air pollution. “We turned the sky from orange to blue in a matter of 15 years. How? With renewables as well, but largely on the back of nuclear production,” Pat Dalzell, Executive Director of Corporate Affairs for Bruce Power, which operates the province’s eight nuclear reactors, said at the IAEA event. “Now when you look up at the sky on a hot summer day in Toronto, the sky is blue," he said, adding that nuclear power facilities in the province account for some 22,000 jobs, with another 5,000 expected to be created when the operating lifetime of existing reactors are extended for several more years.

Coal provides more than one third of the world’s electricity and is responsible for the largest share of CO2 emissions from the energy sector, making its phase-out key to tackling climate change. In both Romania and the United States, there are plans for nuclear power to replace coal as a low carbon primary energy source that provides 24/7 supply security.

Supply chains are also similar for coal and nuclear plants, meaning jobs can be preserved, and some of the existing infrastructure can continue to be repurposed for the nuclear plant. But challenges also need to be addressed related to decontaminating coal sites, and meeting the requirements for nuclear safety and nuclear waste disposal, among other examples.

In Romania, a site in Doicesti that currently hosts a coal plant has been identified as the preferred location for the country’s first SMR deployment. “We are lucky to have a very high percentage of public acceptance (of nuclear power), but we have never been complacent and always worked hard to show that the community is important to us,” Ana Birchall of state nuclear power corporation S.N. Nuclearelectrica said at the event.

In the US, a location in the state of Wyoming near the coal-fired Naughton power plant, which is due to retire in 2025, has been selected as the preferred site for a sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. “Displaced coal workers will be able to find employment at the nuclear facility, and the nuclear facility will also be able to employ more people than the coal facility,” said Jason Hansen, a Senior Economist at Idaho National Laboratory.

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