Nuclear advocates eye former coal plant sites for small reactors

As coal plants around the country close, utilities, elected leaders and local residents are all wondering and debating how to deal with the sites. Some plants are being retrofitted to burn natural gas. Others are being torn down, with redevelopment ideas including condos, parks, solar farms, big box stores or breweries.

Jeff Terry, a physics professor and nuclear energy expert at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has another vision for these sites, including the former site of the State Line coal plant near his hometown in northwest Indiana.

He’d like to see nuclear reactors.

Specifically, small modular reactors, or SMRs, nuclear plants with a capacity of 300-600 megawatts or less that are prefabricated and can be shipped around the country on trucks or trains.

While the prospect would surely prompt resistance in a populated area like metropolitan Chicago, adjacent to the State Line plant and home to two other shuttered coal plants, Terry says logistically it makes perfect sense.

Transmission infrastructure is still often in place at the sites, and it could intentionally be left standing after future coal plant closings. Coal plants were typically built next to water, needed to cool nuclear reactors.

Statistics show that nuclear reactors pose only a small risk to surrounding residents, in terms of accidents, Terry argues. And proponents of SMRs note that since they have smaller cores and less fuel on site, the damage from an accident would be much less than one at a larger reactor. SMRs also would typically have a “passive cooling” system that does not rely on electric power to operate, so a power outage like that at the Fukushima disaster would not create a major risk.

“A lot of SMRs are designed so you could drop them in as replacements for coal plants,” Terry said. “Theoretically, you could export a gazillion of these things around the world.”

An idea for changing times

SMRs are typically defined as nuclear plants under 300 or 600 MW, and many of them on the market or in development are closer to 50 MW, Terry noted. In comparison, a typical large baseload nuclear power plant has a capacity of 1,000 MW or more.

Typically coal units are being replaced – on the same site or more generally in the system – with natural gas generators that can ramp up or down quickly to meet changing demand and to help balance out the intermittent energy flows from solar and wind power.

Makers and proponents of SMRs say that, unlike baseload nuclear or coal plants, they could also efficiently and swiftly increase or decrease their generation levels, allowing them to serve the purpose known as “load following” or to provide steady baseload power.

Westinghouse says on its website that its 225-MW SMR “is capable of economically handling the unique challenges of providing baseload power on smaller grids and those with non-steady power sources.”

The company NuScale bills its SMRs as “ideally suited to replace retiring coal plants.”

“NuScale SMR’s are specifically designed with the objective in mind of replacing baseload carbon-generating power plants, such as retiring coal plants,” said NuScale chief operating officer Mike McGough. He noted that NuScale’s plant footprint is less than 70 acres, including the required “emergency planning zone,” so it can fit on most coal plant sites.

“Coal plant sites typically already have a transmission and cooling water infrastructure which can be used for NuScale SMR’s,” McGough added.

NuScale’s website notes that so far natural gas generation has risen to compensate for coal plant closings, but it details drawbacks of natural gas-fired power including impacts from fracking, carbon emissions and volatile prices. It also critiques renewable sources, noting the intermittency of wind and solar and the risk to bats and birds from wind turbines.

“NuScale has developed SMR technology that has the smallest environmental footprint of available electricity generating technologies,” the website says.

Safety questions

Fears about accidents and terrorist attacks have not been prominent in the recent debate over the future of nuclear energy in the Midwest, which lacks the threat of hurricanes, typhoons or tidal waves or large-magnitude earthquakes.

But residents do have serious concerns about the radioactive waste generated by nuclear plants. Since plans for permanent storage at Yucca Mountain faltered and proposals for centralized interim storage sites around the country have stalled or moved slowly over the years, waste is still being stored on-site at reactors across the Midwest.

The waste produced by SMRs would likewise have to be stored onsite or moved by truck, train or barge to the site of a larger reactor or any other storage sites that might eventually be approved and constructed.

In the Chicago area, activists have raised concern about the potential transport of nuclear waste on railroads that run right through dense neighborhoods. Tom Shepherd of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, along with his colleagues, have been calling for a beneficial reuse of the State Line site. He doesn’t approve of putting a nuclear plant there.

“At this point in time, since they still have not developed any system to handle spent rod and other nuclear waste, I have a pessimistic view of nuclear energy,” said Shepherd. “Unless the perfect safeguards were in place, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

Terry thinks that nuclear waste storage in general is “a political problem, not a scientific and engineering problem.” He said that the country’s experience so far indicates that storing waste onsite with proper handling is safe, and he thinks transporting waste from SMRs to other storage sites would also be safe, noting that medical isotopes and other radioactive waste are regularly transported in the U.S.

Terry also notes that nuclear reactors raise few public health issues for surrounding residents when operating normally, unlike coal plants that are linked to increased risk of respiratory and cardiac disease and cancer.

In a 2013 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists disputed the idea that SMRs could be safer and more cost-effective than larger nuclear reactors. They said that because of the smaller size and perceived lower risk, operators would push the government to reduce the staffing and safety requirements on the reactors and reduce the size of the evacuation zones in case of an accident.

Uncertain outlook

There was once much enthusiasm for SMRs among government officials and some energy experts. That excitement seems to have dimmed in recent years, though some companies and advocates are still eagerly pushing SMRs, and this year an advocacy group of potential SMR manufacturers, owners and operators was formed. Members reportedly include NuScale, Duke Energy, Southern Company and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

An OpEd in Forbes magazine by geochemist James Conca notes: “Small-sized reactors have been around since the 1950s, in submarines, aircraft carriers, icebreakers and at universities, but creating a commercially-viable small reactor for public power has remained elusive.”

Conca goes on to describe the potential of SMRs to power individual factories, desalination operations and hybrid co-generation plants that also capture and reuse heat. He predicts a global market in SMRs could be “lucrative.”

New, unproven nuclear plants in the Midwest might also be a tough sell at a time when established nuclear plants are on the verge of closing because of shaky finances, and it is considered basically impossible to build a new large nuclear plant in a state with a competitive deregulated energy market.

“SMRs face the same economic headwinds as large nuclear reactors, namely the low price of natural gas, subsidies for renewables such as wind and solar and markets that don’t appropriately value the benefits of clean air, the reliable baseload electricity that nuclear plants provide and the benefits of fuel diversity,” said Mitch Singer, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Therefore, cost-competitiveness of SMRs will depend on the markets, regulated or deregulated, to appropriately value the unique attributes of nuclear energy. SMRs benefit from lower up-front capital costs, shorter construction schedules and the ability to add generation capacity incrementally to match demand.”

Terry acknowledges that economies of scale favor larger plants. “But few companies have the capital to build large right off the bat,” he said. “So to many people, small are much more economical.”

He thinks either nuclear or natural gas will be needed to replace the electricity lost from closing coal plants. He doesn’t buy the idea that energy efficiency and renewables can pick up all the slack.

“People say, ‘Okay let’s just put solar on everyone’s roof,’” Terry said. “Well I don’t want the grid to be held up by Bob from Elmhurst who has to climb up to get the snow off his solar panel.”

SMRs for Indiana?

Terry grew up in Hammond, the town that includes the State Line coal plant, a century-old facility on the shores of Lake Michigan which closed in 2012 and is in the process of being torn down.

He thinks an SMR would be especially appropriate for this location.

“Ultimately this is an industrial area,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll ever be attractive to high tech companies. If we do bring industry back it is going to be more energy-intensive, a lot more robotics, all these things are going to require a lot more energy.”

He thinks SMRs could be the perfect source for the type of local, responsive yet stable energy supply that energy-hungry factories need. He thinks power from a local SMR can avoid the kind of fluctuation on the grid that might be imperceptible to a resident but harmful for an advanced manufacturing facility.

“If you’re lucky you have to remake your part, but that’s waste. If you’re not lucky, it destroys the machine,” he said. Terry envisions SMRs helping to revitalize manufacturing in his home state, with SMRs not only powering existing industry but being used to attract new industry.

“[The government could ] say, ‘We’ll buy the first SMRs if you put the factory right here,’ on this brownfield, there are a lot of brownfields in Indiana,” Terry said. “Say you’re going to get 200 SMRs in Indiana, [the government helping to] buy the first six and getting new plants put in is the first step.”

This story was updated to make minor clarifications and add comments from the Nuclear Energy Institute.

11 thoughts on “Nuclear advocates eye former coal plant sites for small reactors

  1. “storing waste onsite with proper handling is safe” If the neighbors are comfortable with the presence of the plant why would they oppose this?

    • They oppose this because nuclear waste is not safe and proven to be not safe.
      Since you are so enthusiastic about nuclear waste being stored in other people’s back yards, you should lead by example and allow them to bury the waste in your own back yard first.

  2. Storing unspent nuclear fuel on the reactor site is a “danger” in search of evidence of danger.

    In the nearly 70 year history U. S. Nuclear reactors not a single person has been injured or killed by that storage. What kind of a wimpy “danger” is that!

    But the anti nukes can dream, can’t they?

    • The WIPP was designed to place waste from nuclear weapons production into ancient salt deposits, which would eventually collapse and embed the radioactivity for at least 10,000 years. It leaked after just fifteen years.
      Why would anyone think that Yucca Mountain would do any better?

  3. Just because the sites are already contaminated because of former coal plant operations does not mean they would be unsuitable for a non waste generating triple hybrid renewable plant, which mixes solar, solar PV, and geothermal storage to produce the same megawatt output without any of the intermittency problems . Enel Green Power is a company with a plant like this in Fallon, Nevada. It’s just too bad that NuScale is focused so much on keeping it nuclear when they have the financial and governnent connections that are necessary to make a truly green future possible, instead of falsely promoting a dangerous product as “safer” when SMR’s are actually being built to run on MOX fuel.

    ^^^See Stillwater Plant, Triple Renewable Energy Hybrid plant in Nevada)

    The MOX fuel cycle produces separated plutonium, which is hardly something you want adding to these already polluted brownfields in Indiana or anywhere else. All it takes is one tiny particle of this stuff in your lungs and you are guaranteed to develop lung cancer down the road. The explosions at Fukushima’s MOX fuel loaded reactor sent plutonium hot particles across the Pacific Ocean to Seattle in just hours and Seattle residents were breathing up to ten of these per day.

    Let’s not underestimate the risks these Small Modular Reactors pose. They are not going to be as guarded or regulated as a large reactor, but if there is nuclear fission involved, the danger of any accident is too large to possibly be worth it! Especially, given the fact that we can use renewable energy and get exactly the same result for the utilities which need flexible, not baseload power, so that they can continue to manipulate prices by playing with the output during peak demand times.

    How unfortunate we are to have a government that is more responsive to the economic considerations of General Electric/ Fluor /Hitachi/NuScale or whatever they repackage themselves as next than the considerations of human health, our environment, and the quality of life for future generations.

  4. LFTRs (liquified fluoride thorium reactors) are the answer. They are modular, non-pressurized, nearly 100% efficient, and could burn all of the spent fuel that already exists and run for the next 1000 years. Check out ‘THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal’ by Robert Hargraves. However,they don’t really fit the current capitalistic model of Westinghouse, GE, and the big utilities so the NRC commissioner (a politically appointed position) has stated that they would look at LFTRs around 2050. Imagine that. India and China are actively developing them.

    • I believe there have been serious accidents involving these thorium reactors. Japan had a problem with the technology. Nothing nuclear can ever be considered safe because of the fact that they are always going to be burning something that is extremely hazardous for their fuel.
      The only reason the industry uses phrases like “closing the fuel cycle” or “recycles its own waste” is so they have a justification to keep producing more deadly radioactive waste by keeping their older nukes running until the bolts fall off, as they have at Indian Point in New York.
      The reality is that most of the spent fuel we already have is not even safe to transport because it is sitting around in these Holtec thin canisters, which have been shown can crack and leak in 7-20 years. In San Onofre, for example, which was being run on MOX fuel, thr canisters are sitting around in salty sea air and a whistleblower has already said that they’re unsafe to transport. They will be leaking plutonium on the beach for the rest of eternity while politicians use the issue as a platform for a Congressional run, while simultaneously doing nothing of value. It’s all just a bunch of talk and it’s a favor trading game which benefits nobody but the Holtec people who will get money to build an interim facility in Texas or New Mexico ten years down the line, which Darrel Issa(R) CA, has already promoted to colleagues as a way to ensure the continued operation of these waste producing plants. At a local San Onofre meeting, the President of Southern California Edison said we had to write our Congress to get approval for this place they were proposing or we would be stuck with the waste on our beach. That was only a trick because the DOE has to transport the waste, but they have never expressed any intention to do so and they couldn’t do it in the state it’s in now if they wanted to. In ten years, there is just no way it’s going to happen. So, even if we built a million thorium reactors and even if it were true that they could reprocess spent fuel into nothing(which is not true), the fact is that we will not be able to move any of this old spent fuel from their dry cask storage to wherever these thorium reactors are built, and they won’t even be finished or licensed for half a century or more, so by that time, how much radiation do you suppose has already leaked to the environment, polluted the air, groundwater, and food supply? How many mosquitos or fleas or flying bugs will drink from contaminated ponds and carry mutated viruses to the human population already weakened by constant exposure to low level radiation? It’s not just something you see in a sci fi movie. This is the reality we are facing.

      I would prefer to see the high radiation that hovers above Indiana and the Great Lakes area come down to a safer level and that can only happen by letting go of the atomic area and getting dead serious about renewable energy.

    • The answer is alternatives, not more nukes.
      That is why China and India are developing alternatives, and building factories that produce solar panels and windmills.

  5. Of course, regardless of what the nuclear industry propagandists say, there is absolutely no such thing as safe nuclear power. From the mining process, shipping, building, operating and disposing of radioactive waste, there is danger at every step.

    Besides that, the cost of nuclear is not competitive even with coal, let alone alternatives.

    The only good nukes are no nukes.
    End of story.

  6. Prefabricated nuclear reactors built by corporations that put profit for shareholders over the good of the country …

    … what a great idea …

    … everyone knows that “nuclear” is not insured by private insurance companies, right? …

    … the taxpayers – who actually pay their taxes – foot the liabilities …

    … just like they do the “banks” … remember 2008? …

    … good times … good times …

  7. The statement that transporting spent-fuel waste from local plants to a national repository would be safe because we already routinely transport medical isotopes and low-level wastes without problems, demonstrates a lack of awareness as to what makes spent fuel different from those things.

    The difference being that spent fuel is inherently lethal in seconds to anyone in its’ proximity if it escapes confinement. And will remain that way for at least a hundred years, and lethal over a longer exposure for at least ten thousand years.

    Medical isotopes are usually a threat only if ingested (excepting those DESIGNED to be ingested) or from long-term exposure. They are intended to be used in and around the human body, and so are not highly radioactive.

    And low-level waste is several orders of magnitude less radioactive. It might consist of almost anything with a few specks of non- removable contamination on it, like the pair of shorts I once lost when entering one of the Hanford Tank Farms due to an invisible speck of SOMETHING that came from parts unknown and adhered to them too tenaciously to remove.

    Saying that the transport of all these things present comparable hazards is deceptive at best, and almost a bald-faced lie at worst. High-level nuclear waste has NO counterparts as to the hazard it represents in transit, with the possible exception of old nerve-gas munitions or large quantities of weaponized biologics. Neither of which you will see transported much, and with good reason.

    My firm policy re: nuke plants is no more nukes, period, until after a national repository is selected and on-line, all transport containers, routes, methods, etc. are signed off on by everyone who could be affected enroute, and the canisters, casks, or whatever they are placed in for final storage have been shown to last more than a few years without leakage or signs of breakdown. And the costs of all these things must be borne by the plant operator UP FRONT, before ground is broken. Not PROMISES to do so, but actual funds in a non-revokable trust dedicated solely to that purpose. They must own that waste from cradle to grave, no exceptions.

    As it is, we in the public pay for the power from nuke plants, we pay via taxes the Federal subsidies, which are the only way those plants can be insured, and we pay all the costs of plant safety requirement inspections via NRC, for permanently disposing of the wastes produced by those plants, and for most of the environmental remediation required after mining and processing the uranium into fuel rods.

    Meanwhile, the plant operators pay for none of the above, just the costs of fuel rods, while keeping all the profit on power sales. And if the reactor is nearing the end of its’ useful life, they can sell off their liabilities to some other company, which strikes me as a great incentive for operators to cut spending or take shortcuts on safety just when the plants are most likely to fail in some major way.

    This has never been an industry which pays its’ way. It wouldn’t even be viable without tax subsidies.