Smaller, safer, cheaper? Modular nuclear plants could reshape coal country. The Biden administration envisions dozens of ‘modular’ nuclear plants sprouting across the country.

June 23, 2023

Originally published by the Washington Post. Written By .

WISE, Va. — As Michael Hatfield scanned the landscape from atop the abandoned mine where he once worked, he saw more than a patch of Appalachia left behind by an energy economy in transition. He saw a launchpad for the next nuclear age.

The nuclear power plants Hatfield has in mind are not what you think. No massive cooling towers, miles of concrete, expansive evacuation zones. The nuclear industry and the Biden administration are pitching coal communities on small, adaptable plants that promoters boast are safer, cheaper and capable of being deployed all over the country in the effort to cut the power sector’s contribution to climate change.

Whether small modular reactors, or SMRs, can realistically be built all over the nation is very much in dispute. The nuclear industry has a record of overpromising and energy scholars warn this new technology is straining to show viability. Two demonstration projects expected to break ground, in Idaho and Wyoming, are behind schedule and struggling with spiraling costs.
But as the United States seeks efficient alternatives to burning fossil fuels for electricity, these proposals for space-age plants that can be small enough to fit in a large backyard feature prominently. They are designed to look more like office parks than nuclear plants, with low rise architecture that replaces concrete with steel, and downsized reactors the administration compares to those the U.S. Navy uses to power ships and submarines.

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry said in a recent interview with The Post that the technology’s success is vital for meeting the world’s goal of avoiding the most catastrophic fallout from climate change by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“I don’t think we get there without it,” Kerry said.

Coal country is a ripe target for this experiment, with infrastructure that can be repurposed, capable workforces and communities eager to reclaim prominence in the energy economy. More than 300 retired and operating coal plants in the United States are good candidates for a nuclear conversion, according to a recent Department of Energy report that has touched off a frenzy of activity.

Communities that previously rejected nuclear power as unsafe or a threat to the coal industry are now clamoring to be a part of what might be branded nuclear 2.0.

“See that hilltop over there?” said Hatfield, a former coal company engineer who is now the administrator for Wise County. “If you put a nuclear plant someplace like that, it is not going to be near anybody’s backyard. This would keep us in the forefront of the energy business. We see it as our future.”

Wise County Administrator Mike Hatfield stands on a former coal property in Big Stone Gap, Va., that was last mined in the late 1980s. It is now the Lonesome Pine Airport. (Mike Belleme for The Washington Post)

In January, billionaire Bill Gates, founder of an advanced nuclear company called TerraPower, toured a mothballed coal power plant near Glasgow, W.Va., with Joe Manchin III, the state’s Democratic senator. Gates was warmly embraced at a town hall following the plant visit. It was a notable turnabout in an area where the style of climate activism personified by Gates has long been met with hostility.

“The way nuclear plants were built, they were just very expensive,” Gates said at the event. “Unless we start from scratch with a new design, we won’t be able to have low-cost electricity.”

It was only a year ago that nuclear power was banned in West Virginia, under a state law intended to protect the coal industry. The state is among several to either lift such a ban or pass a law encouraging development of small nuclear reactors over the last few years. Political leaders see opportunities to boost regional economies and to get a piece of the billions of dollars in subsidies for generating “advanced nuclear” power available through the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act.

These reactors are still very much a work in progress, with multiple companies pursuing dozens of designs in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough. Some of the designs build on the light-water reactor technology that powers legacy nuclear plants, while others go in entirely different directions. TerraPower would use “fast reactors” cooled with sodium instead of water, potentially enabling them to operate more efficiently and safely than existing plants. Other designs use helium as a coolant.

A former coal mining site in Wise, Va. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) energy plan calls for Southwest Virginia to build the nation’s first commercial small reactor. (Mike Belleme for The Washington Post)

One glaring challenge with all of the designs: nuclear waste. Designers of the smaller plants vow each facility would produce only a small volume of it, requiring more modest evacuation zones and safety buffers. But scattering hundreds of plants around the country means every community they are in will need to be comfortable with some measure of spent fuel in their backyards, and some prominent researchers are challenging claims that these new reactors create less waste.

The developers are hoping plant designs that keep all the spent fuel contained in the reactor, which stays put for a number of years — even decades — before ultimately getting hauled away could be palatable to communities. But at the moment, there is nowhere to dispose of the used reactors.

“If you are saying, ‘we want to build on this site,’ and the community is asking ‘how long will the waste be here?’ and you have no answer, that is a big problem,” said Jessica Lovering, co-founder of Good Energy Collective, a group that advocates nuclear power as a climate solution.

Political leaders are forging ahead regardless, and officials in coal towns are eagerly pursuing advice from the Department of Energy on how they might draw a small reactor to their locale.

“When you get to a place like this that’s lost all these energy jobs, the talk is not whether it’s coming or not,” said Stephen Lawson, the town manager in Big Stone Gap, Va., a Wise County community where the regal brick building that once housed the Westmoreland Coal Company is now a pottery store. “It is, ‘Who is going to get it? And how do we keep from being left out?’”

“When you get to a place like this that’s lost all these energy jobs, the talk is not whether it’s coming or not,” said Stephen Lawson, the town manager in Big Stone Gap, Va. “It is, ‘Who is going to get it? And how do we keep from being left out?’” (Mike Belleme for The Washington Post)

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) energy plan calls for Southwest Virginia to build the nation’s first commercial small reactor. The governor was in Wise County in October promoting the plan at an abandoned mine site. Virginia is among at least eight states pursuing a small reactor. At least another eight have launched feasibility studies, according to federal energy officials.

That includes Maryland, where a nuclear energy innovation company called X-energy recently partnered with the state and Frostburg State University to show how one of the Maryland’s coal plants could be repurposed for nuclear energy. The final report, published in January, did not identify the specific coal plant studied. X-energy officials said it was because the owner of the plant asked for confidentiality. The omission of a location underscored how carefully proponents of this technology are treading at a time many communities still fear nuclear power is too big a safety and financial risk.

Some places are already reconsidering whether the technology lives up to the talking points. The Pueblo County, Colo., board of commissioners was initially all in, telling state regulators that a modular nuclear plant is the only zero-emissions option for replacing the electricity and economic activity created by the Comanche Generating Station, a hulking coal plant slated for closure in 2030. After a public backlash, the supervisors abandoned the plan.

“A lot of these communities are under pressure because they need to do something now to plan for the closure of coal plants,” said David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “The marketers of these small modular reactors, who don’t even have products licensed yet, are of course going to tell them the other alternatives are bad. They say you can’t rely on renewables, you can’t rely on battery storage, so they can sell their products. The risk is these places end up with gigantic financial commitments to nuclear projects, some of which are nothing more right now than a Power Point presentation.”
John Schoolcraft, left, and Shug Hall, right, work at the visitor’s center in downtown Big Stone Gap, Va. Both men worked for most of their careers in coal mines. They support bringing a small nuclear reactor to the area. (Mike Belleme for The Washington Post)

The demonstration modular nuclear project underway at the Idaho National Laboratory has been sobering for nuclear enthusiasts. The developer, NuScale Power, is working on a plant intended to provide electricity to tens of thousands of homes serviced by 27 local power companies across the west. The communities that signed on were expecting to purchase electricity for $58 per megawatt hour, the price stated under the initial agreement.

But by the time the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month approved the design of the plant — the first such approval in the United States — the expected cost of the energy had gone up more than 50 percent. Some communities pulled out, and others are anxious the costs could rise further by the time the plant goes online, scheduled for December 2029. The cost of the power would be even higher were the plant not so heavily subsidized by the federal government, which has already committed $1.4 billion to develop it and will offset the cost of the electricity it produces by about $30 per megawatt hour, which could cost U.S. taxpayers another $2 billion.

NuScale, which is also angling to build plants in Romania, Poland and Ghana, said in a statement that the cost increases reflect “external factors such as inflationary pressures and increases in the price of steel, electrical equipment and other construction commodities not seen for more than 40 years.”

More than 300 retired and operating coal plants in the United States such as this one in Wise, Va., are good candidates for a nuclear conversion, according to a recent Department of Energy report. (Mike Belleme for The Washington Post)

“Hopefully, the prices won’t get any higher,” said LaVarr Webb, spokesman for the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which represents power companies seeking to buy electricity from the Idaho project. “But that has not yet been proven.”

A project Gates is backing in Kemmerer, Wyo., is having its own challenges. The plant would be fueled by a highly enriched form of uranium that TerraPower planned to initially source from Russia. That plan fell apart with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions it triggered.

The company announced in December it was pushing back its target date for opening the plant by two years, to 2030. And it is now lobbying Congress to allocate $2.1 billion to subsidize facilities that could produce such uranium in the United States. The request comes after the federal government has already committed $1.6 billion to building the company’s Wyoming plant.

On an industrial plot an hour outside Houston, a much smaller modular nuclear company is trying a completely different approach — one that doesn’t rely on any government subsidies. The company Last Energy plans to use the same technology employed by legacy nuclear plants to create power as cheaply as a natural gas plant. The reactor and much of the core technology fits into a tidy, 30-feet-long-by-30-feet-wide-by-30-feet-high steel box that is mostly assembled off site and can be transported in nine truck trips. Last Energy is only selling its modules to industrial customers in Europe, where the regulatory hurdles are not as cumbersome for new reactor designs.

A sophisticated campaign to find communities that might be amenable to hosting the nuclear plants is underway, coordinated through a University of Michigan-based coalition called Fastest Path to Zero. It has built extensive databases that gauge not just technical suitability for building a plant and transmitting power, but also political suitability. Communities are rated on how amenable they might be to having a nuclear plant in their backyard, based on survey results and other data.

When it comes to finding sites for plants, said Gabrielle Hoelzle, the group’s lead data scientist, “we are trying to do things in a new way and get it right the first time. We cannot fall into the previous approach of deciding where they will go, announcing it and then trying to defend it.”

Back in Wise County, Mountain Empire Community College, which years ago dropped its underground mining major due to low enrollment, is now mapping out how it can revise course offerings to train a nuclear workforce.

“We’re looking at what are those jobs that are going to be needed if we do get SMRs,” said Kris Westover, president of the college. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re ready.”