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OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: Repowering coal with nuclear

by Karen Martin | June 19, 2022 at 2:09 a.m.

Energy is in the news: a global crisis sparked by the Russia/Ukraine conflict, high prices here at home, climate change, and warnings of possible blackouts in the U.S. this summer due to grid capacity shortfalls.

Meanwhile, two of Arkansas' large coal-fired power plants are slated to retire by 2030. How does this relate to the headline items above? Let's take a look.

Scientific consensus says we need to decarbonize our global energy economy as quickly as possible to avoid the worst effects of a warming planet. Some nations are trying, but not very successfully so far.

In 1950, 80 percent of the world's energy came from fossil fuels; in 2021, it was still at 80 percent, but global energy consumption has increased by 600 percent. Despite some progress, we are failing dramatically at decarbonizing.

Enter Arkansas' two retiring coal plants, Independence and White Bluff, at 1800 MW each. These two plants combined currently provide about 20 percent of annual electricity production in the state.

Solar has grown rapidly recently (0.6 percent of Arkansas electricity in 2020), which is great, but let's face it; intermittent renewables are not functionally equivalent to the dispatchable capacity provided by coal.

What can functionally replace the output of these coal plants? In recent years shuttered coal plants have been replaced almost entirely by fossil gas.

Gas is cleaner than coal, but it emits plenty of greenhouse gases--not good for climate since these plants will run for 30-50 years.

There is another option: nuclear.

"Wait!" you say. "What about the waste? And the high cost? Isn't nuclear dangerous? And it takes so long to build!"

While there is some truth here, there is also a lot of myth. The real problems and concerns do have realistic solutions. Nuclear power may be scary to some, but it's not dangerous (the Fukushima meltdowns killed no one from radiation exposure; nuclear is the safest major form of energy, in terms of deaths per unit energy produced). No one--zero--has been harmed by the handling or storage of spent nuclear fuel in six decades of the global civilian nuclear industry.

Current cost of new nuclear is high in the U.S. (not in Asia/Russia), but we have never tried to lower the cost, as we did successfully for solar and wind. We know how to do this.

Contrast this with solar and wind, which have their own risks and challenges. There are hard physical limits to large-scale deployment: land use conflicts, intermittency, transmission and energy storage, and massive material requirements for equipment.

Solar and wind do well at low percentages on the electric grid by saving on conventional fuel use. At higher percentages, grid integration costs (transmission, load balancing, energy storage) get progressively more difficult and expensive. Furthermore, about three-fourths of global energy use is high-quality heat for industry and building heating and liquid fuels for transportation. Solar and wind produce electricity, thus are not well suited for these sectors.

The biggest myth is that we don't need nuclear. Many assume, without critical analysis, that we are on a path to a clean energy economy in a time frame that matters. They don't see the huge gaps in the current plans to decarbonize, and are not looking for something to realistically fill those gaps. What's missing in this debate is an honest appraisal of the real risks and real gaps in our decarbonization strategies.

Nuclear technologies can fill that gap. There are numerous advanced Small Modular Reactor (SMR) designs being developed in the U.S. and abroad. SMRs promise lower cost and shorter build times, since they will be mostly factory-built and assembled on-site, instead of a large, complex construction project.

A near-term application for SMRs is to repower existing coal plants. The plant sites can be re-used, along with the steam generators, turbines and transmission facilities. As much as three-fourths of the coal plant staff can be hired, with some additional training.

Typically, there are more employees at a nuclear plant than at an equivalent coal plant. These are multi-generation, high-paying salaried jobs. When coal plants are replaced by fossil gas or solar/wind, almost no jobs remain, which devastates the regional economy.

Repowering coal with emission-free nuclear is not just a technical solution to a technical problem; it also is a solution to the social, political and economic dimensions of the global energy transition.

The time to start learning, discussing and planning is now. Arkansas has a choice--let's give this our best shot.

Gary Kahanak, a longtime resident of northwest Arkansas, has a background in natural resources and environmental science, with careers in public health and residential energy efficiency. He is retired, identifies as a pro-nuclear environmentalist, and advocates for tech-neutral clean energy policies.

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