By Daniel Moore
The nuclear power industry sees its future in coal country. Compact, next-generation reactors can plug into existing transmission lines at shuttered plants to bring zero-emission electricity and high-paying jobs to communities from Wyoming to West Virginia.
But realizing that vision—now backed by the Biden administration and Congress, with billions earmarked for the plan in last year’s historic infrastructure law—depends on winning over some of the most nuclear-skeptical places in the country. So the Energy Department is on an education mission to gain local support across rural America for what it believes can be a nuclear revival.
“We really, over time, have underestimated the role that social science, political science, sociology, psychology, human geography can all play in our decision-making,” explains Kathryn Huff, the department’s 36-year-old assistant secretary of nuclear energy.
Hundreds of coal power plants have shut down across the US in the last decade, and a quarter of the current fleet of about 200 is expected to shutter by 2030, according to federal data. The Energy Department has spotted in that hard reality an opportunity to plug in the small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) expected to roll out by the end of the decade.
It envisions these smaller-footprint nuclear power generators working in tandem with solar, wind, and hydro to produce zero-emissions electricity where coal once reigned supreme.
About 80% of nearly 400 operating or shuttered coal power plant sites across the country could be converted to nuclear power plant sites, the Energy Department estimated in September. The new nuclear plants would add as much as 263 gigawatts to the grid, the study found. (By comparison, the entire U.S. solar power capacity is about 131 gigawatts this year.)
And each plant would provide an average of 650 permanent jobs, and a 92% increase in local tax revenue compared with the tax revenues from operating coal power plants.
But in West Virginia, which has no operating nukes, only 38% of residents support building new reactors, according to a public opinion project by the University of Oklahoma and University of Michigan. The state has the second-smallest portion of people who say they see a benefit from nuclear, according to the project, which was funded by the Energy Department and pulled data from 2006 to 2020.
It’s a challenge echoed across rural communities nationwide, many of them current or former coal-producing areas.
SMRs are key to changing that mindset, with the selling point that they’re not your parent’s nuclear reactors.
They can be assembled on site relatively quickly. They are less powerful (and thus significantly safer, proponents say) than their predecessors. And they’re relatively tiny: some are small enough to fit on a flatbed truck; others about the size of two city buses combined.
The world’s only operating SMR is a floating reactor in the Russian Arctic that powers mining operations. But more than 70 SMR designs have been proposed or are under development in at least five countries as nations look for ways to meet growing electricity demands while curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Energy Department’s leaders are “at the front of a bow wave of a whole generation of people who are in nuclear because of climate,” said Huff, a nuclear physicist with a doctorate in nuclear engineering who joined the department last year from a teaching post at the University of Illinois.
A trio of academic studies with 30 researchers will guide the department’s nuclear energy office on community outreach at a DOE-funded test reactor near a shuttered coal plant in Wyoming; a new siting process for temporary nuclear waste storage facilities; and advanced nuclear possibilities in the Arctic, where past nuclear tests have generated deep distrust among indigenous groups.
But while the climate debate has thawed opposition from some environmental groups and longtime anti-nuclear advocates, not everyone is sold on SMRs.
“I’m pretty skeptical of these efforts,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
For decades, it made sense the Energy Department—the government’s research engine—has funded nuclear engineers to solve big problems.
The 92 currently operating nuclear reactors in the US are mammoth, complex facilities, dealing with radioactive materials and atomic physics while generating about 20% of the nation’s electricity supply and roughly half of its clean power.
But spent nuclear fuel requires on-site storage in bulky steel casks, while a permanent home requires geologic assessments spanning millions of years. And when aging plants do close—as 13 plants have in the last decade—cleanup crews must carefully dismantle the components.
Public confidence was shook by high-profile global accidents—Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, but also global incidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.
DOE officials and industry supporters say the chance of an accident at modern reactors is infinitesimally small. But they acknowledge long-standing political missteps on nuclear waste created an opening for opponents.
In the 1980s, Congress designated Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the sole permanent US burial site for waste. But opposition from Nevada politicians and local communities blocked that Washington-led plan, sowing distrust of the federal government.
Even temporary waste sites proposed by private companies have sparked legal challenges that highlight the kind of delays that have plagued all sorts of energy infrastructure, including transmission lines that connect new solar, wind, and batteries to the power grid.
The nuclear waste problem is a “gaping hole in the ship of the US nuclear industry,” said Edward McGinnis, who spent almost 30 years at the Energy Department before joining Curio Energy, a company working to scale up waste-powered reactors.
The Washington-led approach to siting was “the worst thing we could do,” McGinnis said. “We need to treat the states and local communities, early on, as two partners and vital partners.”
Without a permanent home for waste, “then it’s very difficult to say we should have another generation of nuclear power because we don’t know how to solve the problem of waste from the first generation,” said Tom Isaacs, a nuclear waste expert who served as a lead advisor on a landmark 2012 report that pressed DOE to shift its waste strategy.
Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists said the number of new local jobs that would come from SMRs are overstated, in part because the largely premanufactured reactors are much smaller and come with lower costs than existing reactors. But he said the unproven plants would still bring potential environmental hazards.
That’s a challenge for the Energy Department and the industry. Some note that in places without a reactor, nuclear knowledge often amounts to the comical, and unrealistic, antics of Homer Simpson.
Fear and skepticism is entrenched in parts of West Virginia, for instance, where the state’s 26-year-long effective ban on new nuclear plants was repealed only this year.
Shortly after the West Virginia nuclear ban lifted, state politicians, industry, and local officials gathered with Alice Caponiti, the Energy Department’s deputy assistant secretary for reactor fleet and advanced reactor deployment.
They discussed the potential to plug in reactors with smaller, modular footprints—a draw for heavy industries like chemicals and steel that are seeking to decarbonize, and communities reeling from coal layoffs.
“What that represented to West Virginia was new jobs, new manufacturing capability, all driven by this goal of clean energy,” Caponiti said.
Finding such markets is crucial for advanced reactors, which hope to roll out by the end of the decade. The department plans to plow as much as $3.2 billion into demonstrating reactors by TerraPower in Wyoming and X-energy in Washington state.
Coal plant sites have emerged as places to create jobs and avoid having to build as much new infrastructure. Nuclear developers could leverage existing coal plant land use, transmission lines, cooling water availability, and key permits to reduce costs and shorten construction timelines, reduce environmental impacts, and increase community support, according to a November report by the Electric Power Research Institute.
The Energy Department, already seeking to expand its Nuclear Energy University Program beyond just technical research, saw a chance to double down on education efforts to tackle the industry’s local problems.
“There was a real hunger among social scientists to work in this arena as well, and it’s needed,” Caponiti said. “Universities are a trusted voice.”
Environmental groups are sharply split on the issue, said Gary Zuckett, who lobbied for the 1996 West Virginia law that banned nuclear construction until a permanent waste storage facility was established. Zuckett, executive director of West Virginia Citizen Action, considers himself somewhere “in the middle,” as he believes safely operating nuclear plants should stay online to maintain zero-emissions power until more solar and wind can be built.
But communities are concerned about plugging reactors into coal sites, he said.
“I personally don’t see nuclear as our savior,” Zuckett said. “We don’t have a safe, permanent repository for all of this high-level nuclear waste that will be deadly for generations, and so should we really be making more of this?”
Federal incentives could be poured into wind and solar, which are ready to deploy now, said Jim Kotcon, an associate professor at West Virginia University and a leader of the state’s Sierra Club chapter.
“We should adopt the fastest, cheapest, safest and cleanest sources first,” Kotcon said. “Nuclear is none of those.”
In Kentucky, there is some interest in advancing nuclear discussions, but it would require a “delicate” negotiation between utilities, the state, and communities to work together on potential projects, said Kenya Stump, executive director of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
“In the end it’s a local decision,” Stump said in October during a panel alongside a DOE official on the coal-to-nuclear shift.
For the study at the TerraPower reactor project in Kemmerer, Wyo., researchers will gather perspectives on nuclear development and environmental justice from people living nearby, coal workers, environmentalists, regulators, designers, and others.
“People on the ground and people at this higher level might have differing perspectives on what that means,” said Rachael Budowle, an assistant professor of community resilience and sustainability at the University of Wyoming and lead researcher on that study.
“Decide, announce, defend is the typical approach to siting,” said Budowle, a cultural anthropologist who will lead the research team in crafting an ethnographic, legal, and regulatory analysis. “Where is their opportunity for the on-the-ground needs to effect the higher-level decision-making around environmental justice?”
To tackle waste siting, Oklahoma and Michigan researchers hope to define a process for winning consent from communities to host a hypothetical temporary waste site. The DOE is offering $16 million for additional consent-based siting efforts and assessing nearly 1,700 pages of comments in response to a request for information.
The amount of waste SMR generate is the subject of debate—a controversial study in May found small reactors could generate more waste than the industry has led people to believe.
A waste facility “could have a lot more legitimacy and buy-in and acceptance if community are part of that decision-making process,” said Kuhika Gupta, associate director of the OU Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis.
The three-year study envisions a moment when community members and engineers sit at the same table, designing the facility and discussing other community improvements together. Department officials and researchers likened the process to building a house: Engineers lay out basic structural requirements but offer a menu of adjustable options.
“We’re trying to design and evaluate a process where we bring them in way, way sooner,” Gupta said.
Community benefits agreements could be a good vehicle to secure support, said Hilary Jacobs, an associate at Beveridge and Diamond who works on environmental justice issues for energy clients. The legally binding contracts, broadly encouraged by the department, guarantee certain benefits and investment in the community in exchange for support for the project.
“It’s incredibly tricky, and I think you have to define precisely who you’re contracting with—how is the community defined, who is bound by this,” said Jacobs, who is not involved in the DOE studies. “I’ll be very curious to see what they recommend for memorializing consent.”
McGinnis, the former DOE official, said he’s now welcome in state capitals that once greeted him at a distance. Curio’s waste-powered reactor is a way to build new nuclear plants while also chipping away at the waste problem. Four national labs recently supported the venture.
McGinnis said he’s “not trying to convince them to be a Yucca 2.0, but I’m actually offering them an incredible opportunity for high-paying jobs without sacrificing the environment.”
Energy Department officials express optimism the appeal to community engagement will work.
Huff, the head of the nuclear office, said she grew up a “nerdy kid” in Texas and entered the field in the 2000s just as talk emerged of a “nuclear renaissance.” The rollout of advanced nuclear is still in the offing, but the solutions for waste—and ultimately the industry—will come.
“It kind of comes back to books you read in high school, the opportunities you have to see technology with your own eyes, and your general concerns about the world,” Huff explained.
The department “will have momentum by the time this administration is done,” Huff said. “It doesn’t matter what political winds shift.”
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By Daniel Moore