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Tripling Nuclear Energy Capacity in the United States: The Impact of Converting Coal Power Plants to Nuclear

June 25, 2024 by Chandler West & Maria Lucas

The United States made a significant commitment during COP28 (The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC) late last year by endorsing the declaration to triple its nuclear energy capacity by 2050. This ambitious goal aligns with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) projections for reaching net-zero emissions in the next 26 years.

A key strategy to achieve this goal involves converting existing coal power plants to advanced nuclear plants. The DOE has identified 315 coal power plant sites as suitable for such conversions, including 125 recently retired plants. This approach could significantly cut construction costs, address job security for the current energy workforce, and advance environmental justice.

Economic and Environmental Benefits of Conversion

Financing new nuclear plants is a major hurdle due to high construction costs, with the United States leading the pack in expense, followed by Britain, Slovakia, and others. However, repurposing coal plants for nuclear energy can reduce these costs by up to 35%. Additionally, this conversion could secure jobs for the existing workforce and reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.

The DOE utilized IMPLAN to study the regional economic impact and environmental benefits of these conversions. The findings are promising: "Job growth could increase by over 650 new, permanent jobs, leading to nearly $270 million in new economic activity, and GHG emissions in a community could fall by as much as 86%."

Workforce and Economic Impact

Nuclear power generation offers higher wages and job growth compared to the fossil fuel industry. On average, occupations in the nuclear sector earn 30% more than those in fossil fuels. Moreover, for every $1 million invested, nuclear energy supports approximately six jobs, compared to five in fossil fuels. The nuclear industry directly employed over 40,000 jobs in 2022 and supported another 200,000+ jobs, supporting roughly a $58 billion contribution to the US GDP.

Top 5 Occupations in Nuclear (by Percentage of Wage & Salary Employment):

1. Nuclear Power Reactor Operators (12%)
2. Nuclear Engineers (11%)
3. Security Guards (9%)
4. Nuclear Technicians (9%)
5. First-Line Supervisors of Production and Operating Workers (5%)

In contrast, the fossil fuel industry does not employ the top four occupations found in the nuclear industry, highlighting a skills gap. The top occupations in the fossil fuel industry focus more on electrical and mechanical roles, which constitute a significant portion of the industry's workforce.

Top 5 Occupations in Fossil Fuels (by Percentage of Wage & Salary Employment):

1. Power Plant Operators (17%)
2. Electrical Power-Line Installers and Repairers (9%)
3. Electrical and Electronics Repairers, Powerhouse, Substation, and Relay (6%)
4. Electrical Engineers (5%)
5. First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers (4%)

Addressing the Skills Gap

Transitioning from fossil fuels to nuclear energy will require targeted training programs, especially for occupations with little overlap. For example, electricians and electrical engineers from the fossil fuel sector may need additional training to meet the specialized demands of the nuclear industry. Fortunately, similar educational requirements between the two sectors can facilitate this workforce transition.

Considerations and Challenges

While the benefits are clear, several challenges remain. The rising cost of uranium, a crucial fuel for nuclear reactors, poses a significant concern. The U.S. has only 1% of the world’s uranium resources, much of which is located near or on tribal lands where mining is often opposed.

Converting coal power plants to nuclear power is a viable path to tripling the United States’ nuclear capacity by 2050. This strategy promises economic growth, job creation, and significant environmental benefits. By addressing the financial and workforce challenges, the United States can lead in nuclear energy expansion, supporting global efforts to combat climate change and achieve a sustainable energy future.

To learn more about how you can use IMPLAN to understand the impacts of major changes like the conversion of coal power plants to nuclear, schedule a demo today!

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Topics: Economics, Environmental, Energy, Impact


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