Credit: Samuel A. Love

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.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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