Who Would Win in A Fight: Old Dead Plants or Rocks That Can Melt Your Organs? How Retired Coal Power Plants Could Hold the Key to Kentucky’s Future

The U.S. Department of Energy released a report this September that outlined how hundreds of coal power plants could be converted to nuclear power plants and cited the vast economic and environmental benefits that conversions would bring.

The report looked at both retired and currently operating coal power plants across the U.S. and found 157 recently retired, and 237 operational coal fired power plant sites that were identified as ideal sites for a coal-to-nuclear conversion. They analyzed how making this conversion could drastically improve air quality in the communities where the plants operated and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Economic Benefits of the Coal-to-Nuclear Transition 

One of the main factors examined in the report by the Department of Energy is the economic benefit provided by coal-to-nuclear transitions. Through a case study analysis of a theoretical coal-to-nuclear transition using real data from similar situations around the nation they identified several economic areas that were impacted by this change. Most notably they examined jobs created, economic output of the plants, and the impacts on county tax revenue. Their study showed incredibly promising results and on average communities that underwent a coal-to-nuclear conversion could expect over 650 new, permanent jobs leading to nearly $270 million in new economic activity and showing a 92% increase in tax revenue for those communities. 

This is of particular relevance to Kentucky because the report identified 9 recently closed reactors in the commonwealth that would be considered good candidates for this change with 5 receiving the highest score in potential for retrofitting with nuclear power. This report could not have come at a better time for Kentucky, because we are rapidly moving away from the era of coal-powered electrical production. Kentucky has had at least 7 coal plants close since 2019. With coal in decline this could be an incredible opportunity for an economic rebirth in these formerly coal-dependent communities. 

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the manufacturing industry added over $38 billion to Kentucky’s GDP which made up nearly 20% of Kentucky’s total GDP in 2021 which was the largest sector of the Kentucky economy. This was an increase from $35 billion in 2020. With new warehouses and manufacturing facilities growing at this rate, Kentucky will need more energy than ever to fuel its economy. The death of inefficient coal power plants leaves room for nuclear power to take its place. As the most reliable source of electricity that already supplies 20% of U.S. energy, and has done so for decades, it only makes sense for Kentucky to capitalize on this promising economic opportunity. 

Environmental Benefits of the Coal-to Nuclear Transition

Economic benefits aside, a zero carbon source of electrical generation like a coal-to-nuclear conversion would result in substantial positive environmental impact. As the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy stated in its summary of the report, “greenhouse gas emissions in a region could fall by 86% when nuclear power plants replace large coal plants, which is equivalent to taking more than 500,000 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles off the roads.” This drop in greenhouse gasses would be an enormous step in securing a safer future for not only Kentucky, but the rest of the world. 

On top of the greenhouse gasses produced by coal there are also devastating amounts of toxic waste produced like mercury, lead, heavy metals and coal ash that pollute our air, our land, and our water. These chemicals have dramatic impacts on human health increasing the likelihood of diseases like cancer. This trend of environmental destruction hits particularly close to home with Kentucky because as recently as 2012 Kentucky was the largest contributor of toxic emissions from the electric sector out of all 50 states. 

Despite its benefits some people may still hold reservations about the use of atomic power citing disasters like Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island, and Fukushima. However, in almost every case nuclear accidents pose no more risk, and in some cases far less risk, to human life than any other industrial accidents. Take the example of 3 Mile Island, considered the worst industrial nuclear accident in U.S. history. Despite sensationalist news coverage, the truth is that it ultimately resulted in 0 deaths and 0 injuries from plant workers or the surrounding community. It is this very hesitation that so many people feel about nuclear energy that makes it so safe. Wary citizens and politicians lead to extremely rigorous guidelines and regulations. In fact the acceptable limit for radioactive release from nuclear power plants is so low that background radiation levels inside the US capitol building exceed the background radiation dosage someone would receive from standing next to a nuclear power plant by up to 550 percent.       

Reports Impact on Kentucky

The good news is that the tides are changing. The continued closing of coal fired power plants leaves an opening for more safe and effective sources of energy. With nuclear being one of the safest and most efficient options, and the encouraging data from the Department of Energy’s Report on converting coal fired power plants to nuclear power plants, switching to nuclear could only result in positive progress for Kentucky. 

Switching to nuclear would bring back jobs, increase economic output in the power sector, and increase tax revenue for the local communities. That increased output would benefit the commonwealth’s growing economy by providing consistent, clean, and safe power that would in turn propel Kentucky into the future of clean energy production. 

In recent years the Kentucky State Legislature has taken steps to make the Commonwealth more hospitable to the possible adoption of atomic power. In 2017, a big win for Nuclear came when Governor Matt Bevin signed Senate Bill 11, which lifted what was effectively a moratorium on nuclear power in the state. More recently, in the 2022 session, action was taken towards researching funding possibilities by the Legislative Research Commision. These steps are a promising start for a safer, cleaner, more economically advanced Kentucky but making change is like a marathon and we have just crossed the start. It’s time to take action, time to listen to science, time to capitalize on the research and legislation that has gotten us this far. Our future wellbeing is not a given. This is the moment to rise above the cloud of ignorance and fear that fossil fuels belch onto our society and to embrace Kentucky’s nuclear powered destiny. 

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