Benjamin Khoshbin on September 17, 2022
The decline of the coal industry has left tens of thousands of Americans in rural mining communities from West Virginia to Wyoming scrambling for work.
Due to a combination of environmental and economic factors, more than 50,000 coal jobs have been lost since 2012, and over 300 coal-fired power plants closed — devastating coal communities in the process. Despite a surge in demand for coal due to the global energy crisis — caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and exacerbated by global heat waves — these coal jobs have become largely automated and aren’t coming back.
In an attempt to replace the jobs lost while also promoting carbon-free electricity, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides a 10% tax credit bonus for clean energy facilities built in coal communities. While many environmentalists have been advocating for wholesale replacement of coal with renewables like wind and solar, these energy sources lack the scalability, profitability and stability that nuclear energy provides.
Nuclear is the best energy source to ensure environmental justice for underserved coal communities. All Americans, not just the wealthy elites, should be kept in mind during our transition to clean energy.
The coal industry has been in decline for decades, and not just due to stricter environmental regulations. The advent of cheap natural gas and renewables made coal fall out of favor: in 2019, coal was estimated to be $20 higher per megawatt hour than natural gas, and 70% percent of coal capacity in the U.S. had a higher running cost than renewables. Automation has also led to gains in productivity — workers can produce more coal per hour, meaning fewer workers are necessary to produce a steady supply of coal.
Renewables like wind and solar are acceptable alternatives to coal — they are indeed cheaper to produce and could provide higher-paying opportunities for the thousands of coal workers who have lost or are at risk of losing their jobs. But when compared to nuclear energy, advanced reactors stand out as the better-suited replacement, thanks to the high-paying stable jobs it provides and the preexisting nuclear-friendly infrastructure coal communities already maintain.
The existing rail connections, ample water resources, and transmission lines built for coal plants make it easier for prefabricated SMRs — transportable, factory-made nuclear reactors — to deploy in these locations, providing cost savings of up to 35%. The workforces of coal communities are primed for retraining, too, as the many electrical technician and plant operator jobs at coal plants are strikingly similar to those at a nuclear plant.
Coal communities are also better suited for advanced reactors because, in contrast to nuclear, renewables are pickier when it comes to their operating locations. Only 62% of coal-mining areas are suitable for solar power, and wind is significantly lower: 7% of current coal communities are suitable for wind power installation. Just 2% of coal communities are suitable for both solar and wind. In contrast, 80% of both retired and currently-operating coal plants are suitable to host advanced reactors.
Advanced reactor companies like TerraPower recognize the coal industry’s decline as an opportunity — they’ve recently committed to building their $4 billion sodium-cooled Natrium reactor near a retiring coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Coal communities in West Virginia are also prime locations for advanced reactors, as the state’s legislature has just rescinded a ban on nuclear plants, leaving many retired coal plants ready to be utilized by advanced reactors.
Nuclear energy jobs pay significantly higher wages than coal, wind, and solar. When comparing their median hourly wages, nuclear is the highest at $39.19; coal is nearly $11 less, and yet it still pays more than wind and solar. The jobs in the plant and in the surrounding community typically come with wages that are at least 25% higher than any other energy source.
These high-paying jobs are long-term too: nuclear reactors are capable of operating for 80 years, providing a stable source of jobs for coal communities rattled by sudden shutdowns of coal plants. In a recent research study, the Department of Energy found that a large coal plant site being replaced by an advanced nuclear reactor would increase permanent jobs in the plant’s community by more than 650.
Coal workers deserve the same level of pay and stability they earned while working in the mines and power plants — nuclear energy can provide that. By building advanced nuclear reactors in coal communities, we can ensure workers that lost their jobs find meaningful, gainful employment again, raising up their communities and providing clean, reliable, and affordable electricity to the country in the process.
Benjamin Khoshbin is an Energy & Environment Writing Fellow with the American Conservation Coalition and Young Voices.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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