Coal 2 Nuclear: Another Smokescreen that Obscures Real Climate Solutions

Photograph Source: ShinRyu Forgers – CC BY-SA 4.0

They’ve given it a snappy little acronym, one that is perhaps supposed to masquerade as a sort of scientific-sounding calculus — C2N. After the failure of the much-trumpeted “nuclear renaissance” that never was, the nuclear lobby and its federal lackeys have come up with another PR clunker — Coal 2 Nuclear (hence, C2N). In reality, this is less C2N than CPR for an ailing nuclear power industry.

Unfortunately, to arrive at this dangerously out-of-touch scheme, our tax dollars had to be wasted on yet another U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report. Its conclusion was that, “hundreds of U.S. coal power plant sites could convert to nuclear power plant sites, adding new jobs, increasing economic benefit, and significantly improving environmental conditions.”

Notice the word “could” though. Not “will”. Because it’s more of the same aspirational irrationality that is driving the small modular reactor fantasy in the first place, the version of nuclear power that would supposedly dot the defunct coal plant landscapes.

The DOE study was conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Their self-interested conclusions then, come as no surprise.

C2N is enough to make you despair — or confirm your pre-existing suspicions — that our leadership is blind and deaf to the reality of the climate emergency we are facing. They are truly mired in the mud of outdated thinking, clinging to failed and foolish energy plans that have long been supplanted by demonstrably better, faster, cheaper, safer and more workable options, ergo renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation.

“More than 3 million of the 7.8 million jobs in the US energy sector are in areas aligned to America’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2050”, reported the World Economic Forum in July 2022. “This means renewable energy jobs in 2021 accounted for around 40% of total energy jobs.”

But no, the DOE would rather spend decades dangling before depressed coal communities the false promise of “new jobs” and “economic benefits” in a phantom new nuclear sector. It’s a con and the worst form of betrayal and guess whose fingerprints are all over this?

With C2N, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (Democrat in name only and with his pockets full of coal money), is throwing his most deprived constituents under a petroleum-powered bus. He is leading those who need work today down a long and winding road to C2N that will deliver little if anything and nothing anytime soon.

All of this is in line with a collective madness that appears to have taken over significant swaths of human society. In November, UN General Secretary, António Guterres, desperate to steer us away from our final precipice, issued his most strident and urgent warning yet:

“We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing … And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible,” Guterres said. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”

He was speaking at the opening of the COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, or the “COP-out” as some cynics prefer to call it, given the abject failure of these annual meetings to ensure enforcement of the pledges made, albeit most are still woefully inadequate.

The US DOE meanwhile, prefers to dwell in the dark ages of denial. “A coal to nuclear transition could significantly improve air quality,” the department alleged in its report. But this ignores the fact that nuclear power plants and the nuclear fuel chain routinely release radioactivity, especially dangerous to children. Among more than 60 epidemiological studies worldwide, most found increases in rates of leukemia among children under five living near nuclear power plants. The rates increased the closer children lived to the plant.

And it ignores the fact that air quality could be improved faster and more significantly by shifting from coal to renewables rather than to nuclear, thereby also avoiding the cancer-causing emissions delivered by nuclear power.

Of course, “air quality” would be rendered meaningless if/when one of the C2N plants suffers a serious accident. Such an event would release large amounts of fast-traveling radioactive iodine-131 gas, followed by clouds of heavier radioactive fallout such as cesium and strontium. A major disaster, such as those at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, even released “hot” particles such plutonium into the environment.

This outcome is made even more likely by virtue of the reactor choices for these C2N sites, which include small modular reactors, sodium-cooled fast reactors and very high temperature reactors, all designs vulnerable to fires, leaks, explosions and other major failures.

Needless to say, a C2R program (Coal to Renewables), the most obvious choice staring our federal government in the face, just wasn’t even on the cards. That would have meant relinquishing the stranglehold —and renouncing the pocket-lining dollars — of the big fossil fuel and nuclear corporations.

As M.V. Ramana and Cassandra Jeffery noted with such precision on these pages, the powers that be are “far more devoted to maintaining the current system for as long as it is feasible,” rather than exploring genuine climate solutions.

Contrary to industry assertions, nuclear power plants are not “always on” and, as such, are neither a good replacement for coal nor reliable under severe weather conditions when reactors must shut down for safety precautions. (Photo: Ft. Calhoun nuclear power plant “islanded” by severe flooding/Wikimedia Commons)

C2N preserves that status quo, operating inside a spectacularly failed system that, nevertheless, continues to enrich the already wealthy and preserve the monopoly enjoyed by large, inflexible and already obsolete forms of energy production such as nuclear power.

An argument made by these entrenched establishment forces is that moving from coal to nuclear allows for a continued electricity supply system that is “always on”, reinforcing the myth that base load energy is somehow beneficial.

Nuclear reactors “run uninterrupted,” Maria Korsnick, head of the industry lobbying group, Nuclear Energy Institute, told an audience of Purdue University students in October when stumping for C2N. “Every hour of every day, rain or shine.”

But, as George Harvey explained in CleanTechnica: “Base load power may supply the electricity in the middle of the night in many cases, but power from other sources could be used instead.” Clinging to base load is related to cost, not demand and efficiency.

Already back in 2017, the Brattle Group conducted an analysis for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — Advancing Past “Baseload” to a Flexible Grid, in which the group concluded that the base load concept was outdated. Base load, it said, has now been left behind by the economics of a changing electricity landscape that have rendered it “no longer very relevant”.

Much more efficient, said the report, is an electricity demand and supply met with high renewable generation. In their graph illustrating this, nuclear power is nowhere to be seen.

And of course, nuclear power invariably doesn’t “run uninterrupted.” It must power down or off during violent storms, droughts or heatwaves, or due to offsite grid instability, and shut down for extended periods during refueling and maintenance. And, as exemplified most recently by France, it can simply break down altogether for extended periods.

If the C2N reactors ever do happen, it will be decades in the future. By then, those who needed the work in the 2020s, falsely promised by C2N, will be retired or deceased. Our coastlines may well be underwater. If we did enough in time to save ourselves, we will be on smart grids using distributed generation.

“Nuclear energy is going to create incredible new career opportunities all over the country,” Korsnick told the Purdue students. According to the dictionary definition, “incredible” means “not credible; hard to believe”. That about sums it up.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.