You Got Fusion In My Coal Plant!

While coal was predominant in the past for energy generation, plants are shutting down worldwide to improve air quality and because they aren’t cost-competitive. It’s possible that idle infrastructure could be put to good use with fusion instead.

While we’ve yet to see a fusion reactor capable of generating electricity, Type One Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Oak Ridge National Lab have announced they’re evaluating the recently-closed Bull Run Fossil Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee as a site for a nuclear fusion reactor. One of the main advantages for siting any new generation source on top of an old one is the ability to reuse the existing transmission infrastructure to get any generated power to the grid. Overhead satellite view of a coal-fired power plant next to a heat map showing the suitability of terrain in the region for siting a nuclear power plant

Don’t get too excited as it sounds like this is yet another prototype reactor that will be the proof-of-concept before construction of a reactor that can produce commercial power for the grid. While ambitious, the amount of investment by government entities like the Department of Energy and the state of Tennessee (>$55 million) seems to indicate they aren’t just blowing smoke.

If any of this seems familiar, you might be thinking of the Department of Energy’s report on placing advanced fission reactors on old coal sites. A little fuzzy on the difference between a stellarator and a tokamak? Checkout this explainer on some of the different ways to (non-explosively) do fusion on Earth.

45 thoughts on “You Got Fusion In My Coal Plant!

  1. Lol “Coal is not Cost Effective”. Big old asterisk on that one, because the rest of the facts say “when compared to renewables”.

    HAD readers will probably quickly see the issue with that:
    1. Renewables can’t immediately scale with power demand. The output is the outpu.
    2. Five more Nuclear plants were decommissioned in 2021, resulting in 4% less available output than 2019.

    So if you want to actually have power on an overcast/non windy day, or in the middle of summer when everybody is running A/C you *need* one of the following:

    1. Increased Nuclear Power Plants
    2. Coal Plants
    3. Some inventive, very cheap way, and easily scalable way to store renewable power.

        1. Forget politically, the problem is court costs. We don’t have time to sit on our hands and whine about not getting what we want and have to use what we can. If that means installing more solar, wind, and battery then so be it.

          In all fairness, the U238 light-water reactors are a dated concept that has a large intrinsic fault. The lack of investment developing molten salt reactors and thorium as a fuel is extremely disappointing.

          1. Blah Blah Blah Can’t Scale Blah Blah Blah

            Come on now. Are we really at the point where we have so much green energy that if we added more we wouldn’t be able to use it? Is anyone so gullible as to believe that?

            When on a sunny or windy day we can produce the baseline minimal required energy then maybe there is a point to be had that more shouldn’t be built until storage solutions are better developed. As if we are even close to that now though!

            Meanwhile let’s take all those anti-nuke protesters and hold them over a coal plant smokestack until they wise up. And let’s stop turning off perfectly good nuclear power plants.

            Also, any adaptations that could be made to those old coal and nuclear plants to make them more flexible in their power output, faster and cheaper to turn on and off.. that would also be worthwhile research.

      1. The external costs are a nonsense argument, really. It’s cost you aren’t paying, so what is it? Not a cost.

        The reality is that coal is still cheap, and people are using it because it is cheap, and the alternatives have to be cheaper still – not just to compete, but because our societies are built around having this cheap energy. If energy costs more, a lot of things become not economical to have. That includes things like recycling stuff using energy rather than replacing it with virgin raw materials, or having nice and wasteful high-tech services that run in the background burning electricity 24/7 so you can change the color of your light bulb.

        Costs that would materialize 100 years from now don’t count in that calculation. You have what you have now because fossil fuels are fundamentally cheap.

        1. Also: carbon taxes etc. don’t fix the situation, it simply shifts money elsewhere. The government taxes, then the government spends, and the money goes right back to the people who use it to buy energy – it’s just different people spending it. What did it change?

          1. Carbon tax fixes everything – increase the upfront cost of carbon-emitting electricity (or any goods), indirectly incentivizing other sources. The shuffle that happens afterwards is fine. The market will adjust without the need to micromanage it.

            I don’t understand your assumptions about the tax money going to purchase more carbon fuel. What are you assumptions about the tax revenue? I don’t care what the tax money is used on, collecting money was not the point, influencing purchasing decisions was. But knowing US politics I’d guess the tax money will specifically allocated to something semi-related to the source of the tax.

        2. External costs are the ones that we pay, rather than the people profiting from the activity. Often, if those costs were placed where they belong there would be no profit. Sometimes we want to subsidise things this way, other times we are just being ripped off.

          1. You are the people profiting from the activity. Cheap energy means cheap production prices and cheap transportation, which means your purchasing power remains high and you can buy all the relative luxury you’re used to.

            Societies currently use about 5% of the GDP to produce energy. That amount of investment sustains and generates the other 95% of the economy. No energy, no economy, so the overall cost of energy is paramount.

          2. Besides, chances are you will be dead before the costs materialize. That’s not to say it’s a good idea – just that “we” aren’t really the ones paying, which is why “we” are spending all that cheap energy.

    1. 4. Peaking gas
      Probably the most realistic option for those worst case days, at least where I live in Australia. The modelling suggests they probably wouldn’t get switched on more than a couple of days each year.

    2. Peaking gas is probably more realistic than nuclear, given the extreme costs, time blowouts etc of modern nuclear. Most places would only have to run gas a few days or even hours each year with adequate renewables.

      1. Cost matters too. People rely on electricity to cook and store their food as well as to heat their homes. Also with the electric vehicle push electric rates are on the rise already. Taxing a cheap form of energy or regulating it out of existence just hurts the poor

    3. I’m just glad someone else was the first response on this. I came here to say “Not Cost Effective?” Tell that to China. They’ll laugh.

      I’m not saying I want coal. We could ask China how their air quality is in return. What I want is truth in reporting, and that is not what we have here from HaD.

      I’m also glad to see the numerous proper comments about what we need. Honestly, add in breeder reactors to our current uranium fueled reactors and we have enough fuel for quite some time. Then divert all climate change research money to fusion energy research money, and maybe we might get viable fusion energy before our fission sources run out.

      Until someone figures out how to rejuvenate solar (or at least cleanly, and cheaply recycle it), it’s just a disaster waiting to happen. Wind was dumb to begin with only claiming space efficiency, at the cost of space efficiency in landfills since the blades get destroyed. (not to mention other moving parts). (And not to mention the cost of pulling energy from the climate system itself!) If we were serious as a society about energy, we’d be full bore on fusion, and at least looking for cheap solar panel recycling, or if it’s even possible, rejuvenation. (better than recycling).

      But we have a bunch of anti-science (witting or unwitting) people muddying up the conversation, so we aren’t serious. Until we get serious, methane burning will continue to be the main source of energy in developed parts of the world, and coal in china for sure.

  2. this is very likely a scam to avoid the clean up costs and other liabilities assosiated with a closed
    coal plant,pcb’s coal,100 years of toxic coal waste
    lead,who knows what “forever chemicals”
    so transfer the “assets” to a whole brand new entity that makes totaly unrealistic pronouncements,wait a decade
    and quietly go bankrupt,saving perhaps billions
    been done many times before
    leaving the public on the hook
    next they will create the “super duper fund”

  3. The article is deceptive, coal use is actually rising, only end-of-service-life scenarios is seeing some sites shut down. However using the existing infrastructure for compact modular fission reactors is more likely at this stage even if we would all like very much to see the world make the jump to fusion power as it will be essential if civilisation is to expand and become multiplanetary.

    _”The global coal power generation market demand was estimated at 2,060.44 giga watts in 2022 and is expected to hit around 2,806.93 giga watts by 2032, poised to grow at a CAGR of 3.14% during the forecast period from 2023 to 2032.”_

  4. Anybody who keeps up with the news will know that when a coal-fired power plant is closed, and this happens often, the vultures begin tearing it down. Those plants will be long gone by the time they could have been converted to something else.

    It is a great crime. It is also incomprehensible that most of us don’t even recognize it. Not only the waste, but the absurd notion that they will always be there, ready to convert to the next great power plant.

    1. A suggestion, possibly a dumb one but a suggestion none the less. I propose we put more research into palladium. Did you know that when heated it absorbs hydrogen. When cooled it releases it. I say we take hydrochloric acid and aluminum. Create hydrogen gas and aluminum chloride. Use the heat from this reaction to heat the palladium allowing it to absorb the hydrogen then shoot it with a little liquid nitrogen releasing the hydrogen gas which creates enough energy to reform the aluminum and the hydrochloric acid starting the cycle over again. There’s real potential here but sadly I’m in only heating rocks up with blow torches. Maybe one day the funds will be available to truly not only find a better way to create energy (like the way I’ve described above which would generate energy from the movement of the hydrogen gas) but also we would make these energy efficient methods available to the public and not just the public sector.

    2. always thought it was a waste to destroy useful things, like steam turbines and cooling towers. because someone else somewhere is going to have to build another one, and that is going to cost some carbon. you could probably sell the turbines used to countries that cant afford them otherwise, but then they would build coal plants, and we cant have poor people with electricity.

      its sort of like burning an effigy that represents the problem. but that doesn’t solve the problem, it only gives the demagogues another tool with which to mislead the masses. totally counter productive. we need people in engineering programs, not throwing soup at paintings, shaking signs and screaming manically. no emotional outburst is going to solve the technical problems.

      you can pretty much replace the coal based steam source with practically any other supply. natural gas conversions are going to be a little bit more approachable. dropping in an smr is a bit shorter term, but still a ways out. fusion has to improve by at least 2 or 3 orders of magnitude before its in the same position. some exotic solutions like solar thermal and geothermal exist, but probably not where these things are located. you can put the turbine on a truck and ship it somewhere, but a lot of the built in infrastructure would just end up being demolished. also a turbine built in this decade might actually have some efficiency improvements over one that’s 20 years old so there is that (not much, but fractional percentages can matter in the long term).

      1. Just because steam is used to power different types of energy plants doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable. The full cycle of a coal plant is vastly different from a nuke or a gas plant. Every bit of the equipment is highly engineered and maintained in very different ways.

        Do you really think that the companies shutting down Coal plants (or nukes for that matter) would leave money on the table by not trying to sell the equipment to someone else if it were more valuable than just being scrapped?

        In addition, are you familiar with technology lifecycles? There’s a reason that a lot of Africa uses cellphones instead of landlines, and that those phones work better than a lot of more rural places in the US. Why go through the expense of building out infrastructure if you don’t have to? By the time the technology is built and deployed the next generation is well on it’s way to being developed and deployed, but the companies who built the last generation wants to milk that infrastructure cost FOREVER as the longer they run it the more profit they make.

  5. Nuclear fission is the way to go, it is almost there and will be better than fusion. Also we do not sell coal fired plant infrastructure that has been decommissioned to other countries because;
    1: it is old
    2: as you say these are marginalized communities (at least that is what I will say)
    3: you can’t get parts for most of this stuff.
    4: they probably don’t have the transmission infrastructure to go along with it.
    5: if they are “too poor” to build a new plant, tbey probably are not paying the cost to ship or for the coal.
    6: micro-grids or off grid solar would probably be a better starting point for poor nations.

  6. There was an energy storage startup using excess cheap green energy to heat up big blocks of something (stone? graphite?) during off-peak times and then generating steam to inject into a redundant coal-fired plant’s generators when the demand was high, that feels like a thing we can do right now cheaply & easily even if the round-trip efficiency may not be perfect.

    There’s so much stuff ready to go and be re-used at a fossil power plant if all you need to do is swap from burning fossil fuels to some other method of making steam, I’d think anyone who owns an old fossil plant would be looking pretty closely at doing the swap and getting a second life out of all that investment.

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