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Will Small Nuclear Power Plants Become Part of the Energy Picture in Kansas?

While many Americans embrace renewable energy sources like wind and solar, about 80% of the power generated in the U.S. still comes from fossil fuels. Some are staring to wonder whether there's a role for small nuclear power plants in the state's energy future. Commentator Scott Carlberg is one of them.

Commentator Scott Carlberg has more than 40 years of experience in energy industry communications. He's worked in corporate communications for oil, gas and electricity organizations as well as for nonprofit, research and higher education groups. He lives in Leawood.


Nuclear Energy is about the '60s - the 2060s, that is.

Nuclear energy is about the '60s – the 2060s. I recall that from an energy roundtable. It was about a dozen years ago at a citizens’ forum about nuclear power. Young energy professionals said nuclear energy needs to be part of the future to reduce carbon emissions. They faced people who protested nuclear power in the 1960s and '70s. 

Even though my demographic is not young, I agree with those youthful energy professionals, but with a twist. Pieces of the energy puzzle are a lot different now than the 1960s.  

Gone are the days of building large nuclear plants – 1,000 megawatts or more. The last of those are being finished in the state of Georgia right now.  

Kansas is well-served by a 1,200-megawatt nuclear facility, the Wolf Creek Generating Station, near Burlington. That plant went online in 1985 and is licensed through 2045. It provides power for parts of Missouri and Kansas. That's good. Keep it going.  

Advanced nuclear’s future is sleek, self-contained units called “small modular reactors” – SMR’s for short. They are often less than 100 megawatts. “Pocket plants” of energy, so to say.  

Get them into Kansas’s power system - as fast as possible. SMR’s carbon-free, reliable power could counter coal emissions here in Kansas, I say.   

Here’s the idea. Coal plants are on the way out. Public support has dropped. Regulations have skyrocketed and increase the challenge of running a coal plant. One coal manager told me that the additional scrubbers and systems make it so he runs a chemical plant that just happens to make some power.   

The result: Of the power generation plants that will retire in our nation in 2022, 85% will be coal plants.  

Re-purpose coal-fired plant sites with new modular reactors. That was raised in West Virginia, which passed legislation opening the door for advanced nuclear. West Virginia is a coal-state for gosh sakes! Embrace nuclear in place of coal? There really must be something to this.   

And there is. SMRs’ small footprint fits well on a coal plant site. The power infrastructure is already there; no need to start from scratch. Workers are there to be retrained and retained.  

A coal plant might get retrofitted with a six-pack of SMRs. Clean and neat.  

New nuclear can also enhance renewables. Wind and solar power vary depending on the environment. Yet steady baseload power for society is essential. Nuclear is reliable and designed to keep electrons flowing. New battery research adds flexibility, so when wind and solar are cranking, nuclear can go to batteries for later use.  

This can be a marriage made in energy heaven for a dependable and diverse power portfolio.  

Already, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Tennessee, Indiana, and West Virginia are doing something. Kansas – and its universities – ought to be part of this research. Add to our intellectual energy, not just our grid energy.   

If we are serious about the 2060s - and a carbon-free energy system - our next steps must include these safe, small powerhouses.