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Could a Md. coal plant house a small nuclear reactor?

A rendering of the Xe-100 four-pack plant is shown. Rockville-based company, X-energy and Frostburg State University both received grants from the Maryland Energy Administration to explore the feasibility of converting a coal plant to house a small nuclear reactor to generate electricity. (Submitted photo)

A Maryland energy company and Frostburg State University have received grants from the Maryland Energy Administration to jointly explore the feasibility of converting a coal plant to house a small nuclear reactor to generate electricity.

The Rockville-based company, X-energy, develops advanced small modular reactors, or SMRs. The nuclear reactors, smaller than conventional reactors, are designed to be built off-site and transported to the installation location. Proponents maintain they are safer and more cost-effective than conventional reactors.

Since the announcement of the grants in June, X-energy has begun to assess whether its Xe-100 unit — a high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear reactor — could be deployed at one of Maryland’s coal-fired power plants.

“The technical assessment will consider overall site suitability, existing site infrastructure, suitability for an Xe‐100 reactor, regulatory considerations and implementation schedule,” X-energy spokesman Robert McEntyre said.

If X-energy determines that a Maryland coal-fired plant could be repurposed, a team at Frostburg State University will finalize a socioeconomic feasibility analysis, McEntyre said.

The team will examine the area’s talent pipeline to determine whether a workforce to build and operate the reactor could be developed.

A rendering of the X-energy nuclear reactor that is being tested to see if converting a coal-powered plant to support small nuclear reactors to generate electricity. (Submitted photo)

Maryland has three operating coal-fired power plants: Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner in Anne Arundel County and Warrior Run in Allegany County. Among the state’s retired coal-fired plants are Dickerson in Montgomery County, Chalk Point in Prince George’s County, Morgantown in Charles County and Charles P. Crane in Baltimore County.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal-fired generating plants historically supplied more than half of Maryland’s net generation, but coal’s share fell to 9% in 2020 as natural gas-fired generation increased.

Natural gas and nuclear energy provided 79% of Maryland’s total in-state electricity net generation in 2020, with Maryland’s only nuclear power plant — Calvert Cliffs, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County — accounting for 41% of the state’s total net generation, according to the Energy Information Administration.

A small nuclear reactor would bring several benefits to Maryland, including well-paying jobs and lower-cost electricity for residents and businesses, according to the Maryland Energy Administration.

It would also provide carbon-free electricity.

“Replacing generation on coal sites affords the opportunity to utilize existing infrastructure and to provide stable, dispatchable, non-intermittent generation to the grid that is effectively running 24/7, while emitting no carbon emissions,” said Jahmai Sharp-Moore, spokeswoman for the Maryland Energy Administration. “Having generation like this is critical if the state wants to meet its carbon reduction goals at an acceptable cost while keeping the lights on.”

This year, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Climate Solutions Now Act, which aims to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2045.

A final report on the SMR feasibility study is expected in the fall.