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Federal Report: Nuclear Power Key in Transition from Coal

Federal and state government figures alike are eyeing a greater role for nuclear development and for regulatory authority in West Virginia's future, with hopes that that type of power can ease transition off coal.

Nuclear Cooling Tower
(TNS) — Federal and state government figures are eyeing a greater role for nuclear development and regulatory authority in West Virginia's future — from coal exits to exit signs.

The federal government sees potential for West Virginia — and much of the rest of the country — to cross over from coal to nuclear.

The Department of Energy has released a report estimating that 80% of nearly 400 retired and operating coal power plant sites evaluated had the basic characteristics needed to be considered amenable to host an advanced nuclear reactor.

Researchers found that replacing a large coal plant with a nuclear power plant of equivalent size could increase regional economic activity by as much as $275 million and create over 650 new, permanent jobs across the plant, supply chain and community surrounding the plant.

The report noted that a coal-to-nuclear transition — a prospect that has split West Virginia environmental and clean energy advocates — could replace retiring coal generation capacity while using what would otherwise be stranded assets at coal plants.

The West Virginia Legislature lifted state restrictions on nuclear power plant construction early in the 2022 regular legislative session in February.

The debate over West Virginia's potential nuclear future has focused on small modular reactors. Small modular reactors are advanced nuclear reactors capable of up to 300 megawatts of electrical output. They are designed to produce power, process heat and desalinate on locations not suitable for larger nuclear plants while requiring less capital investment than bigger facilities.

The report released by the Department of Energy on Tuesday notes that as small modular reactors and other advanced reactors are licensed, those technologies will become available for a greater variety of utilities and independent power producers to replace retiring coal-fired assets.

Forty-five out of 50 retired and 52 of 62 operating coal power plant sites in the Southeastern U.S. — including West Virginia — were amenable to advanced reactor siting within a half-mile radius, researchers found.

West Virginia had four of 45 unidentified sites throughout the Southeast that researchers said would provide the easiest cases for nuclear backfits, per the study.

The study found that greenhouse gas emissions in a region could drop by 86% when nuclear power plants replace large coal plants.

"This is an important opportunity to help communities around the country preserve jobs, increase tax revenue, and improve air quality," said Office of Nuclear Energy Assistant Secretary Kathryn Huff said in a press release. "As we move to a clean energy future, we need to deliver place-based solutions and ensure an equitable energy transition that does not leave communities behind."

But small modular reactor technology is not yet market-ready. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved its first design for a small modular reactor in August 2020 for what Portland, Oregon-based developer NuScale Power said would be a 60-megawatt power plant.

The U.S. Department of Energy has approved cost-share awards to develop small modular reactors that can be operational by the end of the decade. The study released by the agency Tuesday was conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Nuclear industry representatives pitched advanced nuclear energy development — including repurposing former coal plants as nuclear sites — as a path toward economic growth to state lawmakers at an interim legislative session meeting before the Legislature approved lifting restrictions on nuclear plant construction earlier this year.

Opponents of lifting the restrictions contended that the potential for nuclear accidents was too great to tolerate and the time frame for advanced nuclear deployment too long to stave off the worst effects of climate change. They rejected arguments made by backers of the bill that it's a necessary first step toward considering nuclear energy's future in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Coal Association, the West Virginia Citizen Action Group and West Virginia NAACP representatives were among those who made cases against lifting the restrictions at a public hearing earlier this year. The West Virginia Climate Alliance, the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce leadership spoke in support of lifting them.

State code that the Legislature repealed had held that use of nuclear fuel and power "poses an undue hazard to the health, safety and welfare" of West Virginians and had banned nuclear facilities unless the proponent of a facility could prove that "a functional and effective national facility, which safely, successfully and permanently disposes of radioactive wastes, has been developed."

West Virginia lawmakers focused on nuclear from another angle during this week's interim legislative session.

Members of joint committees on Energy and Government Organization heard presentations from members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on how West Virginia can take over regulation from the commission of certain uses of radioactive materials.

The presentations were designed to show West Virginia the path to becoming an "agreement state," or a state responsible for licensing, inspection and enforcement of medical, academic and industrial uses of certain radioactive materials.

West Virginia is one of eight states that is neither an agreement state nor has submitted a letter of intent to become one, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission data.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allows the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to assist states that aim to become agreement states. Kentucky became the first agreement state in 1962.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission retains regulatory authority over nuclear power plants and research reactors, high-level waste handling and disposal and large quantities of special nuclear material, a category that includes plutonium, uranium and uranium-233, a nonnaturally occurring isotope of uranium.

Agreement states assume the authority to regulate other materials, like tailings from extraction of uranium or thorium from ores processed for their source material, land disposal of certain radioactive material, and most uranium and thorium ores and product from mining and milling.

Duncan White, senior health physicist at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reported to lawmakers that there are 166 licensees with locations of use and 622 generally licensed devices at 73 facilities requiring registration in West Virginia. Generally licensed devices contain radioactive material used to measure or control the thickness or chemical composition of certain items. They include density and fill-level gauges as well as exit signs.

The commission collected $1.3 million from licensees in fiscal year 2021, according to White.

White explained that West Virginia, not the commission, would collect those fees if it became an agreement state. It costs less for a state to implement a state agreement program than it does for the commission to carry out the same responsibilities, White said.

States interested in becoming an agreement state prepare a program and application after submitting a letter of intent from the governor to the commission. It has taken from 3.3 to 7.9 years between letter of intent submission and the effective date for becoming an agreement state for states taking on that authority in the past quarter-century, White said.

White encouraged West Virginia lawmakers to green-light supporting legislation and regulations and ensure prospective staff members are trained as soon as possible to expedite agreement state approval.

White said Indiana is pursuing agreement state status and looking to hire four staff members to help take over that regulatory authority. The commission would help guide West Virginia through the agreement state preparation process and provides funding for states with letters of intent and agreement state staff to attend commission training, White said.

"We have model legislation we can provide the state if they choose to do that. We have procedures the state can see. So we do have a lot of things that states can start with," White said.

"I think we'd love to see that model legislation," Delegate Kayla Young, D- Kanawha, said.

© 2022 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.