IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

West Virginia Eyes Lifting Nuclear Reactor Restrictions

Legislators heard business pitches from nuclear industry representatives at an interim legislative session meeting Tuesday as they consider repealing a conditional state ban on nuclear power plant construction.

Nuclear Cooling Tower
(TNS) — West Virginia lawmakers are thinking about going nuclear.

Legislators heard business pitches from nuclear industry representatives at an interim legislative session meeting Tuesday as they consider repealing a conditional state ban on nuclear power plant construction.

Nuclear technology leaders from across the country contended that West Virginia can shore up its economic and energy future amid the coal industry’s decline by encouraging advanced nuclear energy development.

The presentations before members of the Government Operations and Government Organization committees largely focused on small modular reactors — vastly smaller than the baseload power-generating conventional reactors often associated with nuclear energy.

Small modular reactors are advanced nuclear reactors capable of up to 300 megawatts of electrical output designed to produce power, process heat and desalinate on locations not suitable for larger nuclear plants while requiring less capital investment than bigger facilities.

But the 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.

Marcus Nichol, senior director of nuclear reactors at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nuclear industry trade association, noted that 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.

“There’s a lot of excitement here in developing these reactors,” Nichol said.

Nichol reported interest from coal plant owners eyeing facility retirements in nuclear for replacement power, citing a study from a pro-advanced nuclear energy policy research organization finding that former coal plants are good potential sites for small modular reactors.

That policy research organization, the Good Energy Collective, released a report last month finding that small modular reactor technology could support communities reeling from coal plant and mine closures by offering similar pay, employment, power, and tax revenue compared to retiring coal plants.

The report cited a supplemental report to the annual U.S. Energy and Employment Report that found the nuclear industry supports a median hourly wage of $39.19, about a quarter higher than the median hourly wage of the coal industry ($28.69). For nuclear work in utilities specifically, the median hourly wage was $47, compared with $41.30 for coal work in utilities.

Christine Csizmadia, director of state government affairs and advocacy at the Nuclear Energy Institute, noted that Kentucky, Montana and Wisconsin have ended restrictions on new nuclear construction in recent years, with other states considering following suit.

“We hope that West Virginia continues the trend,” Csizmadia said.

West Virginia was one of 13 states that had restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities as of August, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

West Virginia state code holds that the use of nuclear fuel and power “poses an undue hazard to the health, safety and welfare” of West Virginians and bans nuclear facilities unless the proponent of a facility can prove that “a functional and effective national facility, which safely, successfully and permanently disposes of radioactive wastes, has been developed.” State code requires that construction of any nuclear facility must be economically feasible for ratepayers and comply with environmental laws.

The code also mandates that the Public Service Commission approve construction or initiation of any nuclear power plant, nuclear factory or nuclear electric power generating plant.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, introduced a bill on the first day of the 2022 legislative session Wednesday that would repeal the conditional ban on nuclear power plant construction. That legislation, Senate Bill 4, has been referred to the Senate Economic Development Committee.

West Virginia’s net electricity generation was 91.5% coal-fired, as of Sept. 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But coal accounted for just 19.3% of all utility-scale electricity generation in 2020 — just behind the nationwide clip of 19.7% for nuclear.

Chris Beam, president and chief operating officer of Appalachian Power, told lawmakers that his company relying on coal-fired power to generate electricity in West Virginia supports next-generation nuclear technology.

“They need a utility partner to make this happen, and that’s something we’re very interested in looking [at] going forward,” Beam said.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, asked Beam what Appalachian Power parent company American Electric Power’s options were for achieving its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Beam said solar and wind power are part of a multiphase approach by the company to achieve carbon neutrality, with battery storage “in play.”

“As we sit here today, this option is not available to us,” Beam said of nuclear energy.

The International Energy Agency has said small modular reactors with lower technology readiness levels will be useful in for decarbonizing energy sectors in which emissions are hard to abate, especially industrial heat applications. But the agency added that extensive commercial buildout can’t be expected until the late 2030s.

Lawmakers heard from two executives of Curio Solutions, a nuclear waste recycling company, who argued that lawmakers don’t have to fear nuclear waste as they consider next-generation nuclear technologies.

“By recycling, we would consume virtually all of the high-level radioactive materials, with only 4% of [it] remaining in the form of fission products that would require safe storage for up to 300 years,” Curio CEO Ed McGinnis said. “But in fact, with some new transformational battery approaches, and other types of uses using this remaining 4% of fission products, it may be that we don’t even have to deal with the 300-year storage for the remaining 4%.”

Critics of advanced nuclear technology say it must be safer and more secure than current generation reactors.

“Unfortunately, most ‘advanced’ nuclear reactors are anything but,” Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety in the Union of Concerned Scientists Climate and Energy Program, wrote in a summary of a report he authored published last year finding that nonlight-water-cooled reactor designs are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants.

Some nonlight-water reactor designs have capacities of 300 megawatts of electrical output or less and, thus, qualify as small modular reactors, Lyman noted. Although small modular light-water reactors could be safer than large light-water reactors, because of their size and lower heat production rate, Lyman said, they would produce more expensive electricity without substantially cutting capital and operating costs per megawatt.

Sean O’Leary, senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, a Johnstown, Pennsylvania-based pro-clean-energy think tank, said generation from advanced nuclear technology, such as the small modular reactors highlighted during Tuesday’s meeting, could come in at a cost two to three times the current cost of generation in the PJM market, of which West Virginia is part.

PJM is the regional transmission organization that coordinates wholesale electricity movement in all or parts of 13 states, including West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

“[T]o the degree it may be necessary to embrace some new nuclear power in order to counter climate change, it would be at the cost of significantly higher utility bills, which may not be popular in a state that already has some of the fastest-rising electric rates in the country,” O’Leary said in an email.

Nichol contended that nuclear could provide West Virginia with low-cost electricity, with smaller modular reactors cutting costs by requiring fewer components and greater quality control.

West Virginia Environmental Council President Linda Frame said her organization has not taken a position on the state’s conditional nuclear construction ban.

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