Jan. 20—A bill that would lift restrictions on nuclear power plant construction in West Virginia moved closer to passage in the state Senate Wednesday afternoon.
The Senate Economic Development Committee approved advancing Senate Bill 4 with little discussion.
SB 4 would repeal the state's conditional ban on nuclear power plant construction.
State code currently 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, is lead sponsor of the bill, which was introduced on the first day of the 2022 legislative session last week. Of the bill's seven other sponsors, four are Democrats and three are Republicans.
One of those sponsors, Senate Minority Whip Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, touted the bill's potential to make West Virginia an "all of the above energy state" during the Economic Development Committee's brief discussion of the legislation.
"It's a great idea," Woelfel said. "It's long overdue. It makes West Virginia an option along with other states for folks who want to have this as a potential energy source for their manufacturing."
The move would place West Virginia among a growing number of states embracing nuclear as a viable energy option amid the nation's transition away from coal, oil and natural gas to cut greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change.
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.
Kentucky, Montana and Wisconsin have ended restrictions on new nuclear construction in recent years, with other states considering following suit.
The advancement of SB 4 comes a week after nuclear industry representatives pitched advanced nuclear energy development as a path to shoring up the state's economic and energy future amid coal's decline to members of the interim Government Operations and Government Organization committees.
An identical bill to SB 4, House Bill 2882, has been referred to the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee, led in sponsorship by Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh.
Steele was among a group of delegates and expert panelists who discussed potential impacts of nuclear development in West Virginia during an online informational session Tuesday evening.
Steele contended that lifting the state's restrictions on nuclear power plant construction was needed to allow serious discussion about possible benefits and drawbacks of in-state nuclear development.
"[We should be] exploring over the next session or two, how do we shape this, how do we develop it and do it carefully," Steele said of the state's approach to nuclear.
Steele joined Delegates Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, and Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, for a discussion about the future of nuclear in West Virginia.
Hansen, who is not a sponsor of HB 2882, said he was less interested in that bill than as yet unnumbered legislation that he, Steele and Young had cosponsored. That legislation, Hansen said, would protect ratepayers from spiking electric rates by providing pro-consumer language governing the Public Service Commission on repurposing power plant sites, allow electric utilities to refinance the capital balance on their coal-fired power plants to save ratepayers money and would allow for nuclear to be considered an option for retiring coal plants.
Prior to the delegates' discussion, the session highlighted potential advantages and disadvantages of next-generation nuclear growth in West Virginia.
Jessica Lovering, cofounder of the Good Energy Collective, a pro-advanced nuclear energy policy research organization, presented arguments in favor of advanced nuclear development. Jim Kotcon, conservation chair of the Sierra Club's West Virginia chapter, presented arguments against advanced nuclear development.
Lovering contended nuclear could be a low-cost, small-land-footprint energy source to provide industrial heat, desalination and hydrogen production in West Virginia while emitting zero greenhouse gases during production.
Lovering focused on small modular reactors, which one of her PowerPoint slides billed as "not your parent's nuclear."
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.
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.
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.
Lovering argued that small modular reactors could offer communities reeling from coal plant closures a new way to produce energy using much of existing infrastructure like transmission lines and rails and roads while yielding similar tax revenues and compensation for workers.
A Good Energy Collective study released last month that Lovering cited found that small modular reactor technology could offer coal communities similar pay, employment, power, and tax revenue compared to retiring coal plants.
Lovering highlighted the use of passive safety features in advanced nuclear designs that rely on the laws of physics rather than engineering to cool reactors, resulting in automatic shutdowns of reactors that overheat.
Kotcon argued that nuclear was not a clean, quick, safe or cheap option for providing electricity while also aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to wind and solar, noting that each year of delay in cutting emissions elevates costs and risks in years ahead.
Kotcon cited cost of electricity comparisons indicating that nuclear systems cost two to three times as much per megawatt-hour as wind and solar options.
Geothermal energy, Kotcon contended, could be a wiser alternative source to pursue for baseload energy on demand.
Comments from attendees at the virtual session were split among those welcoming advanced nuclear development as key to fighting climate change and economic decline and those with concerns about nuclear waste safety and potentially persisting environmental health disparities.
Hansen said that even if state lawmakers lift restrictions on nuclear power plant construction in this legislative session, West Virginia won't see an operational nuclear plant in West Virginia "for a long time."
"[It will] probably be a decade or something like that," said Hansen, who founded the Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies. "I still think there's an urgent need to move full speed ahead to build out as many renewables as possible to reduce emissions and create jobs."
Joining the West Virginia Office of Energy in presenting the informational session are the Ohio River Valley Institute, a Johnstown, Pennsylvania-based pro-clean energy think tank, the West Virginia Climate Alliance, the Citizens' Climate Lobby, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the West Virginia University College of Law Center for Energy and Sustainable Development and the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.
"This is probably just the beginning of this discussion," session moderator and Ohio River Valley Institute senior researcher and session moderator Ted Boettner said.
Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.
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