Jan. 25—Two identical bills that would lift restrictions on nuclear power plant construction in West Virginia moved closer to passage in the state Legislature Monday.
The full Senate is slated to vote on Senate Bill 4 Tuesday without discussion after it advanced to a third reading Monday, while House Bill 2882 was advanced to the full House of Delegates by the Government Organization Committee.
Both bills would repeal the state's conditional ban on nuclear power plant construction, a move that some other states have made amid the nation's energy transition.
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.
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 nuclear construction in recent years, with other states considering following suit.
The Government Organization Committee approved the bill despite opposition from two Monongalia County Democrats.
Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, expressed fear of a nuclear accident and lingering nuclear waste on plant sites, recalling nuclear accidents like the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 and a steam explosion and fires at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine in 1986 that resulted in at least 30 deaths and radiation injuries to more than a hundred others from the blast and acute radiation syndrome.
"I don't see why we would do this without studying it in depth," Fleischauer said, noting that the restrictions in place are not a full ban on nuclear power plant construction.
Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, approved of nuclear as an option for repurposing shuttered coal plants to keep energy jobs in longtime coal communities but said the Legislature should do more to protect electric ratepayers from any rate hikes sustained in a transition to nuclear energy.
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection General Counsel Jason Wandling said his agency likely would have primary authority over a nuclear plant's air and construction permitting to ensure proper stormwater planning.
Wandling said the DEP does not have regulatory authority over nuclear waste production or storage and that the federal government likely would have such authority over nuclear fuel sources.
"But we also don't have any sources of nuclear waste in the state of West Virginia, so I don't have a lot of experience with it just yet," Wandling added.
Earlier this month, 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.
Hansen, founder of Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies, was among the speakers at an online informational session that highlighted potential advantages and disadvantages of next-generation nuclear growth in West Virginia.
Jessica Lovering, co-founder of the Good Energy Collective, a pro-advanced-nuclear-energy-policy research organization, presented arguments in favor of advanced nuclear development. Jim Kotcon, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's West Virginia chapter, presented arguments against advanced nuclear development.
Lovering contended that 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.
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, such as transmission lines and rails and roads, while yielding similar tax revenue 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 reaction is not a clean, quick, safe or cheap option for providing electricity, while also aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, when 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.
Joining the West Virginia Office of Energy in presenting the informational session were 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.
Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony@hdmediallc
.com. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.
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