West Virginia house delegates and expert panelists will consider the feasibility of advanced nuclear development in the state during an informational session next week.
The online informational session will highlight potential impacts of repurposing coal plant sites for nuclear energy.
The session comes after West Virginia lawmakers heard from nuclear industry representatives who urged them to lift the state’s restrictions on nuclear plant construction at a joint meeting of legislative committees Tuesday.
The discussion is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. To register, go to Bit.ly/AdvancedNuclear.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, introduced a bill on the first day of the 2022 legislative session Wednesday that would repeal the state’s conditional ban on nuclear power plant construction. That legislation, Senate Bill 4, has been referred to the Senate Economic Development Committee.
Next week’s online informational session will feature Delegates Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, and Kayla Young, D-Kanawha. Steele chairs the Joint Standing Government Organization Committee, which along with the Joint Government Operations Committee hosted Tuesday’s meeting focused on next-generation nuclear energy — mainly small modular reactors.
Steele is also lead sponsor of a House version of the Senate bill that would lift the conditional ban on nuclear power plant production, House Bill 2882.
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.
The delegates are scheduled to focus on the political landscape around proposed nuclear legislation at 6:40 p.m., with a question-and-answer discussion slated to follow at 6:55 p.m.
Scheduled to present arguments in favor of advanced nuclear development at 6:05 p.m. is Jessica Lovering, cofounder of the Good Energy Collective, a pro-advanced nuclear energy policy research organization.
Jim Kotcon, conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s West Virginia chapter, is slated to present arguments at 6:25 p.m. against advanced nuclear development.
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.
Marcus Nichol, senior director of nuclear reactors at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nuclear industry trade association, told state lawmakers Tuesday that coal plant owners are eyeing nuclear as an option for replacement power.
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.
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. It 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’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.
Critics of advanced nuclear technology say it is not safer than current generation reactors.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety in the Union of Concerned Scientists Climate and Energy Program, authored a report 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, 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.
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.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to note the introduction of House Bill 2882.