West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has signed into law a bill that lifts state restrictions on nuclear power plant construction.
Justice on Tuesday signed off on Senate Bill 4, which repeals state code that frowns upon nuclear power. The bill had passed through the House of Delegates on a 76-16 vote last Monday, and through the Senate on a 24-7 vote on Jan. 25.
Justice wrote in a letter to the Senate clerk upon signing the bill that “any development or placement of nuclear technologies in this State must be done thoughtfully and, above all, safely.”
“I call upon our Legislature to continue to research and monitor nuclear initiatives around the Nation to ensure appropriate regulatory or safety measures are in place as new technologies are developed and implemented,” Justice wrote.
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 “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 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.
Department of Environmental Protection general counsel Jason Wandling has said his agency likely would have primary authority over a nuclear plant’s air and construction permitting.
The PSC could still determine the economic feasibility of nuclear plant construction proposals, as provided for in code, that SB 4 repeals, given construction and siting certification requirements for such projects, according to House Energy and Manufacturing Committee counsel Robert Akers.
Proponents of the bill have called it a critical move toward economic development that would promote a valuable energy source in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Opponents have contended that the potential for nuclear accidents is too great to tolerate and the time frame for advanced nuclear deployment too long to stave off the worst effects of climate change. They reject arguments made by backers of the bill that it’s a necessary first step toward considering nuclear’s future in the West Virginia, also voicing concern about nuclear waste storage and potentially adverse effects on electric rates.
West Virginia Coal Association, West Virginia Citizen Action Group and West Virginia NAACP representatives were among those making cases against lifting the restrictions at a public hearing last month on a House bill identical to SB 4. West Virginia Climate Alliance, West Virginia Manufacturers Association and West Virginia Chamber of Commerce leadership spoke in support of lifting the restrictions.
As of August, West Virginia was one of 13 states that had restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power facilities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Kentucky, Montana and Wisconsin have ended restrictions on nuclear construction, with other states considering following suit.
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 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.
Nuclear industry representatives pitched advanced nuclear energy development — including repurposing former coal plants as nuclear sites — as a path toward economic growth to members of the interim Government Operations and Government Organization committees on Jan. 11.
“The bill I have signed today is a positive step in modernizing our State’s regulatory environment, but we must work to ensure only positive outcomes from this legislation by continually evaluating any concerns and implementing best practices in any regulation that may be required,” Justice wrote.