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West Virginia lawmakers consider lifting ban on nuclear power

Members of the Senate Economic Development Committee approved a bill to lift the ban on nuclear power plant construction in West Virginia. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — West Virginia could open itself to the possibility of nuclear power if a bill making its way through the state Senate is successful.

The Senate Economic Development Committee Wednesday afternoon recommended passage of Senate Bill 4 that would repeal sections of the state code banning the construction of nuclear power plants in the state.

“This is a change for West Virginia to be an all-of-the-above energy state,” said Senate Minority Whip Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell. “It’s a great idea. It’s long overdue. It gives West Virginia, along with other states, an option to have this as an alternative energy source for their manufacturing.”

According to the West Virginia Legislature’s Office of Reference and Information, West Virginia’s ban on nuclear power plants went into effect in 1996.

“What happened in ’96 was for whatever reason, it was just an outright ban on nuclear energy facilities in our state,” Woelfel said. “This would simply reverse that and open the door to that.”

TerraPower is considering a small-scale nuclear power plant inside a former coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. (Photo courtesy of TerraPower)

The limited ban has specific exceptions, with state law requiring potential applicants to detail to the Public Service Commission how it would dispose of radioactive waste. A nuclear power plant also must be determined to be economically feasible for state ratepayers and any facility must comply with applicable environmental protection laws and regulations.

Sen. Michael Romano, D-Harrison, asked whether there were already provisions in the state code that would regulate nuclear power plants once the ban is removed.

“My question is when we banned it, did we eliminate the authority of agencies to oversee nuclear power plants,” Romano said. “You think nuclear power is good for West Virginia. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. I’m just curious if we need to take any legislative action after reversing the ban to give agencies oversight authority over nuclear energy.”

Linda Bouvette, a staff attorney with the Public Service Commission, said the commission and the Department of Environmental Protection already have rules and regulations in place to regulate nuclear power. Any new nuclear power plant would also fall under the authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“Any plant that would want to open up in the State of West Virginia would need to get a certificate of convenience and necessity from the Public Service Commission,” Bouvette said. “The code talks about the DEP having the authority to comply with all environmental protection laws and requirements. That brings in the DEP for hazardous waste.”

Woelfel said that Nucor, a North Carolina-based steel manufacturer, had asked about the potential for nuclear power in the state. Nucor announced last week it intends to build a steel mill in Mason County. The company manufactures steel using electric arc furnaces instead of coal-fired furnaces in order to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases it emits into the atmosphere.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, West Virginia is among 13 states with restrictions on construction of new nuclear power plants. Only Minnesota has an outright ban. New York prohibits construction in a certain region of the state. Other states, such as West Virginia, have limited bans. Montana is the most recent state to lift a nuclear power prohibition earlier this year. Kentucky ended a similar ban in 2017.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are 55 active nuclear power plants in the nation with a combined 93 functioning nuclear reactors. Most nuclear power plants in the U.S. have two reactors. The most recent newly constructed reactor was at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in 2016, with two new reactors under construction in Georgia.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced in November that TerraPower, a project between investor Warren Buffet and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has plans to build a nuclear power facility at a former coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. The prototype reactor, called “natrium,” is a new design utilizing sodium to provide cooling to the reactor.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is a proponent of lifting the nuclear power plant ban. During the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead on Jan. 7, Blair said he’s heard from companies that would like to see the ban lifted.

“I’ve been exposed to a good bit of economic development interest in the State of West Virginia, and one of the things they ask about is that,” Blair said. “If they’re asking about it, then we need to eliminate that barrier. West Virginia should be an all-of-the-above state.”

“You’ve got these small modular units that are much safer and much more economical that may have an opportunity to be utilized in the State of West Virginia,” Blair said. “More than anything, it’s the important aspect of it for economic development.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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