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West Virginians weigh in on nuclear power plant prohibition repeal

CHARLESTON — With lawmakers on the cusp of removing a more than 25-year-old ban on nuclear energy in West Virginia, members of the House of Delegates received input from the public.

The House Government Organization Committee held a public hearing in the House of Delegates chamber Friday morning on Senate Bill 4, repealing sections of the state code banning the construction of nuclear power plants in West Virginia.

SB 4 passed the Senate Tuesday 24-7. The House version of the same bill, House Bill 2882, made it through the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee and the House Government Organization Committee over the last seven days. That bill was referred to the House’s inactive calendar since the Senate bill is already on track for passage in the House Monday, Jan. 31.

The bill would remove two sections of code banning the construction of new nuclear power plants except under certain circumstances. The ban has been in place since 1996.

Supporters of the bill include the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. They see the repeal as a way of enticing industries to the state and showing that the state supports multiple sources of electricity.

“The WVMA and its members support an all-of-the-above-and-below energy approach for West Virginia,” said Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

“Our industry depends on the availability of reliable and affordable energy options. Today’s manufacturers are also interested in adding clean energy options to the production mix. Nuclear energy offers an affordable, reliable and clean energy source for consumers,” McPhail said.

“This bill is an important step in removing barriers as evolving technology brings more opportunities to West Virginia,” said Brian Dayton, vice president of policy and advocacy for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “As this technology arrives, we want to make sure we’re ready to take advantage of it.”

North Carolina-based steel manufacturer Nucor has plans to build a new steel mill in Mason County using electric arc furnaces. Nucor announced plans last year to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions at its plants and utilize cleaner forms of energy. SB 4 and HB 2882 was borne from discussions between lawmakers and Nucor.

Opposition to the bill united two sides normally fighting each other: the coal industry and environmental activists. Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he sees the repeal as an effort from liberals to push out coal and other fossil fuels used to generate electricity.

“West Virginia and this capital has always been a safe haven for our miners and their families. Today, they woke up to news that nuclear power is coming to West Virginia,” Hamilton said. “We have plenty of coal-fired electricity for our state’s needs, and any new power sources, be it nuclear or intermittent energy forms, will undeniably replace coal, coal miners, and power plant workers.”

Hannah King, a lobbyist with the West Virginia Environmental Council, read a prepared statement on behalf of Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, due to being quarantined for a COVID-19 infection. Zuckett, who advocated for the 1996 ban on nuclear power, said even with improvements in technology the state should take its time before repealing the ban.

“We need climate solutions now, not in 10 years,” King said on behalf of Zuckett. “The prudent thing to do would be to put these bills on hold, assemble an interim study, gather experts on both sides of this critical issue, and make a measured and informed decision. If we’re going to open up West Virginia to nuclear power, let’s do it with proper regulations and safeguards for its people, economy and environment.”

Both the PSC and the state Department of Environmental Protection have rules and regulations in place dealing with the construction of new power plants and the handling of radioactive waste. New nuclear power plants also come under the authority of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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

Despite a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, the catastrophic nuclear reactor core explosion at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 and the 2011 earthquake that led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, other nuclear power plants have mostly spotless records. The U.S. Navy has operated nuclear-powered carriers and submarines with no incidents for more than 60 years.

Meghan Hutchison, a senior associate for radiological emergency preparedness at the Olson Group Ltd., said there are numerous safeguards put in place at the federal level to handle potential accidents. The Radiological Emergency Preparedness program, overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides training and coordination for first responders within a 50-mile radius of nuclear power plants.

“By bringing together all the key partners from local, state, and federal agencies, it helps to ensure that the plans in place are sufficient to meet the needs of the community surrounding the nuclear plant and are fully exercised on a regular basis,” Hutchison said. “My message to this committee is that the men and women that plan and train to ensure the safety of our citizens will be on the job. I believe in nuclear power, and I believe in the REP program.”

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

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