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W.Va. Senate votes to repeal ban on nuclear power plants

Members of the state Senate met under the golden dome of the Capitol Tuesday to repeal a ban on nuclear energy. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Members of the West Virginia Senate were nearly unanimous in their support Tuesday for a bill to repeal the prohibition on nuclear power.

The Senate voted 24-7 for Senate Bill 4, repealing sections of the state code banning the construction of nuclear power plants in West Virginia. The bill now heads to the House of Delegates, which is considering a similar bill.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, first promoted the bill the week before the start of the 2022 legislative session during the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead. Speaking after Tuesday morning’s floor session, Blair said he was pleased the bill gained quick support.

“I’m excited. Another barrier down for economic development in the State of West Virginia,” Blair said. “You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

West Virginia’s ban on nuclear power plants has been in place since 1996 with limited exceptions. State law requires potential applicants to detail to the Public Service Commission how it would dispose of radioactive waste, the economic feasibility for state ratepayers and show a facility would comply with applicable environmental protection laws and regulations.

“All this bill does is say we’re open to discussion, that’s it. We’re not close minded,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, the bill’s lead sponsor. “I think it is important for West Virginia to be looking forward to the future, looking forward to diversify and simply say to the rest of the world we are open for discussion should this technology come to our Mountain State.”

Sen. Michael Romano, D-Harrison, remained skeptical about the bill and whether the state had the ability already in code to regulate future nuclear power facilities.

“I have no type of cautionary word about nuclear. I think nuclear power has become safe over the last few decades,” Romano said. “My concern is I don’t think I received accurate answers in committee when this came before the Energy Committee, though I was supportive. We’ve eliminated, by this bill, the only section that provides any oversight of nuclear power through the Public Service Commission.”

According to testimony from the PSC in committee meetings for the bill last week, both the PSC 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.

“The Public Service Commission already testified that they have authority over all forms of generation of electricity, so there is regulatory oversight in place,” said Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer. “There is another section (of state code) that covers the disposal of radioactive material, so there is current legislation that addresses those two issues.”

“Even if we had no regulations, the federal government literally has thousands of people when you want to stand up a nuclear power plant that involves regulating the construction of it, the building of it, all the way up through the operations of it and everything else,” Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, said. “It’s not as though this would be the wild west of nuclear power with no regulation or oversight whatsoever.”

No votes on the bill included Romano and Sens. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, Mike Caputo, D-Marion, Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, Randy Smith, R-Tucker, Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, and Hannah Geffert, D-Berkeley, who raised concerns about what the state would do with nuclear waste.

“I’m not against nuclear power in any way, but I am concerned about what we’re going to do with the waste,” said Geffert, whose father worked on the first nuclear power plant and first nuclear submarine. “Currently, a lot of waste is stored on site in nuclear power plants across the country in barrels, which does not seem like a wise way to go.”

A driving force behind the push to repeal the nuclear power ban was the recent announcement that North Carolina-based Nucor will build a new steel mill in Mason County. Nucor uses electric arc furnaces instead of coal-fired furnaces to produce steel products. The company is known for seeking contracts with clean energy companies to provide power to their furnaces.

“This bill makes us a leader in terms of being all-of-the-above in terms of our energy sources,” said Senate Minority Whip Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell. “I know the Nucor Corporation has asked us about what our future plans may be, and this would be a step, as they see it, in the right direction to allow nuclear energy as an energy source.”

Nucor set a goal in July to reduce the greenhouse gas output of its steel mills to 77% less than the global average for steelmaking by 2030.

“The green economy is being built on steel,” said Nucor President and CEO Leon Topalian in a press release. “As an electric arc furnace steelmaker and North America’s largest recycler, Nucor is already a world leader in sustainable steel. Our (greenhouse gas) intensity is less than one-third the world average, but we are committed to going further. Steel will continue to be an essential material for our nation’s economy, and Nucor is proving that it can be produced in a sustainable way to help the world meet its climate goals.”

The House of Delegates is considering House Bill 2882, which is also a repeal of the nuclear power plant ban. The bill has been recommended for passage by the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee and the House Government Organization Committee, which sent the bill to the full House Monday.

The House will hold a public hearing on HB 2882 Friday, Jan. 28, at 10 a.m. in the House chamber.

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