States that were once wary about nuclear power are now mulling policies to move forward with it as a way to decarbonize the electric grid, reach emissions-free energy goals, and preserve jobs in communities with aging and shuttering coal plants.
While 13 states have bans or restrictions on nuclear power construction, some are repealing moritoria and seeking to advance nuclear energy pilot projects within their borders. Critics, however, say such efforts are misguided and amount to too little, too late to address climate change.
In West Virginia, where coal has long reigned supreme, lawmakers plan to reconsider legislation to repeal the state’s 25-year-old ban on construction of new nuclear power facilities. A bill that nearly passed this year would have eased nuclear reactor projects as part of an “all of the above” energy strategy, according to Del. Kayla Young (D), who supports the idea.
“I’ve been working on it all year and made a lot of headway, and I feel great about our potential to lift the ban,” Young said.
West Virginia isn’t alone. Several states are seeking to partner with the federal government to become the pilot site for small or medium reactors, and two have projects underway through the Department of Energy.
Before a commercial nuclear power plant of any size can operate in the U.S., it must secure a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the past 50 years, the NRC has issued 126 operating licenses for nuclear power plants, though just one new licensed project—Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle—currently is under construction.
“Over the last few years, there has been a really incredible increase in state legislation on nuclear power,” said Christine Csizmadia, director of state governmental affairs and advocacy at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “We’d have maybe a dozen bills introduced every year, but lately we’ve easily been hitting 75 to 100.”
The nuclear energy industry has seen a fundamental shift recently from conventional atomic power designs to advanced technologies that involve smaller, more modular power plants which are cheaper and quicker to build than traditional plants. They range from micro-reactors that can provide small-scale energy to customers located nearby to medium-sized reactors that can power cities and larger industrial customers, according to a recent reportby the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.
These “advanced nuclear” plants are safer and more reliable than traditional reactors, and can help contribute to state-level emissions-free energy goals, the NIA said.
Montana ended its longstanding restriction on new nuclear construction in 2021 (H.B. 273). Kentucky ended its moratorium in 2017, and Wisconsin in 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii, Minnesota, and West Virginia have taken up measures in recent years to remove their bans, the NCSL said.
New Hampshire’s legislature considered—but didn’t pass—a nuclear power bill (H.B. 543) in 2021 that could be carried over into the state’s 2022 session. It would establish a commission to study nuclear power and nuclear reactor technology, saying that eliminating “carbon emissions from electricity generation is an urgent goal to mitigate the threat of climate change.”
After North Carolina passed legislation (H.B. 951) in 2021 to set a 70% carbon reduction goal by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, Duke Energy, the state’s leading utility, said advanced nuclear will likely be in the mix. The company, which already operates six nuclear reactors in the Carolinas, included advanced nuclear energy in the emissions reduction scenarios in its 2020 integrated resource plan.
A bill (H.B. 434) pending in Ohio would establish a Nuclear Development Authority Nominating Council to study nuclear energy and make the state “a leader regarding new-type advanced-nuclear-research reactors.” Ohio is also considering a clean energy bill (H.B. 429) that includes advanced nuclear technology among the emissions-free energy forms it would promote.
Meanwhile, Wyoming and Washington state were chosen as the two competitively-selected advanced reactor demonstration projects supported by the Department of Energy.
The Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington will host a project by X-Energy, a nuclear reactor and fuel design engineering company. The Naughton Power Plant, a soon-to-be-retired coal-fired generating station near Kemmerer, Wyo., will be refitted by TerraPower LLC, Bill Gates’ nuclear reactor design company.
TerraPower said it plans to submit the construction permit application for the Natrium plant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-2023, with the goal of making the plant operational in the next seven years, aligning with a schedule for advanced reactor demonstration projects mandated by Congress.
The Wyoming legislature, which approved a bill in 2020 to authorize permits for modular nuclear reactors under 300 megawatts, will expand the law to allow for more advanced reactors such as the Terrapower project, state Rep. Don Burkhart (R) said.
“This new generation of nuclear reactors are smaller, more efficient, safer, and a lot less expensive to build,” he said. “They’re in the range of eight times less expensive than reactors used to be.”
The new reactors generate a lot less waste, Burkhart said, and any waste they produce would be stored on site per federal policy. Critics of nuclear power cite the lack of a longer-term storage plan, as the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have mothballed Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the only permanent high-level waste repository.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides nearly $2.5 billion in funding for first movers to build advanced reactors.
Moving from coal to nuclear represents “creative transitions” that the Biden administration cares about, said Kathryn Huff, a top administrator in the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
Some environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy have cited the benefits of nuclear energy as an emissions-free energy form.
“Now they’re realizing, ‘Hold on, we have an administration pushing to decarbonize, there’s a global movement to decarbonize,” said Amy Roma, a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP whose practice focuses on the nuclear energy industry. “We can’t take one of the strongest sources of carbon-free power out of the mix.’”
Disasters such as those at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Fukushima in Japan, and Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island have shaped public opinion around nuclear energy. A 2020 Morning Consult poll found 29% view nuclear energy favorably and 49% view it unfavorably.
Local government officials are hopeful that high-paying jobs in the nuclear industry will replace the coal jobs their communities are losing.
“Advanced nuclear can put highly skilled highly paid jobs in these communities while exporting U.S. clean energy technologies around the world,” said Josh Freed, senior vice president for climate and energy at Third Way.
Still, many longstanding opponents of nuclear energy are withholding their support.
“While the industry and its proponents continue to hype new nuclear power plant designs, none of them have been demonstrated to be safe, reliable, or economically viable,” said Jake Thompson, senior press secretary at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Other critics say nuclear power won’t make enough of a dent.
“Even if the nuclear fleet was doubled, it would result in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of about 4% compared to business as usual, at a time when global emissions need to be down by 50% to prevent catastrophic climate change,” wrote Jan Haverkamp, a senior expert for nuclear energy and energy policy at Greenpeace.