By John McFerrin
For over twenty years using nuclear energy to generate electricity in West Virginia has not been a realistic possibility because it was effectively banned by statute. Now there is talk of removing the ban and proceeding with nuclear electricity generation.
The statute that most refer to as a ban is not actually an absolute ban. It just prohibits nuclear power in West Virginia until a “functional and effective national facility which safely, successfully and permanently disposes of any and all radioactive wastes associated with operating any such nuclear power plant, nuclear factory or nuclear electric power generating plant has been developed and that such facility has been proven safe.” West Virginia Code §16-27A-2.
This is effectively a ban because the siting of a national waste disposal facility is such a contentious issue. Nationally we have been arguing about it since at least 1982 and are no closer to a permanent disposal facility than we were then. Saying there can be no nuclear power in West Virginia until there is a permanent, national waste disposal site is effectively a ban.
When the statute that imposed the effective ban passed in 1996, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy supported it. A legislative recap in the April/May issue of The Highlands Voice included this item: “Five WVEC supported legislative actions passed both Houses. …2. A bill banning the construction of nuclear power plants in WV until it is demonstrated that it is economically feasible to state rate payers and that nuclear waste disposal is safe. Our state thus became the third state in the nation to effectively ban nuclear power.”
Since then there has never been any reason to address the ban or nuclear power. There have been scattered informal discussions over the years but it has never been a Board agenda item or subject to a vote.
Now the issue has arisen with a vengeance. There are bills in the Legislature (HB 2882 and SB 4) which simply repeal the ban. There is another bill (HB 4305) which repeals the ban but only in the context of repurposing coal fired power plants when they reach the end of their useful lives. That bill adds some additional consumer protections as well. Some or all of the bills are hurtling along; the smart money is on some version of a repeal of the current ban passing, if it hasn’t already by the time this is printed.
A primary source of the enthusiasm is, as often is the case, jobs. The driving idea is that coal is declining. Eventually the coal fired power plants will reach the end of their useful lives. When that happens, it is the Legislature’s assumption that those plants will be replaced, at least in part, by nuclear powered plants. Nuclear power plants on the site of a retiring coal fired plant could use at least some of the infrastructure that was originally built to serve the coal fired plant.
The Legislature hopes that the jobs that currently exist at coal fired plants would be replaced by jobs at nuclear power plants.
There is also a climate change aspect to this new enthusiasm for nuclear power. While the West Virginia Legislature has historically shown little enthusiasm for measures to combat climate change, nuclear power does provide electricity with dramatically fewer emissions than coal or natural gas. While nothing could provide electricity with truly zero emissions of carbon dioxide, nuclear power approaches that standard. It certainly produces electricity with much lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal or natural gas.
Nuclear power also provides what is called base load power. The idea is that wind, solar, etc. produce electricity only when conditions are right: sun shining, wind blowing, etc. We need something to do what coal does now: provide electricity all the time, no matter what the conditions. Nuclear power would do that.
Proponents of nuclear power also point out that today’s nuclear power plants are not the power plants of old. They are what is called “modular”, meaning that they would be manufactured elsewhere and assembled here. They also would use different technology that would make an accident less likely.
What’s not to love?
If nuclear power provides jobs, base load electricity, very low carbon emissions, and is safe, what’s not to love?
Plenty, at least according to the opponents of West Virginia’s rush to embrace nuclear power.
Prominent among the objections is that, while the designs for the power plants that are being discussed are new, they are so new that they have not been fully tested. There have not been enough prototypes built to establish a track record. More testing would be needed to determine if they would be safe, reliable, or secure. Those concerned about nuclear power would point out that wind and solar energy is here now and can be deployed now.
There are also concerns about safety. The new designs solve some of the safety problems with the nuclear power plants that we have now. At the same time, they may create new safety concerns.
Opponents also point out that the new designs still produce radioactive waste which must be disposed of.
Many of the objections voiced by the opponents are those articulated by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It did a report assessing the newer designs that are being talked about for West Virginia. To see it, go to https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/advanced-isnt-always-better#top. There you will find both an executive summary and, for the very interested (and fully caffeinated) the entire 140 page report.