CHARLESTON — As lawmakers move to lift a more than 25-year ban on nuclear power in West Virginia, members of the House of Delegates have received public comment.
The House Government Organizing 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, was passed by the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee and the House Government Organization Committee in the past seven days. This bill has been returned to the House’s inactive schedule since the Senate bill is already on track to pass the House on Monday, January 31.
The bill would remove two sections of the code prohibiting the construction of new nuclear power plants, except in 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 to attract industries to the state and show that the state supports multiple sources of electricity.
“The WVMA and its members support a comprehensive 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. Manufacturers today are also interested in adding clean energy options to the production mix. Nuclear energy provides an affordable, reliable and clean source of energy for consumers.
“This bill is an important step in breaking down barriers as evolving technology brings more opportunity to West Virginia,” said Brian Dayton, vice president of policy and advocacy at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “As this technology comes along, we want to make sure we’re ready to take advantage of it.”
North Carolina-based steelmaker Nucor plans to build a new steel mill in Mason County using electric arc furnaces. Nucor last year announced plans to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions at its factories and use cleaner forms of energy. SB 4 and HB 2882 grew out of discussions between legislators and Nucor.
Opposition to the bill has united two camps that normally clash: the coal industry and environmental activists. Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he saw the repeal as a Liberal effort to phase out coal and other fossil fuels used to generate electricity.
“West Virginia and this Capitol has always been a safe haven for our miners and their families. Today they woke up to the news that nuclear power was coming to West Virginia,” Hamilton said. “We have plenty of coal-fired electricity for our state’s needs, and any new power source, whether nuclear or intermittent, will undeniably replace coal, coal miners and power plant workers.”
Hannah King, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, read a statement prepared on behalf of Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, due to his quarantine for a COVID-19 infection. Zuckett, who advocated for a nuclear power ban in 1996, said that even with technological improvements, the state should take its time before repealing the ban.
“We need climate solutions now, not 10 years from now,” King said on behalf of Zuckett. “The prudent thing to do would be to suspend these bills, prepare an interim study, bring together experts from both sides of this critical issue and make a measured and informed decision. If we’re going to open West Virginia to nuclear power, let’s do it with proper regulations and safeguards for its people, economy, and environment.
The PSC and the state Department of Environmental Protection have established rules and regulations regarding the construction of new power plants and the management of radioactive waste. New nuclear power plants also fall under the authority of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, 55 nuclear power plants are active in the country. The most recent newly built reactor was at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in 2016, with two new reactors currently under construction in Georgia.
Despite a partial collapse of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, the catastrophic explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor core in the former Soviet Union in 1986, and the 2011 earthquake that led to meltdowns in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, other power plants have mostly spotless records. The United States Navy has operated nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines without incident for more than 60 years.
Meghan Hutchison, senior associate for radiological emergency preparedness at Olson Group Ltd., said there are many safeguards in place at the federal level to manage potential accidents.
The Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program, overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides training and coordination for first responders within 50 miles of nuclear power plants.
“By bringing together all 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 power plant and are fully exercised on a regular basis,” said said Hutchison. noted. “My message to this committee is that the men and women who plan and train to keep our citizens safe will be hard at work. I believe in nuclear power and I believe in the REP program.