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Nuclear energy touted at WV Chamber forum, but key cost, oversight and waste management questions linger


White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. – West Virginia political and business leaders made clear during last week’s state Chamber of Commerce annual summit they see a significant role for nuclear power in the state’s energy future.

“It’s a promise for our state,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said of nuclear energy during a summit speech at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs Wednesday.

But recent federal reports have observed key cost, waste management and federal oversight questions linger over unconventional — or “advanced” — nuclear technologies that supporters say would be safer and cheaper than existing nuclear reactors.

Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, noted in her speech that the Senate in July passed legislation led by her and committee chairman, Tom Carper, D-Del., aimed at bolstering development and deployment of new nuclear technologies.

Speaking after Capito, Emil Avram, vice president of business development at Virginia-based Dominion Energy, said his electric utility company was “exploring, evaluating and developing” a site in West Virginia for a future nuclear facility.

“A very exciting opportunity,” said Avram, who added the company was also eyeing Virginia for nuclear site development.

Avram touted what he called advanced nuclear technologies coming into the market to support 200 to 400-megawatt facilities.

Avram said new nuclear technologies could support ramping up to full output in a fraction of the time it takes large-scale nuclear plants.

“That is the holy grail for electric utilities, to be able to ramp up and down, meet the demand when it’s needed the most,” Avram said.

Avram estimated the nuclear facility Dominion is exploring would require an investment of $3 billion to $5 billion per 300- to 400-megawatt facility — and that the company is planning to build up to 18 of those units over the next 25 years.

“So we also have to find sustainable, I’ll call it balance-sheet solutions for our company as we build out this capital-intensive infrastructure,” Avram said.

Nuclear power in the United States comes from light-water reactors cooled by water that produce heat by controlled nuclear fission. Advanced reactor designs would yield reactors substantially smaller than existing nuclear plants, including small modular reactors touted by nuclear proponents as a critical component of West Virginia’s energy future.

The International Atomic Energy Agency defines small modular reactors with a power capacity of up to 300 megawatts of electrical output. Small modular reactors are designed to produce power, process heat and desalinate on locations not suitable for larger nuclear plants while requiring less capital investment than bigger facilities.

Small modular reactor technology is not yet market-ready. The Department of Energy has approved cost-share awards to develop small modular reactors that can be operational by the end of the decade.

A Congressional Research Service overview of advanced nuclear reactors published in February noted research on small modular reactors suggesting their small size will keep them from achieving economies of scale.

The overview noted a 2018 study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard universities and the University of California, San Diego predicting the cost per unit of power of a small modular reactor would very likely be higher than that of a large reactor, even if the smaller reactors may be cheaper to build.

The unit cost of producing electricity from nuclear energy was slightly more than coal and over double that of solar, geothermal, onshore wind or natural gas in the federal Energy Information Administration’s annually published energy outlook for 2022.

In its overview, the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan policy analysis agency within the Library of Congress, quoted a 2023 conclusion from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that there’s a “learning curve for both small modular reactor construction costs and deployment [that] needs to be understood.

Many West Virginia leaders and the Department of Energy have contended there’s great potential for nuclear to ease the state’s energy transition amid the coal industry’s decline.

The Department of Energy released a report in September 2022 estimating 80% of nearly 400 retired and operating coal power plant sites evaluated had the basic characteristics needed to be considered amenable to host an advanced nuclear reactor.

Researchers found that replacing a large coal plant with a nuclear power plant of equivalent size could increase regional economic activity by as much as $275 million and create over 650 new, permanent jobs across the plant, supply chain and community surrounding the plant.

The report noted that a coal-to-nuclear transition — a prospect that has split West Virginia environmental and clean energy advocates — could replace retiring coal generation capacity while using what would otherwise be stranded assets at coal plants.

The West Virginia Legislature lifted restrictions on nuclear power plant construction early in the 2022 regular legislative session.

The Senate on July 27 included the Capito and Carper-led nuclear measure, the Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act, in the National Defense Authorization Act that passed through the chamber. The National Defense Authorization Act would approve fiscal year 2024 appropriations and establish policies for Department of Defense programs.

If approved by the House of Representatives and signed into law, the ADVANCE Act would direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to identify and report on regulations, guidance or policy needed to license and oversee nuclear facilities at brownfield sites, including sites with retired fossil fuel facilities.

“Our small nuclear plants are going to be incentivized to go to brownfield sites or maybe old coal mining sites that are already established as manufacturing or heavy-use areas,” Capito said.

Avram indicated he views nuclear facilities as “very similar” to coal-fired generation. Dominion Energy operates the 1,632-megawatt coal-fired Mount Storm plant in Grant County.

A recent federal government watchdog report found the agency charged with protecting public safety and health regarding nuclear energy has important work to do to prepare for an expected influx of advanced nuclear reactor applications.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has staffing and licensing review issues that could hinder the agency’s oversight and developers’ ability to deploy advanced nuclear reactors, the Government Accountability Office found in its report released in July.

The office found commission officials and most stakeholders it interviewed indicated the commission faces challenges in hiring and retaining staff needed to review advanced reactors.

Existing commission guidance does not clearly advise agency staff on how to establish and manage licensing review schedules for incomplete applications, the Government Accountability Office found.

Without such guidance, the commission’s reviews of advanced reactor applications may not be clear and predictable, the office warned.

Capito and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, had asked the office last year to assess the commission’s preparedness to review and approve advanced nuclear reactor applications.

“Advanced nuclear reactor designs are expected to be smaller. safer, and more economically competitive than the Light Water Reactor technology currently used by today’s operating reactors,” Capito and Rodgers wrote to the office.

But the Congressional Research Service noted some advanced reactor technologies have chemical properties that pose safety concerns, including reactivity, toxicity, or corrosiveness of the primary coolant in the case of sodium, lead and molten salts, respectively.

It’s unclear whether future advanced nuclear reactor technologies would improve on past handling of reprocessing wastes, the Congressional Research Service report observed. The service cited a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report published this year finding that amounts and types of waste that will be generated by advanced reactors are difficult to estimate “at this early stage” of development.


Story by Mike Tony, Herald-Dispatch



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