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Legislators get a primer in advanced nuclear power as proposal to lift state’s ban to be introduced

MORGANTOWN – Last week, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said that an effort to lift the state’s ban on nuclear power is in the pipeline for this year’s legislative session.

On Tuesday, two interim committees – Government Operations and Government Organization – got an overview of the current state of nuclear power in preparation for the coming deliberations.

Eight presenters offered their views. Marcus Nichol director of New Reactors for the Nuclear Energy Institute said that advanced reactors in development are nothing like the existing technology prevalent at nuclear plants across the country.

Those plants, he said, with their familiar giant cooling towers and containment buildings, employ light-water-cooled reactors that generate 1,000 megawatts of baseload power. New technology offers a wide portfolio of products of different sizes and more than 50 companies are exploring the field.

Microreactors, he said, produce 1 mw to 10 mw of power and may serve remote communities or areas at the far ends of a grid subject to brownouts and blackouts. Small modular reactors produce 300 mw or less and may be combined. They make a good replacement for coal plants in line to be phased out.

Where current reactors are cooled by water, he said, advanced reactors may be cooled by high temperature gas, liquid metal (such as sodium which has a high boiling point) or molten salt.

Advanced reactors are safer and cheaper, he said. “Nuclear is actually a very low cost electricity.” Making them smaller makes them simpler – eliminating many components such as piping, pumps and valves – and they can be built in a factory instead of on-site, faster and at lower cost.

Advanced reactors offer a good option for a coal to nuclear transition, he said, because existing coal plants can be repurposed, preserving good-paying jobs and local benefits and allowing for reuse of transmission infrastructure.

Jeff Navin is director of external affairs for TerraPower, which has teamed with the U.S. Government to build the Natrium plant in Wyoming next to a retiring coal plant. The U.S. lagged behind other countries for many years in developing advanced nuclear technology for lack of government support.

That changed in 2019, he said, under the leadership of Sen. Joe Manchin, with the passage of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which provides for a 50-50 public private-partnership. That same year, Wyoming lifted its nuclear moratorium.

TerraPower is a nuclear plant developer and needed a utility partner to own and run a plant. Rocky Mountain Power will buy Natrium and operate it for 60 years with the option to go for another 20.

“We think we have a product that is going to be very attractive to utilities,” he said. Instead of using steam to power turbines, he said, Natrium will use generated heat to power an energy storage unit. Production can be geared up and down to meet demands.

Rory Stanley is a professional staff member for Manchin’s Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. He said advanced reactors also provide for many non-nuclear applications, such as hydrogen and petrochemical production, desalination and heating.

Chris Colbert is chief strategy officer and chief financial officer for another developer, Nuscale. Advanced reactors offer much-needed flexibility, he said. They can can operate off grid when emergencies shut a power grid down, and serve to bring the grid back up. They can go from 100% to 20% back to 100% in 30 minutes. Like TerraPower, Nuscale is involved in a cost-share project with the government for a plant in Idaho that will be operating at the end of the decade.

Chris Beam, president and CEO of American Electric Power, said AEP operates two light-water nuclear plants in Michigan and is interested in being a utility partner for an advanced reactor project in West Virginia.

Curio is a company developing reactor waste recycling facilities and two representatives of the company – founder Yechezkel Moskowitz and CEO Ed McGinnis – said that advanced reactors may generate less nuclear waste than current reactors but they still generate waste.

And nuclear waste, they said, is still chief element of public wariness of nuclear power. Nobody wants it around. Their presentation was part sales pitch, but they explained that their technology provides alternative uses for the waste so little of it needs to be stored.

Right now, they said, the U.S. government is looking at interim storage facilities more than recycling, so the best solution is to site one of their recycling plants next to an interim storage facility.

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