Energy, Environment, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

November interims: Legislators get a look at nuclear power regulation and progress

MORGANTOWN — Legislators got a look at the permitting and safety side of West Virginia’s nuclear future on Tuesday — the last day of the November interim meetings, held in Wheeling — as experts from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission explained their work to members of the Energy and Manufacturing Committee.

The Legislature lifted the ban on nuclear facility construction during the 2022 session and has been learning about the issue since.

Companies are exploring a variety of advanced nuclear reactor types, the NRC staffers said: small modular light water reactors (SMRs), liquid-metal-cooled fast reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, molten salt reactors and micro reactors that could be built in a factory and shipped to the site, with multiple units on site.

Part of the discussion has been how advanced nuclear might benefit the state as coal-fired power plants are retired and nuclear plants could take over those sites and employ some of the displaced workers. Concerned and curious coal miners attended Tuesday’s meeting and some legislators directed questions about that to the NRC staffers.

It won’t be soon, said John Pelchat, Region 8 senior government liaison officer. Companies are making applications for small-scale trial facilities and they are expecting more in the next few years, but it will be years beyond that for widespread commercial application.

How many people might be employed at an advanced facility? No one knows yet, they said. And advanced reactor facilities, at this point, aren’t intended to replace the base-load power that coal-fired, gas-fired and old-style nuclear plants provide.

Beyond the various advanced fission reactors, nuclear fusion power is in the sights of the NRC, companies and various states. NRC Senior Health Physicist Duncan White said the NRC is developing guidance for fusion power, with several academic/commercial research and development facilities under license, and more than 25 U.S. companies researching fusion energy.

The U.S. has the greatest concentration of commercial fusion companies in the world, he said. Elsewhere, the United Kingdom is working on private-public partnerships to incentivize fusion development, with a pilot plant expected at the end of this decade or into the next. They’ve already selected a decommissioned coal facility to be replaced with a fusion plant if everything works out.

Two companies are building proof-of-concept fusion facilities, he said. Commonwealth Fusion has one underway and expects to have it working by 2025. Helion also expects to have its reactor working by 2025 and has signed two purchase agreements to provide electricity by 2030.

The NRC is responsible for licensing and public safety. Senior Project Manager Stephen Philpott said there are two current licensing paths. The original path, the one most current operations underwent, involves two steps with separate construction and operating licenses and applications. The risk here is that it’s possible to get a construction permit and begin work with no guarantee of an operating permit.

A new path is just one step, with a combined construction and operating permit. This process includes parallel and more or less simultaneous environmental and safety reviews, culminating in public hearings for a licensing decision.

A new, third process taking into account all the new technologies is in the works, Philpott said. It’s intended to be technology-inclusive, risk-informed and performance-based, with a final rule to be issued in 2025.

Current regulations are based on light water technology, he said, though they’ve been preparing for advanced reactors for years. “It’s not like these are brand-new technologies, but they have come a long way.” Micro-reactors present a new twist, where they can be built at one place and set up at another, and there are lots of licensing issues to consider.


TWEET @DominionPostWV