States increasingly eye nuclear in energy production debate

Nuclear power is increasingly piquing the interest of states, as more set targets to lower and eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions and seek dependable energy sources.
One of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant’s nuclear reactors in Avila Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant, File)

Nuclear power is increasingly piquing the interest of states, as more set targets to lower and eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions and seek dependable energy sources.

Seventeen states introduced bills to support or study nuclear power in their 2022 legislative sessions, and 10 of those states passed them, said Christine Csizmadia, who tracks nuclear policy at the state level for the industry trade group Nuclear Energy Institute.

“Never before have we seen this incredible state policy interest and initiative to push for nuclear energy,” Csizmadia said.

The state nuclear trend stems largely from states looking to switch from fossil fuels for energy generation, transportation, and other aspects of their economies to a zero-emission energy source. But it’s also in states without emissions-reduction mandates and targets.

Indiana state Sen. Eric Koch (R), who co-chairs the National Conference of State Legislatures’ task force on energy supply, introduced a bill signed into law in March that requires the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to write rules for building a nuclear plant with a small modular reactor.

SMRs typically have a power capacity of about 300 megawatts per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. States are increasingly exploring converting shuttered coal plants to nuclear power using SMRs.

“We’re an all-of-the-above state,” Koch said in an interview. “Each source of generation has advantages and disadvantages. And nuclear can provide 24/7 baseload in the way that coal and gas can, but in a cleaner way.”

Other states that passed nuclear-power-friendly bills this year were Alaska, California, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Michigan state Rep. Graham Filler (R), whose bill to study the future of nuclear power in the state was signed into law Friday, said in an interview that SMRs hold a lot of promise and drew the most interest from colleagues.

“SMRs really caught the most attention in the state of Michigan when we started debating,” said Filler, who served as assistant attorney general for the Michigan Public Service Commission. “You can take a coal plant and you can put an SMR in and attach it to the same transmission lines, and then run the nuclear plant with standardized SMR design.”

Filler said he’s exploring the possibility of drafting a bill to introduce in the next legislative session to provide clean energy tax credits for SMR and nuclear power development.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) wants to ramp up an SMR within the next decade and plans to establish a $10 million Virginia Power Innovation Fund as part of the biennial budget he will submit in December, with half of the funds committed to nuclear development.

Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R) is teaming up with West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R) to pursue nuclear power in their states. West Virginia passed a bill lifting a moratorium on nuclear power.

Eleven states currently have limits on nuclear power, including California, which bans any new nuclear plant. But California approved legislation in September to keep the state’s one remaining nuclear plant, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo, open for five years beyond its 2030 scheduled closure.

Nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source. It generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The heat released by fission is used to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity without the greenhouse gasses emitted by fossil fuels.

Twenty-eight states have at least one commercial nuclear reactor. The newest reactor to enter service is Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2, which began operation in June 2016, according to EIA data. But two new nuclear reactors are under construction in Georgia and estimated to come online in 2023, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Opponents argue that nuclear power is not a clean energy source, and that it creates waste that remains radioactive for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and is susceptible to polluting the plant’s surrounding environment.

Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear energy and energy policy specialist for Greenpeace, said the increased attention on nuclear power is a distraction. He recommended increasing renewable energy production, linking the grid to allow for instantaneous power use from generation across the country, and deploying battery storage technology.

“At the moment, talking about nuclear power is diverting attention from urgent climate action,” Haverkamp said. “We know what we can do. We have technologies that can tackle the problem. And those are renewables technologies and storage efficiency. They can do that for a much lower price than nuclear.”

Nuclear supporters point out that renewable energy sources are part of the mix that states will use to decarbonize. But those tend to be intermittent sources such as solar and wind, so an emission-free, reliable backup energy source is needed, and nuclear, which checks those boxes, is turning heads at the state level.

Several of the nuclear-friendly bills passed this year were aimed at studying nuclear energy production further. NEI’s Csizmadia said more study bills and legislation forming exploratory commissions and working groups will be introduced.

“There’s just a lot of space for policymakers to be learning,” Csizmadia said.