Southwest Virginia’s northern neighbor also wants to go nuclear

Quinn Townsend

There’s a new kid on the power generation block — small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) and microreactors — and West Virginia just got permission to make some friends.

This spring, West Virginia passed Senate Bill 4, which repealed two outdated sections of the state code and now allows nuclear power generation in the state. West Virginia must take advantage of its newfound freedom to produce nuclear power, and more specifically, embrace SMRs and microreactor technologies. Unlike the massive nuclear power plants of the 1950s and 1960s, SMRs and microreactors are small enough to be built in the factory and shipped to the site. Being at the forefront of these new technologies would inspire West Virginia to once again become a leader in energy production. All the state needs to do now is streamline the SMR licensing process.

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Nuclear is a low-carbon energy source that may be able to replace – or at least offset – expensive energy, especially in remote parts of the country. While a large nuclear power plant may not be the ideal solution for small utilities or rural communities, SMRs and microreactors can fill this gap. Due to their small size and flexible design, SMRs are easier and more affordable to build than large nuclear power plants. In fact, their design allows SMRs and microreactors to be plugged into the existing power grid or remain off-grid, paving the way for nuclear power in rural areas.

West Virginia’s history with coal mining makes it a particularly well-suited choice for nuclear power generation. Outdated and aging coal-fired power plants sit idle, scattered across the state, with much of the necessary infrastructure — like transmission lines — already in place. Power companies are already converting old coal mines into solar farms, and plans could easily be expanded to include nuclear generation.

Politically, now is the time for West Virginia to embrace nuclear power. Various heads of state currently support nuclear energy projects, including US Senator Shelley Moore Capito and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Since the success of new energy projects will ultimately require permit approvals, community approvals, and other regulatory reforms, it will be necessary for project managers to gain the support of federal policymakers and states as well as business leaders.

After decades of economic frustration from declining coal production, West Virginia now has the opportunity to once again be a serious contender in the energy market. Other energy-rich states like Wyoming and Alaska have also recently opened their doors to nuclear projects. Wyoming has already begun production near a former coal-fired power plant, a project that is expected to be completed by 2028. This project is possible, in part, with funding from the 2021 Investment and employment in infrastructure, which encourages states to build nuclear power plants on former coal-fired power plant sites. These incentives should encourage West Virginia to pursue similar projects.

As states like West Virginia continue to withdraw their own nuclear regulations, the federal government should do the same. Simplifying the licensing process for SMRs and microreactors can lead to new innovations in nuclear energy, benefiting both West Virginia and the country. If the NRC streamlines federal licensing processes, the nuclear power industry could take off across the country — and West Virginia has the chance to lead the charge.

With the passage of SB 4, West Virginia can reinvigorate its own labor market, while helping to meet the country’s need for clean and affordable energy. Although it may be some time before a physical reactor is operational, the future is bright for the West Virginia energy market. Continued permit reform will pave the way for Mountain State to become an energy powerhouse.

Quinn Townsend is policy manager at the Alaska Policy Forum, where she writes about taxes, education, health care, and the state budget. She holds a master’s degree in resource management economics from West Virginia University and a bachelor’s degree in economics. It was published in the Anchorage Daily News and the Columbus Dispatch.

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