Going Nuclear: Why More States Are Reversing Bans on New Power Reactors
Concerns about climate change and the power grid's stability are driving the trend.
The Illinois senate passed a bill on Friday reversing a 1987 moratorium on the construction of nuclear power facilities in the state. If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs it, Illinois will join West Virginia, Montana, Kentucky and Wisconsin, which have all ditched similar bans in recent years.
Nationwide, just 11 states still restrict the building of nuclear plants. There are signs that number could further shrink in the coming years as laws enacted after the Chernobyl meltdown and Three Mile Island disaster give way to concerns about climate change and the closure of aging coal plants. Advances in the development of smaller, potentially cheaper nuclear reactors – now moving through the complicated federal licensing process – have also revived interest in nuclear power.
But plenty of questions remain whether there’s enough political will to truly revive the stalled industry.
“It is a good sign that more communities are rolling back policy barriers to nuclear energy, which we need in the fight to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.), in an email to The Messenger. Deluzio is one of 18 House of Representatives members who recently co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution in support of nuclear power, signaling the broad and growing political support at the federal level as well. “We ought to be doing everything we can to ensure that nuclear remains a key and viable part of our energy mix.”
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Plenty of opposition to nuclear still exists, though, even in the context of climate change. “Efforts to lift nuclear moratoriums are an example of how many policymakers are swept up by propaganda and empty promises from energy lobbyists,” said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University who has modeled ways to achieve an emissions-free electric grid using only wind, solar, and hydropower.
He cited the high costs and long timeframe for building nuclear power, especially compared with those renewable sources. “Only irresponsible policymakers will support new nuclear power.”
Why was nuclear power banned?
State nuclear moratoriums largely date to the 1980s, when climate change was not yet on the public’s radar and accidents at Three Mile Island and later Chernobyl spawned a fervent anti-nuclear movement. This helped slow the United States’ nuclear construction boom. Most U.S. nuclear plants were built between 1970 and 1990, with a sharp dropoff since. Georgia Power switched on a new reactor at the Vogtle plant in March of this year, but that was the first to be added to the grid since 2016. Currently, 92 reactors are running, down from a peak of 104 about a decade ago; they provided 18.2 percent of U.S. electricity in 2022.
With that stagnant industry as a backdrop, in recent years a number of states have started reconsidering bans on new plants, often with bipartisan support. In some cases, climate change and statewide emissions reductions goals are a primary driver, especially if wind and solar power resources are relatively limited in a particular region. In others, a desire to stabilize the power grid — nuclear plants provide what’s known as baseload power, meaning it can remain on and consistent regardless of weather or shifts in demand — or to create or keep jobs is front and center.
“Traditional nuclear plants hire a lot of people,” said Todd Allen, a professor and chair of the University of Michigan’s nuclear engineering and radiological sciences department. “That's good, high paying jobs.” For example, West Virginia’s nuclear ban was enacted in the late 1990s largely to protect the coal industry, but the state has seen jobs in that industry disappear rapidly in recent years. West Virginia repealed the nuclear ban last year, with broad bipartisan support.
“The context is different when a lot of the moratoriums and other things were passed,” Allen said. “Back then we weren't so worried about coal, you could always just say, ‘Well, I don't need to build a nuclear plant, I’ll just build some coal plants, right? But we're not sort of allowing ourselves to do that anymore, and it has changed the conversation.”
Can smaller, cheaper reactors jumpstart the industry?
Supporters of the Illinois bill cited the potential to bring in substantial federal money in support of nuclear construction, which would bring jobs as well. Gov. Pritzker, a Democrat, offered a tepid endorsement in April but noted that “the devil is in the details.” He supports the potential construction of a new type of reactor known as a small modular reactor (SMR), but wants to be careful the state is “not just opening this up to nuclear everywhere or any type of nuclear.”
Allen said the potential for SMRs is likely appealing to a number of states that might balk at the larger, traditional nuclear plants, which can cost tens of billions of dollars and take a decade or more to complete. “Look at traditional large-scale nuclear, at least in the West, and we have not been building them on time and on schedule,” he said. A smaller project may be more palatable.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the design of one such reactor, made by NuScale Power; others are in the pre-application phase. Westinghouse, which has long made larger reactors including the new one recently turned on in Georgia, unveiled its own SMR design in early may. NuScale plans to build and begin operating its first demonstration project, in Idaho, by 2030; another demonstration project in Wyoming from a company called TerraPower has already been delayed somewhat, but is also scheduled for 2030. These first attempts are also seeing ballooning construction costs — NuScale’s Idaho project recently estimated a jump from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion — but experts see a path to much cheaper versions in the future.
“The question in my mind is, are those demos convincing enough for other communities or other utilities to build a second one?” Allen said, adding that only the first round would likely enjoy a high degree of government cost-sharing. “That's going to be the big marker as to whether this feels real or not.”
What’s next for state nuclear bans?
With the repeal in Illinois now awaiting Pritzker’s signature, 11 state moratoriums remain in effect. Christine Csizmadia, the senior director of state government affairs and advocacy with the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group, said that California, Oregon, and Minnesota also have had extensive discussions toward repeal, though specific legislation has not meaningfully advanced.
“We're working to get all of them taken off the books,” she said. “These are old, antiquated thinking. So we've got to get them all wiped off.”
Csizmadia said that the sheer volume of state-level attention to nuclear power has increased dramatically. Two decades ago, around only five or ten pieces of state legislation each year would even mention the word “nuclear.” Now, that’s up closer to 200 every year; not every bill would repeal a moratorium, or even be seen as a positive step to the industry, but it demonstrates how nuclear power has jumped to a much more central role in energy discussions.
There is still plenty of opposition to an expanded nuclear industry, however. Gallup’s polling on the topic in 2022 found an almost even split, with 51 percent of the public in favor of nuclear as a power source and 47 percent opposed. A Pew Research poll the same year found only 35 percent of people thought the government should support nuclear’s use; 72 percent said the government should support wind and solar power production.
Jacobson said the much longer time frames for building nuclear plants don’t mesh with the urgency of climate change today. “While we’re waiting the extra 14-20 years for the nuclear, now carbon dioxide and air pollutants will be emitted from coal and gas power plants around the U.S. and from laying enough cement for the nuclear plant to build a sidewalk from Miami to Seattle,” he said.
Allen pointed out that while solar and wind power enjoy strong public support, as more and more is built they may run up against their own polling issues, in particular involving extensive land use. If rapid decarbonization is a goal — President Biden has set a goal of making the U.S. power sector emissions-free by 2035 — the public may have to learn to stomach some less popular ideas, Allen said.
“We as a nation have to figure out how to build big things, on time, in an acceptable way.”
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