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States Take Another Look at Nuclear Power to Combat Climate Change

December 17, 2023 (4 min read)

If advocates like Bill Gates get their way, the acronym SMR may soon become critical to fighting climate change.

SMR stands for “small modular reactor,” a type of nuclear reactor that has about a third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear reactors.

The Microsoft co-founder believes SMRs can help the U.S. transition away from fossil fuels. A company he founded in 2008, TerraPower, is poised to deploy an SMR at the site of a retiring coal facility in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

“Nuclear energy, if we do it right,” Gates, recently told ABC News, “will help us solve our climate goals.”

For a long while, nuclear power has been a non-starter with many policymakers due to the negative connotations it has with disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi.

But as the pressure has grown to reduce carbon emissions, policymakers have also come to realize that solar, wind and other renewable sources might not generate enough power to support our nation’s needs.

Hence nuclear power is getting another look. And SMRs are an emerging technology that appears to be appealing to some state lawmakers.

Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Drawing Interest from State Lawmakers 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ energy bill tracking database, eight states considered bills this year dealing with small, modular reactors, or SMRs, nuclear reactors that have about a third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear reactors. Two of those states, Illinois and Indiana, enacted such measures. 

Eight states considered SMR Bills in 2023

In November, the Illinois legislature approved HB 2473, which, as amended, would lift the state’s moratorium on nuclear reactors—but only for those rated for 300 megawatts or less, the generating capacity of SMRs.

The bill, which would end the moratorium on January 1, 2026, awaits action by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D). However, its prospects appear good as the bill was crafted specifically to address concerns the governor had raised earlier in the year when he vetoed a similar nuclear construction bill.

“Nuclear accounts for about half of our energy in the state, and 90 percent of our carbon-free energy,” said Rep. Lance Yednock (D), one of the bill’s sponsors, as the American Nuclear Society reported. “In order to achieve our clean energy goals, we may have to invest in more nuclear-generated carbon-free energy.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ energy bill tracking database, nine other measures related to modular nuclear energy were introduced in seven other states in 2023: 

  • Colorado HB 1080, by Rep. Ty Winter (R) and Sen. Byron Pelton (R), would have directed the state to study the feasibility of using SMRs in the Centennial State. The measure failed, however, in committee. 
  • Indiana SB 176, by Sens. Eric Koch (R), Blake Doriot (R) and Andy Zay (R), defining SMRs under state law. The measure was enacted. 
  • Minnesota HB 3260, by Reps. Jim Nash (R), Shane Mekeland (R) and Chris Swedzinki (R), and its companion, SB 2824, by Sens. Andrew Mathews (R), Justin D. Eichorn (R), and Jason Rarick (R) and John A. Hoffman (DFL), would certify the need for SMRs in the Gopher State. The legislation remains pending. 
  • Nebraska LR 21, by Sen. Tom Brewer (R), would create a committee to study SMRs. The bill is pending. Another bill by Brewer, LR 178, which would have created a committee to study the feasibility of constructing and operating SMRs, failed. 
  • New Jersey SB 3312, by Sen. Edward Durr (R) and Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D), would direct the state to create a pilot program for SMRs. That bill is pending. 
  • Oregon SB 832, by Sen. David Brock Smith (R), would have removed SMRs from the regulatory portfolio of the state’s Energy Facility Siting Council. That bill failed. 
  • Virginia HB 2333, by Del. Daniel W. Marshall, III (R), would have created an SMR pilot program in the Old Dominion state. But it too failed. 

In February, the Washington Post reported that SMRs were being eyed by several states.

“The nuclear industry and the Biden administration are pitching coal communities on small, adaptable plants that promoters boast are safer, cheaper and capable of being deployed all over the country in the effort to cut the power sector’s contribution to climate change,” reporter Evan Halper wrote.

Nationwide Expansion of Nuclear Reactor Construction Ahead?

A January 2022 survey of energy policies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia by the Associated Press “found that a strong majority—about two-thirds—say nuclear, in one fashion or another, will help take the place of fossil fuels.”

AP reporter Jennifer McDermott wrote, “That momentum could lead to the first expansion of nuclear reactor construction in the U.S. in more than three decades.”

That expansion probably won’t come from SNRs alone. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has only cleared one SMR design—NuScale Power’s SMR—for use in the United States. The agency has certified six non-SMR designs.

Nuclear expansion also appears less likely in some Democrat-led states, where officials say the cost of reactors in comparison to solar panels or wind turbines, as well as safety and hazardous waste storage concerns, outweigh the benefits of nuclear power. Energy officials in deep blue California, however, just voted to extend operations at the state’s last active nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, five more years. The facility, which supplies about 17% of the state’s zero-emission power, had been slated to shut down in 2025.

—By SNCJ Correspondent BRIAN JOSEPH

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