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West Virginia is Ending its Nuclear Power Plant Ban

More straightforward legislation would help fix broken regulatory systems

Last week, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice signed S.B. 4 into law that would reverse what was effectively a ban on the construction of nuclear power plants in the state that has been on the books since 1996.

As it previously stood, the law banned construction of any nuclear capacity until such time as a national permanent repository for nuclear waste was established. There were also requirements on feasibility for ratepayers, as well as environmental protection compliance. 

Prior to the institution of this law, West Virginia was one of 13 states with either an outright ban on new nuclear development or that placed significant barriers in the way of development. In all, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont have these policies in place. Montana got rid of its version of this policy last April, and Wisconsin and Kentucky did the same in 2016 and 2017, respectively. 

Because of the requirement for a national permanent waste solution, this policy was essentially an outright ban on any nuclear development. The federal government has been in a stalemate on the development of Yucca Mountain as a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste for years with no end in sight. But the lack of a permanent repository at present doesn’t mean that the nuclear waste that is being currently generated isn’t managed safely in the meantime. There are also other solutions like spent fuel reprocessing that could be considered to satisfy this concern.  This law doesn’t prevent any effort to generate storage solutions, it merely puts new nuclear development back on the table, allowing it to be considered as an option for future development.

S.B. 4 is a bill of the type that we see far too rarely. Simple, only a few lines long, straightforward, taking clearly defined action, and to the point, sticking to a single issue. The brief text of the bill, which is a mere six lines long, says only that it will repeal two sections of the West Virginia state code, §16-27A-1 and §16-27A-2, in which the state’s ban on nuclear power plants had been enshrined. 

This law is a good example of the kind of policymaking that reflects a functional political process. The issue at hand was dealt with in clear and simple language that didn’t make unattainable promises, create new bureaucracies, or spend money on special interests in order to garner support. This kind of legislation was once unremarkable, but in recent years, as the federal government passed thousand-page omnibus bills that no one had actually read, and the states pass convoluted bills of their own, this law comes as a rare example of the process working as it should.

This is how the overburdensome regulatory state can be dismantled, not with any one sweeping piece of legislation, but with bills like this that roll back overreach where it can be clearly seen and agreed upon. The ideal role for the government should not be picking winners and losers in the marketplace, for energy or for anything else. This law adds another technology to the West Virginia marketplace that wasn’t on the table before, and it does so without any strings attached. It stands as an example of what the paring down of regulatory barriers to economic prosperity should look like. 

This bill makes no guarantee that West Virginia will build even a single nuclear plant. That’s not its purpose, rather, it opens up another option to the state’s utilities as they look toward future energy needs. Now if the best option, under those circumstances, is a new nuclear power plant, utilities will have one more option to consider.

Paige Lambermont is a Research Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in the Center for Energy and Environment. She covers the electrical grid, energy regulation, nuclear power issues, and other free-market energy topics. Paige has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from American University and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Idaho. She is also a Columnist Fellow at Catalyst.
Catalyst articles by Paige Lambermont | Full Biography and Publications