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Panel reviews nuclear power options in Montana

January 20, 2022

By Phil Drake

Small modular reactors supplying electricity in Montana could be part of the solution to the pending closure of the Colstrip coal-fueled power plant and give the facility new life, a nuclear power advocate told a state legislative panel.

He later received some pushback from a lawmaker who worried some of the transition costs would be passed on to Montana ratepayers.

The state Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee heard a three-hour presentation Tuesday from a half-dozen speakers on nuclear power. The conversation was sparked by Senate Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, to study the possibility of using small modular reactors in Montana.

Some of the discussion centered on the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy shut down units 1 and 2 in early 2020 because they were no longer economically viable. Units 3 and 4 remain in operation, though four of the power plant’s owners face coal power bans in Washington and Oregon beginning in 2025.

SJ3 notes that Colstrip’s coal-fired boilers could be replaced by an advanced nuclear reactor that would provide clean energy and well-paying jobs. No Colstrip owner has a nuclear power plant now and no owner has expressed interest in building a nuclear power plant in Colstrip, in any form.

Mark Nichol, senior director of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute, which states on its website it is the policy organization of the nuclear technologies industry, discussed the transition from a coal to a nuclear plant.

Nichol, a nuclear engineer, said the closing of a coal plant can be devastating to a community in terms of job loss and a loss of tax base. He said a small nuclear reactor could not only “re-power” the grid but also restore the community. He said utility operators recognize that zero carbon is not the only goal, but also to have a reliable grid of clean, reliable and affordable energy.

With the pending closure of the Colstrip Power Plant, a legislative committee is looking at use of small modular reactors in Montana.
Casey Page, The Billings Gazette

He said to get to reliable and affordable, “they quickly realized that nuclear has to be part of the solution.”

Nichol said the primary goal of the electricity system is diversity. He said a nuclear power plant can operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and run years at a time without refueling. And he said nuclear power is carbon free and environmentally friendly. Nuclear reactors also operate for 60 years or more.

“It provides that reliable power you need, whenever you need it,” he said, adding it can integrate with other fuel sources, such as renewables like wind and solar energy.

Nichol said the small modular reactors can pivot and match what is being demanded.

He said infrastructure at the coal plant can be used. The transmission, transformer and rail line are valuable.

Nichol said a 600-megawatt small model reactor plant would bring 300 jobs, and nuclear jobs would pay 20% more than other energy jobs and 36% more than other jobs in the area ($41.32 an hour). He said there would be $500 million in indirect and direct economic output and $270 million in electricity sales.

Such a plant would bring $10 million in state and local taxes and $40 million in federal taxes. 

Nichol said the cost of decommissioning Colstrip would be about $900 million.

If certain portions were to be reused, there would be savings. The current power block is valued at $225 million, and reuse of the turbine could save 5.5% on the cost of the plant.

Photo of Rep. Denise Hayman, D-BozemanPhoto Courtesy of the Montana Legislature
Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman Photo
Courtesy of the Montana Legislature

Dwight Rose of IBEW 44 said it was probably going to take a mix of public and private funds to put together.

“Especially if we get private investors on board now, it would make the transition of putting in a small nuclear reactor more feasible,” he said, noting the clock is ticking on the issue in regards to Colstrip and the state is in “the fourth quarter.”

Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman, asked about the cost of developing the plant and who would pay.

Nichol said it would be a couple billion dollars.

Hayman said there are about 400,000 ratepayers with NorthWestern Energy, the largest energy producer and distributor in the state.

“Have you done the math of what that is going to cost per ratepayer?” she asked.

Nichol said the ratepayers would pay less for operating costs.

“I think that this is interesting information. I don’t think you all have really evaluated the ratepayer in Montana, what they are currently paying and what the cost of renewables are … I am very concerned there is a broad-brush about costs,” Hayman said, adding ratepayers are already “on the hook” for some Colstrip cost.

“I would appreciate that there is some thought given to the ratepayer because they are going to be on the hook for most of these costs. We aren’t going to attract business with high energy costs, it is just plain and simple, but thank you for your information,” she said.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, said the construction and operation of a Colstrip 700 megawatt unit would have to be done by investors. He said a small percentage of that would go on the rate base.

“The whole cost of that plant absolutely would not go on our rate base,” he said, adding Montanans are not paying for Colstrip, they are just paying for 20% of one unit in the rate base, with the majority paid for by out-of-state users.

Ankney said the majority of this power will be exported to the west coast, where those ratepayers would pay.

“To put that idea in somebody’s head is not right,” he said. “It is not going to be paid for by Montana ratepayers, unless NorthWestern chooses to be a participant or buys power from one of the participants.”

Also speaking at the meeting were representatives from Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), the National Reactor Innovation Center, the Idaho National Laboratory, the Nuclear Energy Institute and Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.  

GAIN Director Christine King, a chemical engineer, said she has been working to commercialize nuclear energy. 

“We are not here to tell you this is the right answer for Montana. Clearly that is a decision you guys need to make. But I want to give you all the information to need to make the decisions that are right for your state,” she said. 

She said she hoped this was the first conversation.

King said GAIN is an initiative of the Department of Energy and was established in 2016. It looks at what it will take to commercialize advanced nuclear energy.

“We focus on the best use for the public dollar to support this mission,” she said.

Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip
Provided photo
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