CHARLESTON — On the ninth anniversary of a Charleston specialty chemicals producer’s spill into the Elk River that left 300,000 people without clean drinking water, Dasani water bottles were distributed without ado at an energy talk in Charleston Monday.
The talk was between U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and a man who has been the world’s richest person for over a third of his adult life.
Manchin and tech mogul Bill Gates never mentioned environmental justice during an hour-long conversation pondering West Virginia’s energy future that deemed advanced nuclear power safe and downplayed the unprecedented climate provisions of a law they both championed.
But that law, the Inflation Reduction Act, is poised to support communities burdened by pollution and underinvestment prevalent in low-income communities like those threatened by coal, gas and chemical operations throughout West Virginia.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday announced an unprecedented $100 million through the Inflation Reduction Act in environmental justice grant funding. The funding will support programs that assist organizations aiming to address local environmental or public health issues in their communities and state activities that result in measurable public health or environmental results in communities disproportionately harmed by environmental risks.
Environmental justice comes at a high premium in West Virginia whether looking forward or backward. The state’s history as an energy producer has resulted in a plethora of legacy pollution sites such as abandoned mine lands and orphaned wells along with greenhouse gas and chemical emissions.
As climate change worsens, West Virginia’s vulnerability will only grow. The state is especially prone to flood damage expected to worsen as climate change deepens given the state’s narrow valleys, steep slopes, chronically high poverty and dwindling tax base.
Amid the energy transition’s acceleration in recent years, West Virginia’s leaders have increasingly embraced what they call an “all of the above” approach to energy embracing renewables, fossil fuels and other power sources.
Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been a vocal supporter of nuclear power, which comprises about a fifth of the nation’s total annual electricity generation — double the world’s percentage.
The West Virginia Legislature lifted restrictions on nuclear power plant construction last year, joining other a growing number of other states ending nuclear construction restrictions amid advancements in nuclear technology after a decades-long industry standstill.
Gates founded the nuclear innovation company TerraPower. Gates and Manchin both presented nuclear as a safe power source to add to the state’s energy portfolio Monday.
“Appropriately, we’re super-careful about building a pilot plant, making sure the regulator and all the safety reviews are done well,” Gates said during the conversation with Manchin moderated by Marshall University President Brad D. Smith. “But we think we have a technology that in cost and safety is just dramatically different.”
TerraPower has predicted that by using a 345-megawatts electric sodium-cooled reactor as a heat source, its Natrium nuclear power design will cost less and be more flexible than nuclear light-water reactors in use today, operating at a higher temperature and providing thermal storage that bolsters system output.
TerraPower says its design includes inherent safety features that prevent accidents, not requiring pumps or emergency power to maintain safe conditions after shutdown and slashing waste through greater fuel efficiency.
“[I]t’s just so much simpler,” Gates said. “If you see a nuclear control room and you see all those lights and buttons and you look at that manual and that guy at that light does that and you’re supposed to push the thing over there, and maybe the guy’s tired … you really want a nuclear plant that runs itself.”
Prior to their Clay Center conversation, Gates and Manchin visited the shuttered coal-fired Kanawha River Plant less than 20 miles away in Glasgow. American Electric Power closed the plant in 2015 to comply with federal environmental standards.
Gates said he wants to expand his efforts to the east coast, noting that the Legislature’s move last year to lift restrictions on nuclear power plant construction had opened up discussions with American Electric Power in the past six months.
In 2021, TerraPower announced Kemmerer, Wyoming, a community of less than 2,500 with a history of coal mining, as the preferred site of an advanced nuclear reactor demonstration project.
The project was slated to be sited near a power plant where remaining coal units are scheduled to retire in 2025.
But the environmental justice repercussions of Gates’ vision of nuclear development remain to be seen.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy selected a University of Wyoming proposal to receive an $800,000 award from the agency’s Nuclear Energy University Program to support research of environmental justice “dimensions” of siting advanced nuclear energy facilities.
The project will examine who has and should have a voice in advanced nuclear energy facility siting and development decisions, emerging livability needs for small energy transition communities like Kemmerer expecting a massive influx of engineers during development, and how decision-makers can incorporate environmental justice considerations into design and development.
Rachael Budowle, assistant professor at the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, said in an email Wednesday that the project was just launching.
The Department of Energy released a report last year estimating that 80% of nearly 400 retired and operating coal power plant sites evaluated had the basic characteristics needed to be considered amenable to host an advanced nuclear reactor.
Researchers found that replacing a large coal plant with a nuclear power plant of equivalent size could increase regional economic activity by as much as $275 million and create over 650 new, permanent jobs across the plant, supply chain and community surrounding the plant.
The debate over West Virginia’s potential nuclear future has focused on small modular reactors. Small modular reactors are advanced nuclear reactors capable of up to 300 megawatts of electrical output. They are designed to produce power, process heat and desalinate on locations not suitable for larger nuclear plants while requiring less capital investment than bigger facilities.
Two executives of Curio Solutions, a nuclear waste recycling company, told lawmakers during a legislative committee meeting last year the state doesn’t have to fear nuclear waste as it considers next-generation nuclear technologies.
“By recycling, we would consume virtually all of the high-level radioactive materials, with only 4% of [it] remaining in the form of fission products that would require safe storage for up to 300 years,” Curio CEO Ed McGinnis said. “But in fact, with some new transformational battery approaches, and other types of uses using this remaining 4% of fission products, it may be that we don’t even have to deal with the 300-year storage for the remaining 4%.”
Critics of advanced nuclear technology question whether it is safer and more secure than current generation reactors.
“Unfortunately, most ‘advanced’ nuclear reactors are anything but,” Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety in the Union of Concerned Scientists Climate and Energy Program, wrote in a summary of a report he authored published in 2021 finding that nonlight-water-cooled reactor designs are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants.
Lucia Valentine of the West Virginia Environmental Council said one of the lobbyist group’s 2023 legislative priorities is monitoring any developments regarding nuclear expansion.
Valentine called how to provide safe, long-term storage solutions for nuclear waste a “concern unanswered last session.”
“If nuclear projects expand in West Virginia, the state’s most vulnerable communities must be protected,” Valentine said in an email Wednesday. “This is especially important for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution and environmental harms from heavy industry for generations.”
In the meantime, fresh opportunities exist through the Inflation Reduction Act-supported environmental justice grant funding.
A cooperative agreement initiative through the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Program will provide an estimated $30 million in funding directly to community-based nonprofit organizations (and partnerships of these organizations), with $5 million reserved for small community-based nonprofit organizations with five or fewer full-time employees.
The EPA anticipates funding roughly 50 awards of $500,000 and 30 awards of $150,000.
The Environmental Justice Government-to-Government Program will provide an estimated $70 million in funding, including $20 million for state governments to be used in conjunction with community-based organization partners and $20 million for local government with community-based organization partners.
The EPA expects to fund approximately 70 projects of up to $1 million each for a three-year project.
Interested applicants must submit proposal packages by April 10. Applicants should plan for projects to begin on Oct. 1.
The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
“This will be much cleaner,” Manchin pledged of nuclear power Monday. “And it’ll be extremely safe.”