Big Sky Country mulls small modular reactors

February 18, 2021, 6:58AMNuclear News

A Montana Senate committee last week passed a joint resolution calling for the creation of a legislative panel to study the feasibility of replacing the coal-fired units at the state’s Colstrip power plant with advanced small modular reactors.

Two of Colstrip’s four coal boilers were permanently closed in January 2020, and most energy-sector observers expect the remaining two units to be retired within the next few years, given coal’s declining prospects in states such as Washington, which has passed legislation banning utilities from using coal power after 2025.

The resolution, known as SJ3, also calls on the panel to evaluate current Montana regulations that need revision in order to enable the construction and operation of advanced nuclear reactors. The study would need to be concluded before September 15, 2022.


A word from the sponsor: SJ3 cleared the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee in a 12–1 vote on February 11, following its introduction in late January by Sen. Terry Gauthier (R., Helena), who posits that SMRs could tap into the Colstrip plant’s existing infrastructure. “You have to remember, we have probably $1 billion in transmission lines that go to Colstrip, [and] we don’t want to let this go to waste and fall by the wayside,” Gauthier said at a virtual “Hometown Helena” meeting in December. “We need somebody using them. We need somebody to maintain them.”

Diane Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Oregon-based SMR developer NuScale Power, offered support for Gauthier’s view in a statement. “Our plant is able to utilize the existing water and transmission infrastructure of a retiring thermoelectric plant (e.g., a retiring coal-fueled plant), allowing the NuScale plant to be sited to repower retiring coal stations,” Hughes said.


More from Montana: Also passing out of committee last week was a related measure, HB 273, which would transfer the power to authorize the construction of a nuclear power facility from the public, via referendum, to the legislature. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Derek Skees (R., Kalispell), was approved 8–4 on February 10. The referendum provision in Montana law dates back to 1978.

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