New legislation being considered could make Hawaii the 29th state to produce nuclear power—although the proposal faces an uphill battle.
Two bills introduced in the state legislature would pave the way for nuclear power production in Hawaii:
- H.B. 1741 proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow for construction of a nuclear power plant without prior legislative approval.
- H.B. 1516 would establish a nuclear energy commission within the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism to study potential benefits of nuclear energy.
The cost: Hawaii is currently the most expensive state in the union for electricity, averaging 30.3 cents per kilowatt, according to a report from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonpartisan, voluntary membership group of state legislators.
“Hawaii suffers from a geographical problem compounded by policy issues,” according to report author Joe Trotter. “The state is wholly reliant on importing the materials and fuels needed to generate its electricity and fuel its vehicles, putting the state at an immediate affordability disadvantage,” he added. “But the state’s push to renewables in lieu of proven, available alternatives drives up prices far beyond where they should have settled. This push came at the expense of delaying upgrades to current infrastructure that could have helped prevent the wildfires that devastated the state earlier this year.”
Hawaiian Electric, which serves nearly all of the state’s 1.4 million residents, is careening toward insolvency, much like Pacific Gas & Electric did in California in 2019. Investors in the company are scrambling to sell their shares, and bond rating agencies are downgrading the Hawaii utility’s ratings because of its role in potentially causing or contributing to the most deadly U.S. wildfire in a century.
Michael Wara, an energy scholar at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, told the Washington Post last year that “there is no reason utilities have to cause fires in in high-wind events,” Wara said. “The thing that would’ve kept people alive is a power shut-off program. . . . Yes, it is inconvenient when they turn off the power for safety reasons . . . . But we need to break this cycle where in order to do the right thing a utility must first burn down a community.”
What’s next: The nuclear bills have been referred for legislative committee review, but even the sponsors conceded it will be tough for either piece of legislation to get a hearing.
“I honestly think it’s a fear of nuclear energy,” state Rep. Cory Chun (D., Dist. 35), H.B. 1516’s sponsor, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
An amendment to Hawaii’s constitution (Article XI, Section 8) requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate to shift policy to allow construction of nuclear power plants in the state.
The paradox: Meanwhile, the Aloha State is dealing with rolling blackouts and is facing the reality of the rising demand for electricity on the islands and globally. Then governor David Ige signed a bill in 2005 committing Hawaii to generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable, carbon-free sources by 2045.
At the time, Ige said, “As the most oil-dependent state in the nation, Hawaii spends roughly $5 billion a year on foreign oil to meet its energy needs. Making the transition to renewable, indigenous resources for power generation will allow us to keep more of that money at home, thereby improving our economy, environment, and energy security.”
But the reality of Hawaii’s limited land resources is tough to ignore.
“Nuclear is clean, dense, and abundant, with a far smaller environmental impact than wind or solar,” American Nuclear Society President Kenneth Petersen wrote in a February 5 opinion letter in the Star-Advertiser. “Hawaii’s natural beauty won’t be served by paving over thousands of acres with solar panels and erecting hundreds of giant wind turbines.”
Petersen said it would be wise for Hawaii to consider small nuclear reactors
“sized for islands”—as an option to produce sizeable amounts of carbon-free, reliable electricity.