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Three years ago, Ohio lawmakers attempted to bail out the state’s aging nuclear power plants with a law to make utility customers pay more than $1 billion in subsidies for those former FirstEnergy plants.
The nuclear subsidies were eventually repealed, but now some lawmakers are pushing legislation to help private companies develop a type of next-generation nuclear technology in the state known as a molten salt reactor.
House Bill 434 does not include any direct funding but would establish a state nuclear development authority meant to attract federal research contracts. It would also be eligible for state economic development funding and would have the authority to acquire property.
Representatives of a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization, eGeneration, testified for the bill and stressed the potential benefits of developing the project in Ohio. Supporters say the technology could generate carbon-free power for centuries using spent fuel depleted at conventional nuclear power plants or by converting thorium into fuel.
Critics see the bill as another attempt by Ohio lawmakers to favor a particular form of generation. They’re also concerned about the potential lack of transparency with state economic development spending, much of which is handled by a group not subject to the state’s public records law. The Ohio Nuclear Free Network calls the bill a “radioactive taxpayer subsidy.”
What the bill would do
HB 434 would set up an Ohio nuclear development authority with members appointed by the governor after a nomination process resembling that of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. The authority, in turn, would be within the state’s Department of Development.
“We want a voice to bring projects here to Ohio,” said sponsor Dick Stein, R-Norwalk. Ohio doesn’t currently have a national laboratory or other consolidated entity to go after contracts for nuclear energy development, despite potential suppliers being in the state. The bill could potentially bring jobs and future economic development to the state. And, he said, the technology wouldn’t emit carbon dioxide.
The nuclear authority set up by the current bill would seek authority from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Department of Energy for the research and development of advanced nuclear technology. And it would promote commercialization of that technology, ranging from the manufacture of components to treatment, storage and disposal technology for spent fuel.
The nuclear authority would “give priority to projects that reduce nuclear waste and produce isotopes.” Testimony from bill supporters suggested this would mean a molten salt reactor.
A molten salt reactor ran at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. Elysium Industries, a New York company working on an updated version of the technology, claims on its website that it could run on spent nuclear fuel, depleted uranium, or a mix of uranium and/or converted thorium ore for up to 10,000 years. Ed Pheil, the company’s chief technology officer, urged Ohio lawmakers to pass HB 434.
The process also allows for the extraction of isotopes used in medical treatments and procedures, bill supporters said.
“Is it fair to say HB 434 would help cure cancer?” Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, asked eGeneration executive chairman William Thesling at a hearing.
“Yeah,” Thesling said.
Sarah Spence, executive director of the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum, testified in favor of the bill. The group supports energy innovation in Ohio and aims to promote an all-of-the-above strategy, she said. Nonetheless, she said, the group would have concerns if in practice the bill were used to subsidize one or two companies at the expense of others.
An unknown price tag
Under HB 434, the newly formed state nuclear authority would perform “an essential government function [on] matters of public necessity for which public moneys may be spent and private property acquired.” But the bill doesn’t hint how much money might be spent.
Any fiscal impacts wouldn’t be known until an agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Energy Department is in place, Stein said.
HB 434’s lack of spending limits is a red flag for critics like Connie Klein, an organizer for the Ohio Nuclear Free Network. An early version of a similar bill introduced by Stein in 2019 would have written eGeneration’s role into the law and let it spend up to $1 million per year.
Meetings of the nuclear authority would be deemed public meetings. But the nuclear authority could use staff or experts at the Department of Development, which delegates many activities to JobsOhio, a statutorily created corporation that is exempt from Ohio’s public records law. Funding for JobsOhio comes from Ohio Liquor pursuant to a partnership with the Ohio Department of Commerce’s Division of Liquor Control.
The Department of Development did not return a phone call seeking clarification of what role JobsOhio might play if HB 434 is enacted.
“It’s hard to know who’s going to be more disappointed — the citizens of Ohio if that bill becomes law and they actually spend any money trying to promote a molten-salt thorium-based reactor, or the promoters of the bill if anyone takes a serious look at how much it would cost actually to incubate a thorium fuel-cycle in Ohio,” said Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner who has also served as utility regulator in New York.
“Nuclear power’s biggest problem is its cost,” and thorium-based molten salt reactors are more expensive than other designs, Bradford said. “Also, they are at least a decade away from being licensed and building a prototype, which would still have to prove itself to be reliable and economically competitive, which it is unlikely to be able to do.” He estimates it would take about $10 billion to build a prototype, but it probably wouldn’t be able to produce power economically.
Additionally, it’s unclear what, if anything, the bill could actually authorize without a go-ahead from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Department of Energy. The nuclear authority couldn’t build a molten salt reactor on its own without a federal go-ahead. Stein said a legislative resolution had requested a delegation of authority from the federal government some years ago, but that has yet to happen.
“It’s not obvious really that [HB 434] does much more than lend comfort to the tub thumpers for thorium or small reactors generally,” Bradford said.
‘Simply no guardrails’
Ed Lyman, director of nuclear safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that to his knowledge the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not licensed any authority to a state for licensing a molten salt reactor.
Moreover, Lyman said, “there’s already a lot of work on the federal level” focused on small nuclear reactor designs. Although Elysium Industries has done some limited work funded by the Department of Energy, big players at that level haven’t lined up behind the Ohio bill, Lyman said.
“There isn’t one technology,” for small nuclear reactors, said Jess Gehin, associate laboratory director for the Nuclear Science and Technology Directorate at Idaho National laboratory. The Department of Energy is doing research and working with companies on a range of technologies, including water-cooled and gas-cooled designs, as well as some in the molten salt arena.
But other designs are closer to coming online than the molten salt reactor envisioned by HB 434’s supporters.
“A molten salt reactor isn’t going to be the next one over the finish line,” Gehin said.
Neither Elysium Industries nor eGeneration responded to requests for comment. Meanwhile, Lyman and Bradford found it odd for HB 434 to follow so soon on the heels of HB 6, the nuclear and coal bailout law at the heart of Ohio’s ongoing corruption scandal.
“There is not even a requirement that there be board members well versed in energy economics or selecting among energy resources or consumer protection or environmental protections,” Bradford said. “There’s simply no guardrails or safeguards against any of the abuses that Ohio citizens or customers have suffered in the last five or six years, which is pretty breathtaking.”
“You’d think after that fiasco the legislature would be a little more cautious,” Lyman said.
HB 434 passed in the Ohio House at the end of March. Hearings have not yet been scheduled in the Ohio Senate’s Energy and Public Utilities Committee.