Lawmakers who passed a bill to lure nuclear energy to Kentucky say coal is still king

Kentucky lawmakers have wrapped up work on a bill meant to help attract nuclear energy projects to a state where coal has been king for generations

Bruce Schreiner
Friday 22 March 2024 21:23 GMT
Nuclear Energy Kentucky
Nuclear Energy Kentucky (Copyright 2018 Bryan Woolston)

Kentucky's Republican-dominated legislature wrapped up work Friday on a bill meant to lay the foundation for nuclear energy in a state where coal has been king for generations, fueling the economy.

The House gave 92-0 final passage to send the measure to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. The bill cleared the Senate by a 34-0 vote last month.

While extolling the untapped potential for nuclear power, leading supporters of the bill were careful to stress that the intent is to have nuclear energy complement — not supplant — coal as an energy source.

“This is in no way a competition to coal," Republican state Rep. Randy Bridges said while shepherding the bill through the House. "It is complementary to coal. Kentucky is a coal state.”

The vote in the coal-friendly Bluegrass State came a day after more than 30 nations from around the world — including the United States, China, France, Britain and Saudi Arabia — committed “to work to fully unlock the potential of nuclear energy."

It also followed an announcement Thursday that a $1.3 billion pumped storage hydroelectric facility will be built on a former coal mine site in southeastern Kentucky. It was among clean-energy projects in five states to land funding support from President Joe Biden's administration.

Kentucky's coal industry has declined drastically over the past two decades, producing about a quarter of the coal it mined 20 years ago.

But the state still generates about 68% of its electricity from coal, though that number has declined from its historical 90%. The power-generating industry closed coal plants amid cheaper natural gas prices and tougher federal environmental regulations.

Final passage of the nuclear energy bill in Kentucky marked a milestone for its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll, who has spent years striving to secure an eventual foothold for nuclear power as an energy supplier.

“Kentucky is one step closer to the day when nuclear energy will take its place in Kentucky’s all-of-the-above energy portfolio,” Carroll said in a statement.

"It is my belief that in the future, nuclear energy will be the primary source of base load energy in our country, and it is critical that the commonwealth begin preparations for that future, as we continue to utilize coal, gas and renewables,” he added.

To develop that foundation for nuclear power, Senate Bill 198 would establish the Kentucky Nuclear Energy Development Authority. It would be attached to the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research and would be governed by an advisory board with members representing various stakeholder groups.

The authority would be a nonregulatory agency on issues related to nuclear energy and its development in Kentucky. It also would support development of a “nuclear energy ecosystem” meant to enhance the economy, protect the environment, support community voices and prepare the future workforce.

The bill would set in motion a site suitability study to identify the best potential locations for nuclear reactors and related facilities.

The authority would delve into workforce and educational needs to develop the nuclear industry in Kentucky. And it would set criteria for voluntary designations as a “nuclear-ready community.” Such designations would signal to the nuclear industry that “these communities are open to nuclear — whether it be a reactor, whether it be related industry,” Carroll said previously.

The state Economic Development Cabinet would be tasked with creating a financial assistance grant program for nuclear energy-related projects.

The House gave final approval Friday to an accompanying resolution to direct the state Public Service Commission to prepare for nuclear energy.

Carroll has said it would require the PSC to review “every aspect of what they do to make sure that when that first licensure request comes, that they’re not scrambling for six months to a year trying to figure out how to handle that particular situation.”

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