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Ohio budget amendment seeks to study and promote advanced nuclear power

A proposal to create a new state authority promoting Ohio as a leader in advanced nuclear technology has resurfaced in the state’s two-year budget bill.

The amendment would establish a nine-member, governor-appointed board to oversee a new Ohio nuclear development authority aimed at boosting research and development of advanced nuclear reactors, commercial isotope production, and nuclear waste reduction and storage technology. The group’s initial funding would be $750,000.

The provision is similar to stand-alone legislation that has failed to pass three times since 2018. State Rep. Dick Stein, R-Norwalk, was the primary sponsor of the previous bills, although it was unclear whether he submitted the language for the current budget bill. Stein did not respond to emails or phone calls last week from the Energy News Network.

Anti-nuclear activists were critical of the proposal itself, as well as its inclusion in the 5,559-page budget bill — an indication that it can’t “stand on its own two feet,” said Chris Trepal, a member of the Ohio Nuclear-Free Network and a previous executive director of the Earth Day Coalition in Cleveland.

“I don’t want to say it’s sneaky, but it’s just a way to get that job done, which they could not do as a freestanding bill,” Trepal said.

Previously, Stein has said he wanted an Ohio nuclear development authority set up so it could assume some responsibilities from the federal government to develop small nuclear reactors and isotopes, thus promoting jobs in the state.

The first two versions of the proposal in 2018 and 2019 would have authorized spending up to $1 million per year by a nonprofit corporation. The bills emphasized research and development of advanced nuclear energy and the possible reuse of nuclear waste that might produce medical isotopes. The 2018 bill didn’t get out of committee in the House. The 2019 bill passed in the House but failed to move out of committee in the Ohio Senate.

Stein also sponsored the proposal’s third incarnation, House Bill 434. The Ohio Nuclear-Free Network at the time called the bill a “radioactive taxpayer subsidy.” That bill passed in the House last year but failed to move out of committee in the Senate.

This year’s budget bill passed in the House in late April and is now before the Senate Finance Committee, with multiple hearings scheduled this week. Ohio lawmakers generally aim to get the two-year budget to the governor for signing in June, although they missed that deadline in 2019, when the budget was held up until HB 6 passed.

Critics question the financial wisdom of the state getting into the business of promoting and developing advanced nuclear technology, which generally refers to small nuclear reactors.

“It creates a lot of potential risks for ratepayers and taxpayers in the state of Ohio,” Trepal said. The bill is vague on the agency’s authority and who, if anyone, would provide oversight. “It allows them to create all kinds of different proposals for reactors and for dealing with all kinds of waste and reusing it. … We have plenty of radioactive waste in the state of Ohio. And we don’t need more.”

The bill, if passed, would place the new nuclear authority within the Ohio Department of Development. State law gives the director of development broad discretion to contract with JobsOhio, a state-created nonprofit organization. An Ohio statute exempts JobsOhio from the state’s public records law, and the Ohio Supreme Court has allowed that exception. 

So, while the legislation says meetings of the nuclear development authority would be open to the public, the public might wind up seeing little more than votes on deals that had already been worked out in private, said Terry Lodge, an attorney in Toledo who has been active in a variety of cases involving nuclear power plants. And members of the public couldn’t necessarily get access to the documents and details of those deals — either because of some delegation contract or based on some claims about proprietary information, he said.

Members of the Ohio Nuclear-Free Network have also questioned whether Ohio needs the proposed development authority in order to spur research on small nuclear reactors or to interest commercial companies in Ohio. The federal Department of Energy already provides competitive funding for research on small nuclear reactors, particularly through the Idaho National Laboratory. 

Testimony on the earlier bills in the General Assembly had focused on thorium molten-salt reactors, a technology that dates back to the mid-20th century. That general design is just one of several types of small nuclear reactor designs that have been proposed. Also, in May, Oklo announced plans to build two small nuclear reactors in southern Ohio.

Pat Marida of the Ohio Nuclear-Free Network said in her May 25 testimony to the Senate Finance Committee that the levelized costs of new on-shore wind energy and new utility-scale solar power are substantially cheaper than new nuclear power would be. So, promoting nuclear power would be bad for ratepayers, she said.

Also, required licensing and safety requirements add years to when any small nuclear reactors might come online. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission denied Oklo’s first request to build a small nuclear reactor in Idaho because the agency needed more information about safety.

Lodge noted additional concerns when he testified against the proposal on May 25.

“Combining promotion and regulation into the same agency poses an unworkable conflict of interest,” Lodge said. “Add to that the advantage of near-complete secrecy, and corruption is guaranteed.”

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