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Montana Senate panel OKs study to convert Colstrip coal plant to nuclear


Coal power ban coming in neighboring states

State requires nuclear plants to be approved by referendum

  • Author
  • Kirstyn Petras
  • Editor
  • Richard Rubin
  • Commodity
  • Coal Electric Power Energy Transition
  • Topic
  • Energy Transition Environment and Sustainability

A Montana Senate Committee has voted to pass a feasibility study examining whether it is possible to turn one of the West's largest coal plants into a nuclear power plant.

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The Montana Senate Energy and Telecommunications committee voted 9-1 on Feb. 11 to approve Senate Joint Resolution 3, known as SJ 3. The bill requests an interim study on the feasibility of replacing coal-fired boilers at the Colstrip power plant with small modular reactors.

State Senator Terry Gauthier, the Republican author of the bill, said his motivation came from the closing of units 1 and 2 of the Colstrip plant in early 2020, as well as pressures on the plant from Washington and Oregon state legislation. The two remaining operating units at Colstrip, with a combined capacity of 1,480 MW, will be affected by coal power bans in those states starting in 2025.

NuScale Power, an Oregon-based company that designs and markets SMRs, testified in support of the legislation.

Diane Hughes, a spokeswoman for NuScale Power, cited the "flexibility and strong safety features" of the company's SMR design to allow such units to replace retiring coal-fired power plants. "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," she said in a statement.

The company declined to provide specifics regarding costs and timeframe in advance of the feasibility study.

Should SJ 3 pass the Montana Legislature and signed by Governor Greg Gianforte, a Republican, Gauthier said the next step would be ensuring priority for the feasibility study.

"Only about 10 of these studies [are funded]," Gauthier said in an interview. "[The bill] needs to get through to [that] top 10 priority."

Gauthier said that no one during the Senate committee testimony opposed the bill, and 10 different organizations, including electrical and plumbing unions, were supporters of the resolution. The bill will now move to the Senate floor.

NorthWestern Energy, a part-owner of the Colstrip plant, is also a proponent of the study.

"NorthWestern Energy and more broadly the northwest region face significant capacity shortfalls in the coming years," spokeswoman Jo Dee Black said Feb. 3 in written comments. "NorthWestern Energy is committed to reducing the carbon intensity of our electric energy portfolio by 90% by 2045. The study may find this technology has potential to provide much needed capacity and reduce the carbon intensity of our electric energy portfolio."

However, Black added, "We can't speculate on what a feasibility study would determine."

"NorthWestern Energy is looking forward to participating in the study if the bill passes." Black said Feb. 12, in response to the bill passing committee.

The study would only be the first step towards the conversion of the Colstrip plant, as there are barriers to nuclear plant construction in Montana.

In 1978, the state legislature passed the Montana Empowering Voters to Approve Proposed Nuclear Facilities Initiative. This requires that proposed nuclear power facilities be voted on through referendums.

Gauthier said that part of the referendum will be an education process for voters.

"When you talk about nuclear, people 'go nuclear,'" Gauthier said. Teaching people about SMRs as a safe and reliable baseload power would be key to passing a referendum, if and when the time comes, he added.