The Maine legislature is considering a proposal to amend state laws regarding the siting and construction of new nuclear power plants. The bill known as LD 1313, "An Act To Amend the Laws Regarding Nuclear Power Generating Facilities", is listed as a "Governor's Bill", indicating its origin from Maine Governor Paul LePage. What might LD 1313 mean for Maine?
Maine is not currently home to any operating nuclear power plants. From 1972 to 1996, the Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant operated a 900 megawatt reactor in Wiscasset. While it operated, Maine Yankee was the state's largest generator of electricity. But a Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation launched in 1995 identified safety and other problems that ultimately rendered continued plant operation uneconomic; the site was decommissioned from 1997 through 2005, with spent fuel remaining on site to date.
Maine Yankee was controversial from its inception, with significant opposition to its construction from anti-nuclear groups and others. Partially in response to this controversy, in 1987 Maine enacted a law "to provide for citizen participation in any decision to construct a nuclear power plant within the State." As part of that law (as amended in 1999), the Legislature enacted a finding "that construction of a nuclear power plant is a major financial
investment, which will have consequences for consumers for years to come." The law also included a finding that, "In the recent past, investments in nuclear power plants have caused severe financial strain on consumers." In addition, the law required a statewide voter referendum prior to the construction of any nuclear power plant in Maine, and prohibited construction of a nuclear power plant without this voter approval.
Governor LePage's proposal would amend those two sections of existing law relating to the process for siting nuclear power plants. First, LD 1313 would delete the legislative finding that "In the recent past, investments in nuclear power plants have caused severe financial strain on consumers." Second, LD 1313 would limit the referendum requirement to nuclear power plants "with capacity greater than 500 megawatts."
LD 1313 would appear to encourage the construction of relatively small nuclear power plants in Maine -- that is, those with capacity of 500 megawatts or smaller, roughly half of Maine Yankee's size. But of the approximately 100 nuclear power plants in commercial operation in the U.S. today, nearly all can generate more than 500 megawatts of power. The Omaha Public Power District's Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska is rated at 476 megawatts, and is one of the only commercial reactors in the U.S. smaller than 500 megawatts. The technical and security aspects of nuclear power have traditionally pushed utilities to develop relatively large nuclear power plants, making the development of small but traditional nuclear power in Maine relatively unlikely.
Perhaps more likely to benefit if LD 1313 is enacted would be the development of small modular nuclear reactors. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, small modular reactors offer the advantage of lower initial capital
investment, scalability, and siting flexibility at locations unable to
accommodate more traditional larger reactors. They also have the
potential for enhanced safety and security. The Department of Energy has expressed interest in advancing small modular reactor technology. If LD 1313 is enacted, it could eliminate the requirement of statewide voter approval of the construction of a nuclear power plant using small modular reactor technology.
But whether LD 1313's enactment would actually lead to the construction of small modular reactors in Maine is unclear. Is the voter referendum requirement really the chief obstacle to small modular reactor construction in Maine? Or can Maine's lack of small modular reactors be explained by other limitations -- like technology, financing, or safety regulations?
LD 1313 has been referred to the Maine State Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. To date, no public hearing has been scheduled.