Lawmakers consider starting nuclear energy program in Oklahoma

Energy experts warn the move could raise utility rates

By: - October 6, 2023 5:28 am

Lawmakers hosted a legislative interim study on nuclear power plants Wednesday at the Oklahoma state Capitol. (Photo by Mindy Ragan Wood/Oklahoma Voice)

Advocates urged state lawmakers to consider bringing nuclear energy technology to Oklahoma as the federal government has set aside billions in an effort to incentivize expansion efforts nationwide.

Local energy experts though warned embracing nuclear energy technology would increase utility rates. They also raised questions about safety.

Oklahoma relies on wind, natural gas and coal plants to generate electricity, but coal plants are nearing their lifespan even as power demand grows, said Ken McQueen, Oklahoma secretary of energy, during a Senate interim study Wednesday. Legislators often use such studies to help draft legislation.

McQueen said that the energy source “is an option we need to consider as we move forward,” but that he has concerns about nuclear waste disposal.

“Obviously the biggest challenge is what do you do with the waste?” he said.

The study comes as some state leaders weigh the pros and cons of implementing nuclear technology.

Billions of dollars have been set aside for nuclear energy projects in the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure bill as a push by the Biden Administration to increase clean energy in the U.S.  Industry leaders said advances in technology, many still in development, have made nuclear power safer and more affordable. Oklahoma has no nuclear power plants.

Marc Nichol, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, addresses state lawmakers during a study Wednesday. (Photo by Mindy Ragan Wood/Oklahoma Voice)

Marc Nichol, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents nuclear power owners, said nuclear power provides “price stability” in the long run.

“They are high, upfront capital costs, but very low fuel costs,” he said. “Long-term price stability is important to protect ratepayers from that volatility.”

Advocates also dismissed safety concerns, saying nuclear waste has been safely stored in steel and concrete containers for over 50 years and plant safety continues to improve.

“I think the nuclear power waste problem is over-exaggerated,” said Dr. Steven Biegalski, chair of Nuclear and Radiological Engineering and Medical Physics Program at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Bieglaski said the most recent data last year shows 77% of Americans support nuclear power.

“Oklahoma should consider these new developments when they take into account in moving forward with additions to the power grid,” he said.

But Kelly Riley, director of resource planning for Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E), said the company views the cost of new nuclear technology “to be relatively high compared to other options.”

“Those costs will eventually be borne by our customers,” she said. “Those include the costs of construction, including development costs and ongoing operational costs, which include maintenance and fuel,” she said.

Riley said costs may decline as research and development improve for the technology, but OG&E would want to see a “safe and robust demonstration” of it before it considers it.

Brian Sherrick, of American Electric Power, the parent company of PSO, said the industry will need a supply chain, a trained workforce, and financial incentives.

Rep. Brad Boles, R-Marlow, who requested the study, said he’s concerned utility rates will increase.

“We’re one of the lowest energy cost states in the country and we want to stay that way,” Boles said after the study.


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Mindy Ragan Wood
Mindy Ragan Wood

Mindy covers the legislature for Oklahoma Voice. Her areas of focus include infrastructure, municipal government policies, and human services with an emphasis on the needs of intellectually vulnerable and physically challenged adults.