Is Montana ready for nuclear power?

A series of proposals look to the technology as the state’s coal plants age out

By: - February 11, 2021 6:55 am

Colstrip power plant in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Larry Mayer/Getty Images).

With the clock running at Colstrip, the ever-changing and often gloomy outlook for Montana’s energy environment has policymakers casting about for solutions. 

Among these is an effort supported by the state’s utility companies to facilitate the development of nuclear power by removing the requirement that the voters approve all new major nuclear projects in Montana under legislation passed in the 1970s. 

Montana’s Major Facilities Siting Act requires an extensive approval process through the state Department of Environmental Quality for large energy plants. But nuclear projects — of which the state currently has none — require an additional layer of approval through a ballot initiative. 

The referendum process was created by legislation in 1978, prescient given that the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl would both occur within the following few years. 

But nuclear technology has changed and improved in the decades since, contends the sponsor of HB 273, Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, and the decision on where and how to develop nuclear power should be left to the legislature and the state government — something opponents and environmental groups fear could leave the voters in the dark with grave consequences. 

“We’re going to determine how this works,” Skees said Monday. “All we’re doing is opening the door so nuclear power can be built in Montana without an additional process … just like all other power is in Montana.”

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, wants to remove barriers to developing nuclear power in Montana. (Montana Legislature)

Skees is banking on the availability and scalability of so-called small modular reactors, a developing nuclear technology that’s become popular with engineers and the Department of Energy as a safer, cheaper, cleaner replacement for the pressurized or boiling water reactors that dominate the nuclear landscape worldwide. 

The reactors are a fraction of the size and capacity of the current technology, rely on a much smaller nuclear inventory and use a passive safety system that cools down without action from an operator. 

“It’s designed to minimize the pumps and valves that it runs on. It runs on natural circulation,” said Richard Christensen, the director of nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho at Idaho Falls. “Anything that they can do has been done to limit the consequences of any possible accidents.”

These reactors, which the federal government has been studying for two decades, can be built off site in different configurations — hence “modular” — and can generate around 77 megawatts of electric power, as compared to the 1,000 megawatt-plus capacities of the country’s larger nuclear power plants — hence “small.” 

The company at the forefront of this technology is NuScale, an Oregon firm slated to sell nuclear power west of Idaho Falls in the coming years. Aided by hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government, NuScale is one of the only providers of this technology to undergo review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

“I’m a nuclear engineer, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I believe in it,” said Christensen, who has received a grant to support the installation of a NuScale simulator at the University of Idaho, Idaho Falls. 


Skees painted for the committee a picture of building nuclear generators at the now-retired Colstrip 1 and 2, of Montana becoming an energy exporter thanks to its large deposits of thorium, a lightly radioactive chemical that can be used to make fuel for the reactors; of a power so clean, so effective, and so affordable that it belongs in some utopian vision. 

“When you study these reactors, there’s very little waste, very little concern with safety,” Skees said. 

Supporting the proposal, which passed out of the House Energy Committee on a party-line vote Wednesday, is Northwestern Energy, along with Montana’s electric co-ops. They see nuclear power as a way of generating stable energy capacity as coal, an environmentally damaging and increasingly uneconomical power source, falls out of fashion.

“We have capacity issues at Northwestern Energy, and they don’t look like they’re going to get any better,” testified David Hoffman the company’s director of government affairs. 

“There’s an old maxim of jurisprudence: When the reason for the rule no longer exists, the rule no longer exists,” he said. 

But whether there’s still a reason for the requirement that a majority of voters approve a nuclear project is not a settled matter.

“I’m worried about proceeding down a path that we know Montanans don’t want,” said Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula. “It seems to me that a first step would be to do a referendum asking the voters if they’re ready to explore nuclear energy and nuclear power.”

Removing the need to get voter approval would seem to suggest that Skees felt the voters wouldn’t approve new nuclear plants, Olsen suggested. 

“Why are you afraid to put this to the will of the voters?” she asked.

Skees countered that when voters first approved the additional requirement for nuclear facilities, many may not have been clear on exactly what they were voting for. 

Voters, he added, might not be the ones best equipped to make these decisions. 

“In a referendum process, it joins the circus of modern media,” Skees said. “Now, we’re putting it in the hands of this body and DEQ.” 

Outside the Capitol, he said, people get points of view — but inside, they get “deliberative points of view” and the opportunity to ask questions. 

“We will look to the experts at DEQ and the ones who want to generate the power, they’ll do the nuts and bolts.”


Small modular reactors, though promising, are still in their relatively early stages of development. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit that generally opposes nuclear energy as part of a broader move away from fossil fuels, pointed out in a 2013 report that, while SMRs are smaller, cheaper, and safer, more of them are needed to meet the capacity needs of power users, which mitigates some of those benefits. 

Colstrip 3 and 4, for example, can generate around 740 megawatts of power each; NuScale generally markets its reactors in blocks of a dozen, which can easily meet that need — just not with a single reactor. 

And while the Union of Concerned Scientists says it sees promise in the passive safety technology used in small modular reactors, it warns that these systems are not infallible, and certainly not impervious to damage from outside sources, like natural disasters.

The Union report also said that SMR technology has served as an impetus for some in the industry to call for loosened security regulations, such as the ten-mile emergency preparedness zone that the government requires nuclear facilities to observe in creating evacuation plans. 

“The SMR vendors will have a lot of work to do to support their claims that evacuation planning requirements can be reduced,” the report says. 

There’s also the matter of cleanup and waste. 

On its website, NuScale says that one of its plants produces as much waste “as most of the other 440 nuclear plants operating world-wide,” though the company points out that “the amount of used or spent nuclear fuel produced in a nuclear plant is dwarfed by the voluminous waste produced from most other energy technologies.”

And thorium is not yet a viable fuel source, despite the suggestions from Skees and others. It’s gaining in popularity due to its availability in large deposits in Montana and Idaho, said Christensen, but its application in the U.S. at this point is largely theoretical (not to mention that it would need to be mined). 

NuScale, he said, uses uranium fuel currently. And even if thorium, which produces less waste and is less radioactive, were to become widely used, it is not a fuel in itself. Rather, Chrisetensen said, it must be irradiated separately in order to transmute to a form of uranium that is able to undergo nuclear fission.

“It’s an ingredient you use to make the fuel at the same time you’re burning the fuel,” he said. 

Presuming that the technology is safe and dependable enough to remove a check from the voters is risky, testified Conor Ploeger, the clean energy program director with the Montana Environmental Information Center, which opposes the measure.

“We have heard many proponents talk about new technology; however we don’t know exactly how safe this new technology is,” Ploeger said. 

Current law, he said, doesn’t mean that nuclear development is banned in the state — just that voters “have the final say” on a matter that can have “catastrophic” consequences to the environment and human health and safety. 


Skees’ bill is not the only piece of legislation this session encouraging the development of nuclear power in Montana, and opponents say they’d rather lawmakers took a more deliberative approach. 

Ploeger’s group and other environmental advocacy organizations at the Capitol, for example, support SJ3, legislation awaiting a Senate vote that would create an interim or statutory committee to “study the feasibility of advanced nuclear power generation.” 

The resolution recognizes the economic devastation that the closure of coal-fired plants and associated mines at Colstrip could wreak on the community, and calls on the interim committee to evaluate replacing coal boilers with advanced nuclear reactors like SMRs. 

Before the Legislature “eliminates a longstanding tradition,” it should study the viability of this technology to begin with, Ploeger told the committee. 

Other pieces of energy legislation this session seek to slow the decline of coal in general. The Public Service Commission this week considered a House bill from Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, requiring the commission to consider the overall health of an economy before closing down a coal plant, rather than just the cost of the energy it provides. 

“If we don’t consider some of those economic consequences, and they are major consequences to the areas that these plants would be in, who’s going to do it?” Commissioner Tony O’Donnell said this week, as reported by the Billings Gazette. 

Either way, the state will likely need to make some major adjustments to its energy portfolio soon. For now, the public still has a say in at least part of that conversation. 

“Absent of politicians and bureaucrats, let the public decide,” Ploeger said Monday. “They are the ones who will deal with the expenses of nuclear energy.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.