People’s Power League takes on HB273

Helena, Montana, United States, North America

Carole Mackin plans to pound the pavement the next six months, as do other members of the People’s Power League, to collect signatures to get an initiative on the ballot to make sure voters can decide if a nuclear power plant gets built in Montana.

For them, it’s deja vu all over again, having put Initiative 80, the Nuclear Vote Initiative of 1978, on the ballot four decades ago. In the next six months, the group will need to collect 30,000 signatures if the effort moves ahead.

“We’re all old,” Mackin said Friday. “We’re too old for this, probably. But they’re willing to get out there and do it again.”

The 1978 initiative required an affirmative vote of the people before a nuclear power facility certified by the Montana Major Facility Siting Act could be constructed here. Then, voters said yes to the idea.

However, in the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers approved House Bill 273, which repealed provisions of the Nuclear Vote Initiative and took nuclear projects out of the Major Facility Siting Act. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill, and it took immediate effect.

“In my opinion, an initiative passed by 65 percent of Montana voters deserved to be reevaluated by Montana voters and not just trashed by the Legislature,” Mackin said in a statement.

Rep. Derek Skees, who sponsored HB273, said he will fight the referendum. He also said opponents are still thinking about nuclear power plants of the 1970s and related scares, not modern advances.

“I plan on fighting it hardcore,” Skees said. “Montana’s energy future needs to be addressed, and their fight is 43 years old.”

In his testimony to lawmakers during the session, Skees said other types of power don’t have the same hurdle, and evidence on nuclear power has changed since the initiative passed 43 years ago.

“There is a lot of choices in nuclear power that we can be exploring,” said Skees, a Kalispell Republican who plans to run for the Montana Public Service Commission, in a committee hearing.

In an examination of the possibility of nuclear energy development in the state, the Montana Free Press noted technology has advanced, and small modular reactors can be placed in facilities such as the coal-fired plant in Colstrip. The story also said a resolution to study advanced nuclear reactors, Senate Joint Resolution 3, drew wide and varied support, including backing from unions, the Montana Environmental Information Center, and NorthWestern Energy.

HB273 passed 68-32 in the House and 30-20 in the Senate. SJ3, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, passed as well, 78-20 in the House and 50-0 in the Senate. The latter will be taken up by the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee, or ETIC.

In a phone call, Skees said one of the issues he believes ETIC will take up is how to design protections for the small nuclear reactors, the only type of nuclear he supports for Montana. He said he doesn’t want to see uranium or plutonium, and he suggested Mackin and the League wait one legislative cycle rather than fight HB273.

In a legislative hearing on HB273, some Democrats pushed back against the legislation to overturn a voter initiative. Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman, described it as “a bill to cut out the voice of Montanans.”

Hayman said the 1978 initiative wasn’t about opposing nuclear power, but it was about making sure that if nuclear power came to Montana, Montanans, and not the power industry, could set the safety and liability standards.

“Montana citizens should have the right to direct participation in a decision which will vitally affect our lives for generations to come,” Hayman said.

She also noted the wide support for Initiative 80 came before the accident at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. A reactor melted down in 1979, and no one was killed, but the accident led to industry reform.

In October 1978, then-Rep. Max Baucus told the Montana Kaimin he intended to vote for Initiative 80 during an interview about his U.S. Senate candidacy. The Democrat, a 36-year U.S. Senator and most recently U.S. Ambassador to China, also told the University of Montana student newspaper that initiatives “keep House and Senate members on their toes.”

In a brief phone call, Mackin said she herself isn’t necessarily opposed to nuclear power, but for the time being, she believes it makes a lot of sense to use natural gas.

“As long as we’ve got all this natural gas, we might as well be looking in that direction, I think, for the moment,” Mackin said. “Now, for the future, nuclear may be something that’s really good. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.”

In January, POWER, a media outlet focused on energy technology, said NuScale and partners were preparing to license a carbon-free project that would install a small modular reactor, or SMR, in Idaho Falls. Based in Portland, Oregon, NuScale’s website said its SMR is the first to receive U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission design approval.

Skees said a similar project supported by Bill Gates is coming to Wyoming, and he said Montana needs more options. He doesn’t believe wind and solar can do all the work, and he noted President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan supports nuclear.

“They’re wiping everything out based on carbon output,” Skees said. “We’re going to have no power generation that’s going to work in Montana. We have to embrace something.”

The Montana Secretary of State’s website said it sent Mackin’s referendum to the Legislative Services Division for review on May 28.

This story has been updated with comments from a Friday phone call with Rep. Skees.