The Montana Senate unanimously passed a resolution to study the feasibility of replacing the embattled Colstrip coal-fired power plant with small modular reactor nuclear generation.

Senate Joint Resolution 3 requires the study be finished ahead of the next legislative session in 2023. Senators unanimously approved the measure Feb. 17, sending it to the state's House of Representatives.

Montana voters would have to approve changes to state regulations on nuclear power before a reactor could be developed in the state, according to SJ 3, which was introduced by Republican Sen. Terry Gauthier.

The resolution lists three issues for evaluation: which state regulations need to be changed; the economics of replacing Colstrip's boilers with SMRs; and the safety of operating a nuclear plant, including disposing of its radioactive waste.

NorthWestern Energy and the Montana Environmental Information Center, which often butt heads over legislative and regulatory issues, both supported the study at a Jan. 28 committee hearing. Labor leaders also endorsed the resolution.

Portland-based SMR developer NuScale Power submitted informational testimony at the hearing. NuScale currently is working with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to build a small modular reactor facility at Idaho National Laboratory (CU No. 1953 [11.1]).

The Colstrip plant's future is uncertain. Units 1 and 2 shut down in early 2020, and four of the six joint owners have accelerated plans to exit units 3 and 4—which have a total capacity of 1,480 MW—principally due to state policies in Washington and Oregon requiring utilities to eliminate fossil-fueled resources from retail electricity sales. Colstrip has the second-highest carbon emissions among coal-fired plants in the West, according to EPA data.

Sierra Club and other environmental advocates allege Colstrip is uneconomical, based on indirect evidence such as costs incurred from forced outages in recent years. How much the owners actually spend operating the plant is considered proprietary information and has not been publicly disclosed.

Two co-owners, NorthWestern Energy and Talen, insist they can keep the plant running for the foreseeable future.

Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.