Gov. Glenn Youngkin presents his energy plan in Lynchburg in October. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin presents his energy plan in Lynchburg in October. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Want more news from Southwest Virginia? Sign up for our free daily email newsletter. You can also help us fund more reporting positions.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Monday that Virginia must be “all in” on nuclear energy and he wants to deploy a small modular nuclear reactor somewhere in Southwest Virginia within 10 years.

Nuclear energy is a big part of the governor’s energy plan, which he unveiled Monday in Lynchburg.

“When it comes to reliability, affordability and when it comes to clean, nothing beats nuclear energy. It is the baseload of all baseloads,” Youngkin said during an event at Delta Star, which makes electrical transformers.

He added: “I want to call our moonshot. Virginia will build a small, modular reactor that will supply baseload demands within the next 10 years.”

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are nuclear fission reactors used for power generation and heat. The power capacity is about a third of traditional nuclear power reactors.

The advantages of SMRs are that they can be constructed in a factory in one location and shipped to the site, which saves money. They require a smaller initial capital investment, have enhanced safety features, are more efficient than earlier designs and can create jobs and boost the economy, proponents say.

But nuclear energy remains a controversial energy source with worries about safety, costs and waste.

So, why build an SMR in Southwest Virginia?

Chelsea Jenkins, the state’s deputy secretary for commerce and trade, said: “Because of geography, history and a talented workforce, Southwest is in a great position. They have always been about energy and will always be about energy.”

Following his speech, Youngkin said that Southwest Virginia has a “talented workforce, and has a feedstock in academia through Virginia Tech.”

 “Southwest Virginia has to get a real shot,” he said.

Asked to define Southwest Virginia, Youngkin said when you get to Roanoke, you “start getting into Southwest.”

The governor said there is an opportunity to build a nuclear industry in Virginia.

“We can be the leader in wind, we can get solar, we have an opportunity to be the leaders in small modular reactors – we should grab it and run,” he said.

Longtime Southwest Virginia Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, said the SMR would likely be built in the coalfields, which he said include the counties of Lee, Wise, Dickenson, Buchanan, Russell and Tazewell.

The location would likely be a former coal mine site, where there would be plenty of land and it would be isolated, he said.

Kilgore, the House Majority Leader, said he is also “all in” on putting an SMR in Southwest Virginia.

Last week, he heard a presentation on SMRs by a panel of experts who appeared before the Commerce and Energy Committee, and Kilgore said he’s convinced they are clean, safe and reliable. 

The delegate said he knows some people “panic” when they hear the word nuclear, but once they “figure out how safe SMRs are, I think Southwest Virginia is going to embrace it. Folks will see it as an opportunity for a big investment in our region and a big tax base. … Once they realize all that, they’re going to be very much in support of SMR technologies.”

Southwest Virginia has been a leading provider of energy to the East Coast and Virginia and an SMR would allow the region to remain in the “energy game,” Kilgore said.

An SMR would require a years-long host of approvals, the most important being the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and federal, state and local agencies, including the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, Kilgore said.

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, is also an enthusiastic proponent.

“I’m proud to work with a governor who understands the importance of an all of the above energy strategy and Southwest Virginia’s role in meeting Virginia’s need for reliable and affordable energy,” he said. “Gov. Youngkin’s goal to deploy a commercial small modular reactor in SWVA is a cornerstone of the 2022 Energy Plan and further demonstrates our shared commitment to innovation and building upon the region’s legacy — and future — as the energy capital of the commonwealth.”

Another big supporter is Will Payne, managing partner of Coalfield Strategies, the firm leading business development for the Energy DELTA Lab and InvestSWVA, who said an SMR would be a “natural fit.”

“There is significant brownfield land available throughout the region that has been previously disturbed from coal mining,” Payne wrote in an email. “With these locations, the mining activities required significant power and land attributes that are conducive to the deployment of SMRs.”

Currently, the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission is completing a feasibility study of locating SMRs in Southwest Virginia, according to Payne. The commission represents the counties of Lee, Scott and Wise and the city of Norton.

“We’re very excited that Governor Youngkin sees the possibility of SMRs to be a ‘moonshot’ opportunity for Southwest Virginia,” Payne said. “SMRs are the catalyst that the region needs in order to develop into an innovative energy hub.”

There are currently no SMRs in operation in the United States, although in July a reactor designed by an Oregon-based company became the first SMR design certified for use in the U.S. by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Susan Cameron

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for nearly 40 years. She is based in Bristol. Reach her at susan@cardinalnews.org.