Gov. Glenn Youngkin in Wise County. Photo courtesy of Earl Neirkirk/Neikirk Image

Standing on the remains of a coal mine site outside Norton on Friday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he will propose $10 million for research and development of innovative energy technologies, including the small modular nuclear reactor he wants to put in Southwest Virginia. 

The 2,000-acre site atop a ridge in Wise County – the backdrop for a news conference held to announce the funding – is an example of the type of land that could be used for future energy projects, he said. Southwest Virginia has 100,000 acres of such land that is ready for development with approval of the right permits, he added. 

“The great thing is that we have everything coming together, we have the space and we have commitment – commitment from local government, commitment from state government, commitment from federal government and, oh by the way, an energy-focused workforce that is hungry for new opportunities,” the governor told a crowd of more than 60. Those attending were local and state officials, including Attorney General Jason Miyares, former Gov. George Allen and Del. Terry Kilgore, state Department of Energy employees, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith and the media. 

The event was held nearly two weeks after Youngkin unveiled an energy plan that he referred to Friday as “our all American, all-of-the-above” energy plan that calls for innovation in energy sources and technology.  

The $10 million would be used to create the Virginia Power Innovation Fund and go toward research and development in innovative technologies, including nuclear, hydrogen, advanced battery storage, carbon capture and others. 

Half of the money would be dedicated to promoting the state’s nuclear energy industry by establishing a Virginia Nuclear Innovation Hub. The $5 million would be focused on “achieving the groundbreaking research necessary to deliver on our moonshot mission to establish the very first small modular reactor right here in Southwest Virginia within the next 10 years,” Youngkin said. 

He added that the hub would bring together the state’s nuclear stakeholders, universities, corporate interests and research dollars to develop “new and emerging nuclear technologies for deployment right here in the commonwealth, and we will work with our regional allies to go after more than our fair share. And I have to say, we deserve more than our fair share.” 

The money would also go toward grants for higher education to study SMR technology, funding for nuclear workforce development and additional money for site exploration for an SMR, including in Southwest Virginia, according to a news release from the governor’s office. 

He called the effort “intergovernmental” and said the state will work with Griffith, R-Salem, to obtain some of the billions in federal funding now available to “reinvigorate America’s energy future.” 

The governor said he and Griffith also announced Friday that $2 million in Virginia’s Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization (AMLER) grant money will go to the Energy DELTA Lab in Southwest Virginia, which was announced Oct. 4. The unique effort will be an “energy technology testbed” that will turn some former coal mining sites into laboratories to promote energy innovation. The first two sites will be in Wise County. 

While the governor said earlier this month that he hopes to deploy the SMR within 10 years, he said Friday he thinks the state can “beat” that time frame. He wants Virginia to be the first state in the nation to deploy one of the reactors, he said. 

Asked who would build the reactor, Youngkin said he is being courted by a number of interested prospects, but he did not name any. 

Alireza Haghighat, professor and director of Virginia Tech’s Nuclear Engineering Program and co-chair and founder of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, told Cardinal News that the SMR would most likely be built by a utility because it has the expertise needed. 

Haghighat, who attended Friday’s news conference as well as the announcement of the governor’s energy plan in Lynchburg on Oct. 3, said he has been promoting nuclear energy and technology in Virginia since he started at Virginia Tech in 2011. 

Youngkin also thanked Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert, who announced Thursday that he is working with West Virginia Speaker Roger Hanshaw to bring advanced nuclear-powered energy sources, including SMRs, to the rural and economically challenged regions of their states. 

Southwest Virginia is in an “incredibly, incredibly well-positioned spot” to lead Virginia’s mission to become the nation’s leader in energy innovation, the governor said. 

“So, we are going to turn on the light switch and shine a bright light … on the endless opportunities that we have as we invest in these emerging technologies right here in Southwest Virginia,” he said. “You know Southwest Virginia, as Delegate Kilgore said, has consistently provided reliable energy that powered America. And we’re going to do it again right here in order to not just power the commonwealth but again to power America.”

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...