Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series in October 2022. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants a small nuclear reactor somewhere in Southwest Virginia – small modular reactors, or SMRs, they’re called.

Right now, that’s an aspirational goal because such small reactors don’t exist, at least on a commercial basis. “A small modular reactor goes on the back of every aircraft carrier and every nuclear submarine,” Youngkin said during a recent interview with Cardinal News. “This whole capability exists – it’s just not one that has been commercialized.”

That’s what Youngkin is pushing for: He wants Virginia to be the first state to commercialize this technology. We at Cardinal will have more to report on this technology. None of us are nuclear physicists so it’s taking us some time to master the science here so that we can be sure we’re asking the right questions. We are not fans of just popping off a knee-jerk response.

Youngkin on migration and start-ups

Earlier this year, I wrote a column about the new book by Rep. Ro Khanna, the Democratic congressman from California’s Silicon Valley, about how the nation’s technology sector should be more widely distributed across the country.

I wrote that someone in Southwest or Southside should invite Khanna to come speak about this. What I didn’t realize at the time was that someone would be us. The internet knows no bounds and one of the people who read that column was none other than Khanna himself, who promptly sent word that he’d be delighted to come speak. In June, we hosted Khanna in Blacksburg as the inaugural speaker of the Cardinal News Speaker Series, with the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center as our co-sponsors.

In September, we held the second installment of that speaker series, when Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, spoke in Danville about the future of manufacturing. Our co-sponsors there were American National Bank & Trust Co., Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. Danville and First Piedmont Corp.

Last week, we held the third part of that Cardinal News Speaker Series, when Gov. Glenn Youngkin joined us in Bristol to talk about economic development. Our co-sponsors there were the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, the United Company and the Train Station. Youngkin used the occasion to drop three pieces of news: a timeline for distributing the flood relief funds the state has appropriated for Hurley to help the community recover from last year’s flooding, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied a relief request from the Whitewood community in Buchanan County following this summer’s flooding, and that he’d like to see every high school student graduate with either a credential or an associate’s degree. As part of Youngkin’s visit to Bristol, he sat down for an interview with me and two of Cardinal’s reporters, business reporter Megan Schnabel and Susan Cameron, our Bristol-based Southwest Virginia reporter. Here are some of the things he had to say that haven’t made their way into other stories:

  • Youngkin pays attention to demographic trends. I’ve written about this before, but the governor’s appearance in Bristol provided new evidence. One of the big trends reshaping Virginia is that since 2013, more people have been moving out of Virginia than are moving in. The state’s population is still growing because births outnumber deaths statewide, and that births-over-deaths surplus is enough to make up for the deficit of more people moving out than moving in. Still, this is a worrisome trend: Why are more people moving out than in? The short answer, which I’ve dealt with in more detail in other columns, is a combination of a) an aging population that’s retiring and those retirees moving to warmer, sunnier climes farther South, and b) rising housing prices that are pricing young adults out of Northern Virginia, leading many of those to leave the state altogether, and c) more job opportunities elsewhere. Younkin talked about these trends in his campaign last year (they didn’t have the headline appeal of things like critical race theory) and again earlier this year in a speech at Christopher Newport University. He brought it up again during his main talk in Bristol and yet again during our interview. In fact, his press secretary had already signaled that time was up and the governor was getting ready to leave when he stopped and started to talk about demographics.

“It’s a metric that I follow every day,” he said. “I don’t believe you can have a long-term vibrant economy unless you have a growing economy, which means a growing workforce and a growing population.” (For those who have different economic theories, here’s a good distillation of Youngkin’s for comparison purposes.) “The trends over the past eight years have been horrific,” he said. “People vote with their feet and wallet.” Youngkin, though, did note that there’s been a recent shift: While the statewide numbers still show net out-migration, many rural areas are now seeing more people move in than out – it’s Northern Virginia that is hemorrhaging people. “Southwest Virginia is starting to shift,” Youngkin said. “That’s really exciting to see.” Now, maybe Youngkin was playing to the crowd – I’ve written a lot about these numbers. But these are also numbers he was talking up before I started writing about them, and I think it gives good insight into Youngkin’s business mind to know what he’s looking at, numbers-wise.

  • Youngkin doesn’t believe the state should invest in startups. Youngkin wants more startups in Virginia – 10,000 more over the next four-years. “Innovation in Virginia from a business startup standpoint went to sleep during 2013 to 2021,” he said. He also acknowledged that finding capital is a problem for many startups. “Capital is a big challenge in Virginia; it hasn’t been formed like it has in other places,” he said. So should the state make up for that? That was a question one member of the audience had. Youngkin’s response: No. He said that wasn’t government’s role, or something government is likely to be very good at. “There’s a line there I’m very careful not to cross,” he said.  

One question, though, doesn’t require a doctorate in nuclear engineering to ask: Will this new nuclear push lead to the state lifting its moratorium on uranium mining? This is not a theoretical question. About 8.5 miles east of Chatham in Pittsylvania County is Cole’s Hill, and beneath Cole’s Hill lies a deposit of uranium that might be worth $7 billion or more. The reason there’s uranium underground in Pittsylvania County goes back about 200 million years, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the supercontinent of Pangaea was breaking up, pulled in two different directions by the shifting tectonic plates beneath the earth’s surface. The new continents that came out of that didn’t break off cleanly, though. They had lots of cracks and fissures as well. In North America, one of those ran through the future Pittsylvania County. Geologists know it as the Chatham Fault. They have two different theories about how that happened. One of those is that molten rock flowed into the crack and filled it up. The other is that stuff from deep down below bubbled up into those cracks. Either way, some of that was uranium.

That uranium was discovered in 1979 and three years later the state imposed a moratorium on mining the radioactive ore. A legislative effort to overturn the ban in 2013 failed, and so did legal challenges that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Virginia had the right to ban uranium mining. Yes, I realize I’m taking a long time to get to Youngkin’s answer but the context here is important. That court ruling was one of those that defied the usual left vs. right splits. The majority opinion was written by Donald Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, who essentially took a state’s rights approach. Otherwise, the court’s liberals and conservatives split both ways – some supporting the mining ban, some opposing. That’s a long way of saying Virginia’s moratorium has been ruled constitutional – but if Virginia ever wanted to change its mind, it could.

So will it? There are an estimated 119 million pounds of uranium in Pittsylvania County, said to be “large enough to power every U.S. nuclear reactor for more than two years.” Will a reactor in Southwest Virginia – even a small one, no more than one-third the standard size – eventually drive enough demand that there’s another push to dig out that uranium beneath Cole’s Hill?

When Youngkin spoke recently in Bristol as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series – an event co-sponsored by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, the United Company and the Train Station – we were granted time for an interview with the governor. We had time for four questions, and I used one of those to ask about the uranium moratorium. (Our other three were used for questions on flood relief in Southwest Virginia, on the governor’s proposal for every high school student to graduate with a credential or associate degree, and another nuclear-related one. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel has already written about flood relief; stand by for more on the other topics.)

So Youngkin’s response to my uranium mining question? He showed no enthusiasm for challenging that ban. In fact, he seemed to suggest that there’s quite enough uranium already without digging any more out of the ground. “I think our first focus is to make sure we can develop the nation-leading and world-leading technical capability, which I think we can,” he said. “That’s a big first step. Associated with that is the recycling opportunity for nuclear fuel. The vast majority, almost 90% or more, of the capacity in enriched uranium is not used. So we can recycle it and use it again – so I think the big steps out of the box are the technical capability to deploy in the next 10 years and on top of that to press forward to recycling opportunities for fuel.”

When politicians start talking about science, it’s always wise to double check, but the U.S. Department of Energy confirms that recycling uranium is possible: “Spent nuclear fuel can be recycled to make new fuel and byproducts,” the department says on its website. “More than 90% of its potential energy still remains in the fuel, even after five years of operation in a reactor. The United States does not currently recycle spent nuclear fuel but foreign countries, such as France, do.” The department goes on to say: “There are also some advanced reactor designs in development that could consume or run on spent nuclear fuel in the future.”

In fact, CNBC reported earlier this year that “the energy in nuclear waste could power the U.S. for 100 years, but the technology was never commercialized.” The network quoted Jess Gehin, associate laboratory director at the Idaho National Laboratory, one of the government labs that conducts nuclear research. He said the technology to do this has existed for years but has never been commercialized, largely for political and economic reasons. Nuclear energy began to fall out of favor after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. That’s the political part. For a long time, other sources of fuel – primarily coal and natural gas – were cheaper. Now the economic picture has changed – renewables are often cheaper, and coal has fallen into disfavor, not just with some politically but with the markets. The political picture has changed, too: Climate change is making nuclear power more politically palatable again in some quarters.

It used to be that energy policy fights pitted the left, which wanted renewables, against the right, which clung tight to fossil fuels. Now some on the right are starting to acknowledge climate change and the advantages of decarbonizing the electric grid, just not on the same scale as the left. Youngkin’s energy plan is a good example of that. He wants to undo Virginia’s Clean Economy Act, but not in a way that previous Republicans might have. As I’ve written before, his energy plan doesn’t tout coal at all. In fact, it acknowledges that coal is now more expensive than other forms of energy. Youngkin doesn’t mock renewables the way, say, Donald Trump does. In fact, he speaks rather warmly and respectfully of renewables – he’s just not convinced renewables can carry the whole load (“wind and solar are great but they can’t replace it all”), which is what led him to advocate for nuclear energy (and natural gas).

Now, I’m not an engineer – neither is he – so I don’t know whether an all-renewable energy grid is practical and what’s not. What I do know is that this is a big political shift: Here’s a Republican governor from a coal-producing state who is not pushing coal. Instead, he’s pushing “energy innovation,” which is also what Green New Dealers are doing – they just come at it a different way. Youngkin told the Bristol audience that he wants to innovate “across all these technologies – nuclear, hydrogen, carbon capture, battery storage that is dispatchable on demand at a lower cost.” That last phrase is another way of endorsing renewables. If we’re ever going to have an all-green energy grid, it’s going to need exactly that kind of battery storage, because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow and the energy generated when they are isn’t necessarily needed right then, so we need some way to store it. On that score, Youngkin has a lot of overlap with the Green New Dealers, who might well join him at a ribbon-cutting for any utility-scale battery storage. Where Youngkin would differ is his enthusiasm for nuclear energy, so the question is whether his push for nuclear innovation might lead to trying to commercialize that technology for recycling nuclear waste. From his answer to my question, it sure sounds like that’s what he’s interested in. Nuclear skeptics are pointing to a recent study led by Stanford University that said small modular reactors may produce a disproportionately larger amount of nuclear waste than bigger nuclear plants. For nuclear proponents, that doesn’t matter if the waste can be recycled. Infact, more waste might even be considered an opportunity: More fuel to be recycled.

 CNBC reports that one of the main obstacles to recycling nuclear fuel is that we don’t have a supply chain for reprocessing it for use in the kind of small reactors Youngkin envisions – only Russia does. (France recycles its nuclear fuel by putting it back into big reactors, CNBC says.) “Private companies commercializing fast reactor technology are pushing for domestic fuel supply chains to be developed,” CNBC reports, and cites two companies that are doing just that. For a governor who is focused on jobs – as well as a small nuclear reactor to help supply baseload power – the prospect of creating a whole supply chain around the recycling of nuclear fuel probably sounds like a win-win.

Now, none of that may reassure people who don’t like the very idea of anything nuclear – as a big fan of the HBO series “Chernobyl,” I get that – but it does suggest that the push for a small modular reactor in Southwest Virginia will not necessarily lead to a push to mine uranium in Pittsylvania County.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.