Types of nuclear reactors. Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants Virginia to build a small modular reactor in Southwest Virginia. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.
Types of nuclear reactors. Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants Virginia to build a small modular reactor in Southwest Virginia. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

First of a two-part series.

It would likely take a decade to place a small modular nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia as Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed, but nuclear experts say the technology is there to build one today if the approvals were in place.

No small modular reactor — about a third the size of a traditional nuclear reactor — currently exists in the U.S., although a few states, including Tennessee, are working toward building one. Youngkin vowed in October that Virginia will be the first state to deploy a commercial small modular reactor, and he wants to put it in Southwest Virginia.

A number of small modular reactor designs are in the works, but Oregon-based NuScale Power is the first and only company whose design has been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In late July, the NRC approved a final rule to fully certify the design, and publishing that rule is in its final stages.

Rex Geveden. Courtesy of BWX Technologies.

The NuScale design is a pressurized water reactor. Because it’s based on technology used in most of the traditional reactors in this country, a smaller version could be constructed now, said Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, and Alireza Haghighat, a professor and director of the Nuclear Engineering Department at Virginia Tech.

Geveden said the NuScale design is “very standard.”

The power, power generation, power conversion systems and fuel are basically the same as what are used in nuclear reactors today. The differences are the added safety features and the scale, he said.

“We could start construction today if it was a NuScale design,” he said.

In early October, the governor rolled out a new energy plan that focuses on a mix of energies, including nuclear, and he announced a plan to establish a commercial SMR in Southwest Virginia to generate electricity. No site has been chosen, but the plan is to locate it on a former coal mining site.

Several proponents of small modular reactors — known as SMRs — have pointed to the use of nuclear reactors in the military, which they said proves they are safe and reliable. But there are detractors who say the technology is new and not proven.

So, is the technology really new?

Yes and no, Geveden said.

The reactors used on submarines and aircraft carriers “haven’t been historically called small modular reactors, but … they’re really the same thing because we build those at BWXT in our plants and our factories … so they are factory-built nuclear reactors and they’re on that scale.”

BWXT, one of the world’s largest nuclear manufacturing and engineering companies, was involved with another company in designing an SMR, called mPower, but terminated the project in 2018 because “additional interest in the program did not materialize,” and the company decided to focus on other areas. 

Geveden was on a panel of nuclear experts who provided information about SMRs to the state House Commerce and Energy Committee during an energy summit earlier this fall.

Keith Faulkner. Courtesy of Faulkner.

Also invited to be on that panel was Keith Faulkner, president and dean of the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy. Faulkner is now a lawyer, but he operated nuclear power plants aboard submarines while in the U.S. Navy.

He said the meeting was held in Virginia Beach, and he pointed out to the committee that just 15 miles away in Norfolk, there were a dozen or more SMRs aboard submarines and surface ships.

His message — the Navy has been using the technology since the 1950s and it is “proven and safe.”

“This is not a new technology, although most people believe it to be,” he said.

What is an SMR?

SMRs are smaller, simpler versions of traditional, large nuclear reactors, and there are a number of types. Generally, they would produce about a third of the power of the big reactors built in the 1970s-1990s.

Traditional reactors produce about 1,000 megawatts of electricity, while SMRs would produce 50-300 megawatts.

To put it in perspective, Geveden said at peak power, two traditional reactors could easily power the city of Richmond, while one 300 megawatt SMR could power Roanoke.

Like traditional reactors, SMRs would use nuclear fission technology to harness the thermal energy this produces to generate electricity.

Their smaller size results in several advantages, advocates say. A main selling point is they can be built in a factory and then shipped by truck or rail to the site, sometimes called “plug and play,” which results in a savings of both time and money.

They can also be located on a site that could never accommodate a large reactor, and units can be added incrementally to meet increasing demand.

Supporters of the small reactors also point to increased safety measures, which rely on “passive and inherent” features, including low power and operating pressure.

“This means that in such cases no human intervention or external power or force is required to shut down systems, because passive systems rely on physical phenomena, such as natural circulation, convection, gravity and self-pressurization. These increased safety margins, in some cases, eliminate or significantly lower the potential for unsafe releases or radioactivity to the environment and the public in case of an accident,” according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) website.

Some SMRs would also use “accident-tolerant fuels” that can’t melt down in a reactor accident because they can withstand such high temperatures, Geveden said.

“You wouldn’t have to have pumps that are driven by electricity or diesel or anything to keep them cool. They use natural convection, condensation and evaporation to handle the cooling in the case of a loss of power or some other kind of an accident,” he said.

According to the IAEA, the small reactors have reduced fuel requirements and may require less frequent refueling, every three to seven years, while it’s one and two years for conventional plants.

The only small modular reactor design approved in the U.S. is this one by NuScale. Courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NuScale design and a few other SMRs use the sort of enriched uranium fuel found in today’s reactors, according to the NRC. The advanced designs would use different types of fuels, including graphite-encased “pebbles” or fuel particles within the liquid coolant itself.

As for how much waste would be involved, the NRC spokesperson said the current designs would result in “quantities of spent fuel and other waste products that the NRC is familiar with.”

Geveden summed up the benefits of SMRs as “they’re smaller, they’re factory-manufactured and they’re safer.”

BWXT is involved with development of an SMR in Canada. It is currently working with Ontario Power Generation on a boiling water reactor and the plan is to have it on the grid by 2028, he said.

In 2019 and 2020, BWXT also performed engineering work for NuScale to help the company design manufacturing processes for its reactor components.

Asked whether there are disadvantages to SMRs, Geveden said they are too expensive.

“The economics of nuclear power have got to improve,” he said.

But, locally and across the nation, there are concerns about SMRs beyond costs. Environmental groups question whether they are safe and there are particular worries about fuel and waste.

As for the development of SMRs in other countries, Russia launched the first floating nuclear power plant that produces energy from two SMRs in 2020, and more are coming, according to IAEA. It’s stationed at Pevek in northeast Russia and supplies heat and power to the Arctic town. Greenpeace has called it a “floating Cherynobyl.”

Other SMRs are being built or are in the licensing stage in Argentina, China, and South Korea. More than 70 SMR designs are being developed around the world.

In the United States, there are two active applications under consideration by the NRC – the Kairos project at a site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and one by Abilene Christian University in Texas. The university wants to build a molten salt research reactor on campus so it can research molten-salt technology and provide educational opportunities in nuclear science and engineering, according to the NRC.

 Others are in pre-application status.

What’s next?

If the Virginia effort moves forward, those involved face years of seeking approvals for design certifications and licenses from the NRC. Legal challenges could lengthen the process.

A utility or other company seeking an NRC license can take one of two paths. The “Part 50” path has two separate applications, the first for a construction permit and the other for an operating license once construction starts, according to a spokesperson for the NRC.

The second “Part 52” path includes design certification for vendors.

“Certification means the design cannot be legally challenged in later licensing review. Part 52 also provides a single application and review of a Combined License that covers both construction and authorization to operate a new reactor,” the NRC said.

“Part 52” also includes an early site permit, which can resolve environmental and other issues so a parcel of land can be considered suitable as a site for an SMR, the NRC said.

Regardless of the path taken, reviews for permits and licenses examine safety and environmental issues, and there are several opportunities for public input, the NRC spokesperson said.

Beyond NRC approval, an SMR project must also gain approvals from the state in areas such as water intake and discharge and public utility commission actions.

While the regulatory process is underway, the necessary workforce would have to be trained to operate the reactor.

It appears no one knows at this point how many workers would be needed for an SMR, but Geveden with BWXT said since large reactors require thousands of employees, it makes sense that an SMR would require hundreds.

Faulkner, president of the Appalachian School of Law, said that although local workers don’t have nuclear-related training, the region has a “very technically competent workforce here – I think the workforce is ready, willing and able to be retrained to operate plants like this.”

The training could be handled through the state’s community colleges, he said. Currently, nuclear-related technician courses are taught at Central Virginia Community College in conjunction with Framatome, a nuclear reactor business in Lynchburg, and the same could be done here, Faulkner added.

If an SMR is deployed in Southwest Virginia, Geveden told Cardinal News it’s likely his company would be involved in building components of it.

“We are sitting atop the supply chain in a very good spot,” he said.

Several nuclear experts have said an SMR would have to be operated by a utility because only they have the expertise needed.

Asked whether a utility such as Dominion or Appalachian Power would operate an SMR, the governor said nothing has been determined.

“All of them are in discussion and I think that part of this is also a recognition that we have a huge proportion of our power stack already in nuclear run by Dominion. There are capabilities there that we have to rely on and embrace and so there will be a natural decision in this, but none of those decisions have been made yet,” he said.

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Dominion operates two nuclear power plants in Virginia, in Louisa County and Surry County. Although Appalachian Power has no nuclear assets in Virginia, its parent company, American Electric Power, owns and operates a nuclear plant in Michigan.

Dominion plans to have an SMR as a supply-side option starting in December 2032, according to the 2022 update of its 2020 integrated resource plan.

“Starting in 2034, the company assumed that one 285 MW SMR could be built per year,” the plan states.

Coming Tuesday: Why Virginia? Why Southwest Virginia? Critics say they’ve been left out.

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.