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.

Second part of a two-part series. Read part 1, Experts say Virginia is capable of building a small modular nuclear reactor today if approvals were in place. Here’s how.

Virginia has a long and successful history with nuclear energy and nuclear assets that make it ideally suited to launch a small modular nuclear reactor to generate baseload electricity, nuclear experts and state officials have said in recent weeks.

Their remarks followed the announcement Oct. 3 by Gov. Glenn Youngkin that he wants to deploy the nation’s first commercial SMR on a site somewhere in Southwest Virginia within 10 years.

Since then, environmental groups and some residents have begun to ask questions about the plan and say they’ve been left out of the process.

Alireza Haghighat. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Alireza Haghighat, a professor and director of the Nuclear Engineering Department at Virginia Tech and a big supporter of the governor’s plan, said Virginia has one of the strongest nuclear industries in the nation.

The state has two nuclear power plants, each with two nuclear reactors, North Anna in Louisa County and Surry in Surry County. Both are operated by Dominion Energy. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy).

Virginia’s nuclear reactors have operated safely for more than 40 years, according to the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium (VNEC).

The state also has a license to build another traditional reactor, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

About 30 percent of Virginia’s power is nuclear, though the state is far from the top of the list of states with the highest amount of electricity generated by nuclear power. According to the NRC, Virginia is 12th on that list, with Illinois being the top state and Tennessee coming in eighth.

Sources of Virginia’s power. Courtesy of U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Virginia also has some of the largest nuclear-related businesses. There is a nuclear hub in Lynchburg that includes BWX Technologies, one of the largest nuclear manufacturing and engineering companies across the globe; Framatome, also considered a leading nuclear company in the world; and NovaTech, which provides design, engineering and manufacturing for nuclear organizations.

Other nuclear-related businesses include Lightbridge Corp. and Bechtel Corp., in Reston, and Virginia Dominion Energy in Richmond.

Virginia’s nuclear industry. Courtesy of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority.

Haghighat, who is also a founding chair of the VNEC, said the state’s nuclear industry “serves both commercial, defense and manufacturing in the state and beyond. Actually, the (nuclear) companies in Virginia not only serve their state, they are global companies.”

Virginia is also home to Newport News Shipbuilding, and there are six universities plus community colleges that have nuclear-related training.

Rex Geveden. Courtesy of BWX Technologies.

Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWXT, said there is a “big nuclear footprint across the state of Virginia” that’s stronger than most states.

He pointed to Newport News Shipbuilding, which he said integrates the nuclear reactors that BWXT makes into submarines and aircraft carriers.

In addition to the major nuclear businesses, he noted that the state has a couple of large uranium deposits that could be sourced for fuel if the state reverses its moratorium on uranium mining.

April Wade, executive director of the VNEC, said the “projected growth of the nuclear industry, combined with Virginia’s existing industry leadership — in terms of both expertise and infrastructure — positions the commonwealth as a prime location for the first domestic SMR. Southwest Virginia’s existing energy infrastructure, developing energy workforce, and long legacy and knowledge in the energy industry makes it an ideal location for such a project.”

Why locate the SMR in Southwest Virginia?

Ask the governor or other state officials why they want to build an SMR in Southwest Virginia and you get two reasons – the abundant availability of abandoned coal mine land and the need for jobs and economic development for an area significantly impacted by the downturn in the coal industry.

Geveden said that Southwest Virginia residents would benefit because nuclear plant-related jobs provide high-paying, secure jobs that last for decades. According to the VNEC, nuclear energy facilities pay 36 percent more than average salaries in the local area.

As for a site, there are 100,000 acres of former coal mine land in Southwest Virginia. This land is perfect for an SMR, according to Will Clear, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Energy, because the needed infrastructure is already there.

“Coal is a very energy-intensive operation so there is a pretty robust transmission and distribution network of electric lines” left behind when a site is abandoned, he said.

Clean water is also plentiful, he added.

“Most of these underground mines fill up with water and the water is extremely clean due to the geology,” Clear said.

Another factor in Southwest Virginia’s favor is the cost of land, which is relatively cheap compared to other areas of the state, he added.

The Department of Energy will be involved in selection of a site because it has an “exhaustive” inventory of all the former coal mine sites so it’s aware of any issues that would prevent a site from being used for an SMR, he said.

During an Oct. 26 appearance in Bristol, Youngkin said there has been an “enormous amount of work” done toward bringing an SMR to the region.

In an interview with Cardinal News, the governor was asked to elaborate on those efforts, but he offered no specifics.

“What’s been happening behind the scenes is a number of organizations have already been thinking about the future of nuclear energy, particularly in Virginia, and that includes the Virginia Nuclear Association, and it includes a collaboration of efforts in order to bring up funding for site development.”

He pointed to the academic emphasis on nuclear power in the state and businesses like BWXT and Framatome. He added that there are “tremendous capabilities” with Naval Station Norfolk and Newport News Shipbuilding.

How a small modular reactor works. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

Why now?

Four factors have converged to make it the right time to rely more on nuclear energy, according to Geveden with BWXT.

The first is the invasion earlier this year of Ukraine by Russia, which led the U.S. to think more about national security, a big part of which is energy security, he said.

Russia controls the natural gas pipeline into Europe and “could create economic coercion by trying to withhold that energy source,” Geveden said.

“So, I think the globe is thinking a lot more about energy security right now and nuclear should be a centerpiece of an energy security policy because of its availability, because of its stability, because of the ability to run a local grid off of it and not have to import natural gas or oil or any other kind of thing to power it,” he said.

The second factor is the move toward decarbonization of the power grid, which has become more of a mainstream priority, according to Geveden.

He and Haghighat agree that if the state wants a clean energy grid, nuclear power needs to be the baseload component.

The need for “dispatchable power” is the third factor, he said.

In the case of renewables like solar and wind, “the sun goes down, the wind doesn’t always blow or certainly doesn’t blow predictably, and so utility customers have to have the belief that when they flip on that light switch, the lights are going to come on,” he said.

The final factor is that the “political demonization,” and fear of nuclear energy, have lessened so public opinion seems to be changing, according to Geveden.

“It feels to me like the time is now for nuclear, and there are a number of converging forces that I think lead many people to the conclusion,” Geveden said. “By the way, all you have to do is look at the investment capital formation around the nuclear industry to see that’s true.”

Funding

To make the SMR happen, Youngkin has said he will work with U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, to leverage available federal funding.

Recent federal legislation signed into law included money for clean energy projects, including SMRs.

The 2021 Infrastructure and Jobs Act had $2.5 billion earmarked for advanced nuclear through the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included tax credits for production and investment for advanced reactors. The credits are based on the kilowatt base rate, but energy communities, including coal communities, receive an additional 10 percent credit, according to Griffith’s office.

Also, since 2018, the DOE has had a multi-year cost-shared funding opportunity to support innovative, domestic, nuclear industry-driven concepts that have high potential to improve the economic outlook for nuclear power in the U.S.

“This funding opportunity will enable the development of existing, new, and next-generation reactor designs, including SMR technologies,” the DOE states on its website.

Will Payne, managing partner of Coalfield Strategies, the firm leading business development of the Energy DELTA Lab and InvestSWVA, said competition for the federal funding will be intense.

“Highly competitive doesn’t begin to describe accessing the federal dollars, but Virginia has gone from 0 to 60 in a blink of an eye, so I feel confident that a combination of these funding opportunities with traditional incentives along with state and federal funding geared toward R&D and deployment put Virginia in a competitive position,” he said.

Eleven days after his SMR announcement, the governor followed up with a visit to Norton, where he said he will seek $10 million for research and development of innovative energy technologies. Half of that money would be used to establish a nuclear innovation hub and fund the research necessary to establish an SMR in Southwest Virginia.

Questions and concerns

One person who has a lot of questions about the governor’s push for an SMR is Robert Kell, the new economy program manager at Appalachian Voices, an environmental agency. And he says he’s not the only one.

“We were taken by surprise when the governor showed up in our backyard,” he said. “We have an office in Norton, and he made this huge announcement without inviting any of the nonprofit folks, environmental justice folks, economic development folks. He showed up on a mine site with just politicians behind him telling us what he was going to do for our region and sort of told us we’re just going to accept it, so we don’t have an official stance on SMR technology. We just have a bunch of questions.”

Kell wants to know how safe SMRs are given that they are new, what happens to the waste streams and whether former coal mine land is suitable as a site. And he wants to know why Youngkin hasn’t spoken to any local citizens, economic development officials or environmental groups.

Kell said he hears regularly from local residents who say they are concerned and some who say they’re going to fight it.

Likewise, Sharon Fisher, president of The Clinch Coalition, said the agency is hearing from residents who have an “overwhelming sense of concern that Southwest Virginians are not being given a meaningful seat at the table as SMR projects are being planned for our communities. Residents of the coalfields have for generations been asked to disproportionately bear the social and environmental costs of energy development. Learning about plans to locate reactors in our region through news reports and surprise visits by elected officials is a troubling sign that we are once again being excluded from complex decisions that will affect our people for generations to come.”

She added that it’s difficult for the organization to develop a position on the proposed SMR because it lacks the basic information necessary to weigh the costs and benefits.

To help educate local residents, Appalachian Voices has organized a panel of nuclear experts that will be held at 2 p.m. on Dec. 15.

The virtual event will be open to anyone interested and information about how to register will be announced soon. (Update: Here’s the registration link).

The panel will consist of Cale Jaffe, director of the Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law; David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis; and Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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.