The Russian small modular reactor aboard the barge Akademik Lomonosov. Courtesy of Elena Dider.
The Russian small modular reactor is aboard the barge Akademik Lomonosov. Courtesy of Elena Dider.

When Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed that a small nuclear reactor be built in Southwest Virginia, that proposal seemed to come out of nowhere. It certainly wasn’t something he campaigned on.

The push to build such small portable reactors – the technical term is “small modular reactor,” or SMR – is pretty widespread, though. Cardinal’s Susan Cameron reported on this in her two-part series about this technology. There’s already an SMR in operation in Russia – a floating one on a ship anchored off the Arctic coastal town of Pevek. Critics have dubbed this a “floating Chernobyl,” “Chernobyl on ice” and a “nuclear Titanic.” However, the fact that this plant is something small enough that you can put it on a ship helps convey some sense of scale. Other SMRs are under construction in Argentina and China, according to Power Technology, and there are plans for others in, well, lots of places.

Poland has signed a contract with an American company to build SMRs. Forbes reported in May that South Korea plans to build SMRs throughout Asia. Canada has announced plans for SMRs. Just to our south, the Tennessee Valley Authority is also making plans for SMRs. Nuclear energy fell out of favor for a long time – if the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 didn’t scare the bejeebers out of some people, the accident at Chernobyl in 1986 sure did. Now we seem poised for a new era of nuclear energy, and not just with small reactors, either. “A combination of new nuclear technology, the quest to decarbonize and an increasing desire for energy independence following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reversed nuclear power’s fortunes,” says a report by the World Economic Forum. “More than 50 nuclear reactors are under construction around the world, almost half of them in China and India. And countries like Japan have reversed planned nuclear phase-outs, bringing nine reactors back on line, with a total of 30 due to restart by 2030.”

Now I do not claim to be a nuclear expert. My nuclear experience is limited to learning the periodic table of elements back in Mrs. Early’s chemistry class at Montevideo High School and watching the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” (which I highly recommend, whatever your views on nuclear energy might be).

So don’t look to me to pronounce some learned opinion on whether an SMR in Southwest Virginia is a good idea or a bad idea. What I do profess is some expertise in politics and that’s what I will focus on today: the politics of nuclear energy.

It will not surprise you to learn that Americans are politically polarized over nuclear energy the way they are most other things. A Gallup Poll earlier this year found Americans almost evenly split – 51% in favor, 47% against. What’s more interesting, though (or maybe more predictable), is how they split: 60% of Republicans are in favor of nuclear energy, only 39% of Democrats are.

That left-right split is generally true around the world, which a) helps explain why this nuclear proposal is coming from a Republican governor, and b) makes the exceptions so interesting.

Globally, France is an obvious exception. After the 1973 “oil shock,” France went in big on nuclear energy. Today, France is more dependent on nuclear energy than any other country in the world, with 69% of its power coming from nuclear plants. This heavy investment in nuclear energy played to French pride and a French sense of independence. French political parties have been somewhat fluid over the years but there has been a general left-right consensus that nuclear energy is an important national priority. Not until the Green Party came along in 1984 was there any significant voice against nuclear power, according to a paper published by Oxford Academic.

Another interesting exception comes just to our north – in Canada, specifically with the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party (Canadians keep their party names simple and straightforward), so the equivalent of an American Democrat. Trudeau has also come down on the side of nuclear power. In November, his government effectively declared nuclear power to be clean power, making it eligible for certain tax credits for clean energy. Whether nuclear power is clean energy has been a subject of philosophical debate – it’s not a fossil fuel so it helps decarbonize the power grid; it also produces nuclear waste, which isn’t exactly green.

More importantly, the Canadian government announced plans to build a small modular reactor in Ontario (on the grounds of an existing large-scale nuclear plant); site preparation began last week. BWX Technologies, based in Lynchburg, is the company working with the Canadians on that project. For those curious about such things, the Canadian news site CP24 reports the SMR is expected to employ 2,300 during planning and construction and 200 people when operational. This isn’t all that the Canadians have planned. Four provinces – Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan – have joined together to issue “A Strategic Plan for the Deployment of Small Modular Reactors” that calls for four SMRs in the prairie province of Saskatchewan after the one in Ontario is working.

That plan they issued called for making Canada “a global SMR technology hub” with a goal of capturing “a significant share of the supply chain opportunities.” For what it’s worth, all those provinces have conservative governments, so that fits the more traditional paradigm.

Still, the Trudeau government’s enthusiasm for SMRs shows how in Canada there is at least some support on the left for nuclear energy.

Polls in Canada are less useful. One survey found that 56% of Canadians believed their nation should increase its reliance on nuclear energy; that survey was also commissioned by the Canadian Nuclear Association. A competing survey by an environmental group found that 62% thought it was wrong to pursue small modular reactors. I file both of these surveys under the heading of “you get what you pay for.” I place more emphasis on the polls that really matter: Canadians, who tend to be more left-leaning than Americans are (they have national health insurance, for instance), have three times now elected a Liberal Party government that has endorsed nuclear energy. Not that Canadians have much choice. The rival Conservative Party endorses nuclear. So does the National Democratic Party, a liberal party to the left of the liberals, and perhaps more akin to our Bernie Sanders Democrats. The NDP platform declares that “nuclear power has an incomparable capacity to broadly replace fossil fuels” and endorses a reactor-building program. Only the Green Party there opposes nuclear, and the Greens took just 2.3% of the vote in the last federal election, winning just two seats in parliament. If Canadians were anti-nuclear, they could have voted Green and they didn’t, so they must not feel particularly strongly about it. (Faced with potential energy shortages because of the war in Ukraine, the Green Party in Belgium has decided to support keeping that country’s two reactors open.)

Another left-of-center government promoting nuclear energy is our own – the Biden administration.

The Democrats’ so-called climate bill – officially the Inflation Reduction Act – that passed this summer contains numerous provisions promoting nuclear energy. More recently, Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, has been one of the chief proponents. In November, Kerry made two announcements that haven’t gotten much attention. First, he announced that the United States will partner with Ukraine on a pilot program to build a “secure and safe small modular nuclear reactor” in Ukraine. Second, he announced plans to help Europeans – particularly in central and eastern Europe – convert coal-fired plants to small modular reactors. These two announcements came in conjunction with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt and were supposed to underscore the U.S. commitment to reducing carbon emissions. That shows the complicated politics of nuclear: The renaissance of nuclear energy is being driven partly by environmental concerns, which some would certainly find ironic at best. One big-name proponent of nuclear energy is Bill Gates, who has coupled his support for nuclear power with concern about climate change: “If we’re serious about solving climate change, and quite frankly we have to be, the first thing we should do is keep safe reactors operating,” he said last year. “Even then, just maintaining that status quo is not enough. We need more nuclear power to zero out emissions in America and to prevent a climate disaster.”

Meanwhile, CNBC recently reported that a lot of the investment money in nuclear power is coming from an unlikely source — venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who historically have been aligned with the tech industry and are generally regarded as, well, definitely not conservatives. CNBC says at least part of their interest is driven by the prospect of small reactors taking hold.

All these exceptions to ideological orthodoxy have come on the left, but there are some on the right, too. I mentioned that the Gallup Poll found 60% of Republicans in favor – but it also found 37% opposed. One of those Republicans who opposes nuclear power – at least in Southwest Virginia – is Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County. She recently posted on Facebook: “Youngkin wants nuclear micro reactors to be placed in SWVA coal mines. I am very concerned about this new technology and prefer that SWVA isn’t used as the lab rat. For too long NOVA harvests our taxes and our land. Now they want to use us to harvest power. Right now a Nuclear power plant is being targeted in Ukraine to be bombed. Look at the impact of a nuclear meltdown on generations of people and the ecosystem. We don’t need Geiger counters in SWVA!”

March’s concern about coal country effectively being used as a sort of “sacrifice zone” to generate energy for urban areas isn’t that different from what some liberal groups might say. Of course, she goes on to say her preferred solution is hydroelectric power – although that would involve flooding land. That highlights one of the conundrums of any preferred energy solution: There are downsides to each of them. Solar energy is great – free power from the sun! – but some in Southside are chafing at the amount of land being converted from agricultural uses into solar facilities. In any case, March stands as a conservative voice against Youngkin’s nuclear proposal.

Now, none of this is meant to make a case one way or another on the wisdom of splitting atoms and whether some of that should be done in Southwest Virginia. It is meant to put the proposed SMR in Southwest Virginia in a global context and to show that the politics of nuclear are not always clear-cut. We in Virginia will get to see this play out in the General Assembly (and perhaps beyond). Youngkin has proposed $10 million to go toward research and development of innovative energy technologies, with half of that devoted to nuclear research. That may be exactly what we should expect of a conservative governor. Meanwhile, the liberal government in Canada has invested more than $18 million toward its own nuclear research. Who would have thought that Glenn Youngkin and Justin Trudeau had so much in common, or that Marie March would wind up aligned with Greenpeace? 

Dwayne Yancey

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