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When Gov. Glenn Youngkin rolled out his energy plan in October, stating that Virginia must be “all in” on nuclear energy and that he wants to deploy a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) somewhere in Southwest Virginia within 10 years, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility company, was already one step ahead of the game.
“In our own planning process, we have already been evaluating various technologies and sites across the commonwealth, and we envision that we could be in a position to place the first SMR in service within the decade,” Todd Flowers, Dominion’s director of business development, said in an interview with Cardinal News on Tuesday.
(Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.)
While Dominion has not publicly disclosed any potential sites in Southwest Virginia, it considers the region as an “ideal location,” given the access to the area’s electric power transmission system and the ability to “transition the local fossil fuel workforce that has provided energy for decades” to support SMR deployment, Flowers said.
Meanwhile, Appalachian Power Company is also considering advanced nuclear technology on its path to meet its goal of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2045. The company has formed an internal team that is studying SMR options, the utility told Cardinal News in a statement Wednesday.
Dominion, however, is further ahead in its efforts than their competitor from Southwest Virginia. The utility currently serves the most densely populated metropolitan areas of the commonwealth, including Richmond, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville and Northern Virginia. But it also owns land in Tazewell County, where it is studying hydroelectric pump storage, and Wise County, the location of the Virginia Hybrid Energy Center, a power station in St. Paul that burns waste coal.
“We are looking in Southwest Virginia, and we certainly are looking at other facilities that either have operating fossil fuel plants or fossil fuels plants to be retired,” Flowers said, adding that Dominion also has excess land at the company’s existing nuclear facilities – North Anna Power Station in Louisa County and Surry Power Station in Surry County – that could be potential locations for SMRs. He said that an SMR could serve as a substitute for the third conventional reactor that has been licensed for North Anna but hasn’t been built.
“We are looking at multiple options across the commonwealth, and given the siting flexibility and the small footprint of SMRs, we believe there is a lot of opportunity to place these in several different locations across the state,” Flowers said, adding that more than one unit could be deployed to the same location due to a single unit’s small footprint.
The utility’s plan aligns well with that of the Youngkin administration, which is asking the General Assembly for $10 million in the upcoming budget to create the Virginia Power Innovation Fund for research and development of innovative energy technologies – including nuclear, hydrogen, carbon capture and utilization, and battery storage.
Youngkin also announced that $5 million of this funding would advance the goal laid out in the recently released “all-of-the-above” Virginia Energy Plan, to grow Virginia’s nuclear energy industry by establishing a Virginia Nuclear Innovation Hub. These funds would include grants for higher education institutions to study SMR technology, funding for nuclear workforce development, and additional money for SMR site exploration, including in Southwest Virginia.
“With technologies like carbon capture and utilization, and resources like critical minerals, hydrogen, and nuclear, we will make Virginia the epicenter for reliable and affordable energy innovation,” Youngkin said during an event at a reclaimed mine site in Norton, in the heart of Southwest Virginia’s coalfield region, which his administration considers “an example of a possible location for an SMR or other energy facility,” according to a news release. “Southwest Virginia includes hundreds of similar locations ready for development as potential energy and economic development sites,” the statement said.
Flowers said this week that Dominion has reviewed Youngkin’s Virginia Energy Plan, including the governor’s vision of having SMRs in the commonwealth in service within a decade, and has been communicating with the administration. But the company’s exploration of new SMR technologies predates Youngkin’s interest in the subject, and Dominion envisions that any new power generation facility it will build and operate will be part of its own regulated utility.
“In 2022, for the first time in the company’s history, we included SMRs as an available resource in our strategic planning process,” Flowers said, referring to an updated version of Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan, which is usually released once a year and provides the road map of the latest technologies that may be deployed in the future.
“We are a public utility with an obligation to serve our customers and to ensure that we produce energy to meet the load requirements of our customers. If you truly want to get to a zero-carbon grit, we think that nuclear has got to be a part of the solution,” Flowers said.
According to the updated Integrated Resource Plan, Dominion anticipates SMRs “could be a feasible supply-side resource as soon as the early 2030s,” and the company has thus included SMRs as a “supply-side option starting in December 2032” in all alternative plans. The plan also states that Dominion assumes that one 285-megawatts SMR facility could be built per year. “For some light-water SMR designs that utilize current nuclear fuel technologies with an available supply chain, the commercial availability may be even sooner,” the plan states.
SMRs are a new class of nuclear fission reactors that are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors. Unlike the latter, which on average generate about 1 gigawatt of power per plant, small modular reactors can produce up to 1,000 megawatts, but typically around 300 megawatts.
The term SMR refers to the unit’s size, capacity and modular construction, not to the reactor type and the nuclear process that is applied. In essence, SMRs function much like their much bigger counterparts, but are smaller and more compact. Each unit can be built at a factory, to be shipped, commissioned and operated at a separate site.
“When you fabricate these modules in that factory setting you allow for those components to be built and constructed in a very controlled environment, and these components can be replicated almost in an assembly line fashion, so the cost of fabrication goes way down,” Flowers said, without disclosing the latter.
“We’re working with the SMR vendors to kind of finalize and fine-tune those cost estimates. But we do anticipate that SMRs will be economically advantageous when compared to other zero-carbon technologies that can deliver around-the-clock energy,” Flowers said.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are only four SMRs currently under construction worldwide – one in Argentina, one in China, and two in Russia. Each of Russia’s reactors generates less than 75 megawatts. Canada recently started site preparation for an SMR in Ontario.
Because of their small footprint – one SMR requires about 50 acres of land – they provide for more site flexibility, allowing them to be operated at previously used locations such as retired fossil fuel plants, existing nuclear sites or other industrial areas.
“They are certainly reliable and the only source today of zero-carbon electricity where you can provide energy around the clock,” Flowers said. “If you look at other zero-carbon technologies, like solar energy, you really need to overbuild those facilities, because the sun doesn’t shine 24-7.”
For example, in order for a solar power plant to generate 300 megawatts – the average amount created by one SMR – it would require a facility with a footprint of about 3,000 acres, Flowers said.
“But you also need to factor in that the capacity factor for solar energy is only about 25 percent, so it’s only generating electricity 25 percent of the time,” Flowers added. “If you really want to produce energy around the clock, you may need to build not 300 megawatts of solar, but 1.2 gigawatts of solar, so those 3,000 acres may be 12,000 acres,” he said. “The footprint is just tremendous in comparison to SMRs. And the biggest advantage of SMRs is what I’d call energy density, the amount of energy that’s generated on a very small footprint.”
Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, the House Majority Leader, in October heard a presentation on SMRs by a panel of experts who appeared before the Commerce and Energy Committee. And earlier this month, he toured Dominion’s North Anna Power Station in Louisa County. These experiences left him convinced that SMRs are clean, safe and reliable.
“I think that SMRs are going to be the future,” Kilgore said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The federal government is going to fund a lot of the research in this area going forward, and I think it’s going to be proven safe.”
Kilgore also highlighted the “many economic opportunities” that he hopes will benefit the region because of SMR technology, especially in the manufacturing area. “A lot of the materials are going to have to be manufactured, like building some of the machinery, and hopefully that will be done in Southwest Virginia,” Kilgore said.
Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, underscored that both Dominion and Appalachian Power are exploring to deploy SMRs across Southwest Virginia.
“Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. Appalachian is already here, they are the incumbent provider in most of Southwest Virginia, and certainly Dominion does have a large investment in Virginia City, so I think the fact that they are both interested is good, especially as it relates to the goals and objectives that the governor has laid out.”
O’Quinn said he, too, believes that SMRs will be a safe and efficient way to generate zero-carbon electricity.
“These things have been used on naval watercraft since the 1950s, people in Hampton Roads drive by them every single day, and an SMR can be shut down much faster than a larger nuclear plant, but still has the capability of powering a lot of homes and businesses,” O’Quinn said. “It’s a very interesting technology, zero emission, and I think it’s probably the way of the future, and this is where energy is headed in the long term.”
But not every lawmaker from Southwest Virginia is convinced that SMRs will be the right fit for the region. Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, last month expressed her concern with the new technology.
“I prefer that SWVA isn’t used as the lab rat,” March wrote on her Facebook page. “For too long NOVA (Northern Virginia) 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!”
And on Thursday at 2.p.m., the nonprofits Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and Appalachian Voices, which both have been critical of plans to deploy SMRs in Appalachia without seeking public input, will be hosting a virtual panel discussion about this issue.
The panel includes Cale Jaffe, the 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; Edwin Lyman, a physicist and Director of Nuclear Power Safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists; and Mary Cromer, Deputy Director at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
According to a news release, the panel “will discuss the safety, financial and political outlook of developing a small modular nuclear reactor in Virginia’s coalfield region.”
But Flowers said SMR technology is considered safe, has no negative environmental impact, and that the amount of nuclear fuel produced by a single unit is expected to be similar to that of Dominion’s existing facilities, where fuel is stored on site.
“Today we manage used nuclear fuel very effectively, in fact I’d say nuclear power operations is really the only technology that captures 100 percent of its waste stream,” Flowers said. “If you take Surry and North Anna as an example, we are safely storing a relatively small amount of used nuclear fuel from decades of power generation on a very small footprint. We can manage the nuclear fuel from SMRs in the same manner.”
Flowers also hailed the opportunities for job creation in Southwest Virginia once SMRs are being deployed. Depending on the technology, for a single unit Dominion anticipates the full-time staffing to be about 100 personnel – a number that would double with two SMRs at a single site.
“There are a lot of different types of roles – welders, machinists, electricians, instrumentation and control specialists, operation staff, security personnel,” Flowers said. “A lot of those jobs are similar to the same roles that you’d have in a traditional coal fired plant. That allows us to transition to a nuclear workforce utilizing staffing that may have come from the coal producing industry.”
Flowers said that instead of recruiting employees from outside the state, Dominion plans to collaborate with community colleges and universities in Virginia to train the workforce that will operate the SMRs.
“Given the timeframe of deployment, we have a decade before we anticipate the first SMR being placed in service, and we are already discussing strategically how do we partner with the community colleges of Southwest Virginia to develop that workforce, such that when these facilities do come online, there is a workforce that we can lean on,” Flowers said.
Shannon Blevins, Vice Chancellor for Administration, Government Relations, and Strategic Initiatives at UVA Wise, said that as with all economic development projects in Southwest Virginia, UVA Wise and its community college partners “stand ready to assist” with the talent needs of the employers in the region. “We work to understand those needs and then collaborate on a strategy to assist them with developing talent pipelines,” Blevins said in an email.
Kristen Westover, the president of Mountain Empire Community College in Wise County and the vice chair of the SWVA Energy Research and Development Authority, said that she, too, has been “paying close attention to what it will take to educate a workforce” around nuclear energy and SMRs.
“MECC currently has an Energy Technology degree program with numerous specializations within it, including HVAC, solar and electricity. A specialization in nuclear energy could be offered in the same manner,” Westover said.
As with other emerging technologies, such as unmanned aerial systems, cybersecurity and smart-farming, the college is working with experts and existing and potential employers in the field to determine and build a curriculum that meets the needs of the industry and employers within the nuclear industry, Westover said.
“We then work with local K-12 systems and employers to educate a trained workforce to support the industry,” she added. “Colleges and universities recognize that SMRs and nuclear technology require a strong STEM foundation, and we will continue to work with our regional K-12 partners to ensure that students have the necessary STEM essentials to be able to enter post-secondary educational programs and compete in the workforce in these emerging technologies.”
And Adam Hutchinson, the president of Virginia Highlands Community College, said he was already aware of Dominion’s initiative regarding SMRs.
“We agree with Governor Youngkin and Delegates Kilgore and O’Quinn that Southwest Virginia is an excellent candidate for this type of energy technology, given our strong history of energy innovation, the region’s cohesive focus on economic development, and a talented workforce,” Hutchinson said.
Virginia Highlands, along with its neighboring community colleges, already provides post-secondary education and training in many of the applicable fields, such as industrial maintenance, automation, electrical systems and welding, Hutchinson said. “Our colleges are ready to develop and deploy new programs to meet the emerging workforce demands of this technology.”
Whether it’s nuclear, hydrogen, clean coal, wind, solar or some yet-unknown technology, the energy industry recognizes the economic development opportunity in Southwest Virginia, Hutchinson added.
“There’s widespread support and collaboration on these initiatives, and the stakeholders – businesses, legislators, educators, investors, et cetera – are working together to make sure these opportunities are safe, sustainable, and profitable for the entire region. We look forward to being a part of what comes next,” Hutchinson said.
Susan Cameron contributed to this report.