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.

Virginia is joining the nuclear rush. Its regulated utility, Dominion Energy, has put Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the 2022 version of Integrated Resource Plan. And Governor Youngkin’s office has included it in its 2022 energy plan. One stated reason: as we decarbonize the grid with wind and solar, nuclear is needed as a dispatchable resource. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy).

It is obvious that wind and solar are fundamentally different than the principal electricity generation resources today; the rhythms of Nature dictate their availability. But there are rhythms: they are predictable, like the seasons and the weather; they are not dispatchable like a gas-fired or nuclear power plant. To simply say, as the Virginia Energy Plan does, that the battery storage at scale “required to manage power demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing… is not currently cost effective” is technically and economically misguided, at best. It also invites the expensive energy that the Virginia Energy Plan says it seeks to avoid.  

First, wind and solar are much cheaper than new nuclear plants even when storage is added. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated the cost of unsubsidized utility-scale solar plus battery storage in 2021 was $77 per megawatt-hour – about half the cost of new nuclear cost as estimated by the Wall Street firm Lazard. (An average Virginia household uses a little more than a megawatt-hour per month.) 

Time is the scarcest resource of all for addressing the climate crisis. Nuclear has failed spectacularly on this count as well. Of the 34 new reactor projects announced for the “nuclear renaissance” in the 2000s, only four reactors started construction; of those, two in South Carolina were cancelled after $9 billion in expenditures with lawsuits in their wake. Only two, Vogtle 3 and 4 in Georgia, are set to come online – years late at more than double the initial cost estimate, a success rate of six percent. Even including the old Watts Bar 2 reactor (start of construction: 1973), which was completed in 2016 (well over budget of course), raises success rate rises to just nine percent – still much worse than the mediocre 50-50 record of the first round of nuclear construction. The nuclear industry is marching fast – in the wrong direction. Dominion itself was part of that march, having spent ratepayer money to get a license to build a large reactor, but no electricity being generated. That project has evaporated; apparently it will be reincarnated as an SMR.

The much-ballyhooed Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are not going to save the day. None of the SMRs in utility dreams are even certified by the NRC as safe to build and operate. NuScale, the most advanced in terms of certification, had announced in 2008 that its first reactor would be online in 2015-2016; now the date is 2029; costs have risen (of course) – a project to be built in Idaho with mainly Utah municipal utilities purchasing the power. It applied for certification in 2016 and received conditional certification in 2020, the only SMR to reach that stage to date. The asterisk was on the steam generator where the heat generated by fission is converted to steam to drive the turbine-generator set. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) stated flatly that the “steam generator integrity is not resolved.” But the NRC said it would allow the issues to be resolved during construction and issued a license to build 50 megawatt NuScale reactors on that condition. There was a dissent.  One of the members of the ACRS thought that the steam generator issue should be resolved before the reactor was certified because “the steam generator integrity is too significant of a safety issue” not to have received finality in the NuScale design certification.

In the event, NuScale decided to increase the size of the reactor to 77 MW, triggering a restart of the certification process. Dominion should be familiar with such bumps in the road.  Its selected design, the Economically Simplified Boiling Water Reactor, had to go through ten iterations before it received certification.

NuScale’s attempt to sell the electricity from its planned project to build six reactors, totaling 462 MW, is far from being a stellar success, despite government support and a seven-year sales effort. Only about a fourth of the planned capacity has found takers. Rising costs have been a central issue though construction has not even started.

In the same period since the 2000s that SMRs have been languishing amidst a torrent of words, wind and solar generation have cumulatively generated electricity equal to over the amount 300 77-megawatt NuScale SMRs would produce in 15 years (80 reactors at the largest end of the SMR spectrum). Nuclear is dismally slow, unequal to the climate challenge.

Simply saying that nuclear is “baseload” power is to recite an obsolete mantra. As David Olsen, a member of the Board of Governors of the California Independent System Operator, which runs that state’s electricity grid, has said: “’Baseload’ refers to an old paradigm that has to go away.” 

It is generally agreed that solar, wind, and battery storage cannot address the entire decarbonization problem. They can do the job economically and reliably about 95 percent of the time. Much of the gap would be on winter nights with low wind when most buildings have electrified their heating and electric cars are plugged in. That’s where working with the rhythms of Nature comes in.

Spring and autumn will be times of plentiful surplus wind and solar; that essentially free electricity could be used to make hydrogen to power light duty fuel cells (such as those used in cars) to generate electricity on those cold winter nights. Surplus electricity can also be stored in the ground as cold or heat – artificial geothermal energy – for use during peak summer and winter hours.

Then there is V2G: vehicle-to-grid technology. When Hurricane Ian caused blackouts for millions in Florida, a Ford F-150 Lightning in electricity supply mode saved the day for some.  Plugged-in cars could have a dual purpose – as a load on the grid, or, for owners who sign up to profit, a supply resource for the grid, even as the charge for the commute next day is safeguarded. Dominion has a forward-looking V2G pilot project; it is mentioned in its Integrated Resource Plan, once. But it is not integrated into the decarbonization resource mix, though it is palpably here, in contrast to SMRs, which, by the benchmark of certification, are not even here on paper.

We are also entering an era of smart appliances that can “talk” to the grid; it’s called “demand response.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recognizes it as a resource equivalent to generation when many devices like cars or air conditioners are aggregated. People would get paid to sign up, and on those rare occasions when their heaters are lowered a degree or their clothes washing is postponed by a few hours, they would be paid again. No one would have to sign up; but signing up would make electricity cheaper. We know from experience there will be plenty of takers if the price is right. 

All that is more than enough to take care of the 5 percent gap. No uranium mining, no nuclear waste, no plutonium produced just to keep the lights on.

We can create a renewable electricity system that is much more resilient to weather extremes and more reliable than what we have today. The thinking needs to change, as the Drake Landing Solar Community Alberta, Canada, where it gets to 40 below in the winter, has shown. It provides over 90 percent of its heating by storing solar energy in the ground before the winter comes. Better than waiting for the nuclear Godot. 

Arjun Makhijani

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He has a Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, where he specialized in nuclear fusion....