Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed a small nuclear reactor – called a small modular reactor – be built in Southwest Virginia. Here are some frequently asked questions about the project. We’ll be updating this as we learn more. Got more questions? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to answer them. Keep in mind that many questions about this project don’t have answers at present.
- When will more details (location, waste disposal, construction plans, etc.) be available? We don’t know. Youngkin projects a 10-year timeline on the project. Right now there is no specific proposal on the table. However, last year, for the first time, Dominion Energy officially included the desire for a small modular reactor in its Integrated Resource Plan, the official planning document it must submit to state regulators. That plan expressed the desire for Dominion to add such a small modular reactor by 2032. Appalachian Power has also informally expressed interest and formed an internal planning team for small modular reactors. Neither utility has announced any timeline for making an official proposal, although Dominion says they will have more information when they file their regular Integrated Resource Plan with the State Corporation Commission later this spring. For more information, see this background story.
- What are small modular reactors? A small modular reactor is basically a small version of the conventional nuclear reactors. They are generally described as being about one-third the size – or smaller. The “modular” comes from the idea that they can be assembled off-site and transported to their eventual destination. They are often likened to the small nuclear reactor the military uses for aircraft carriers and submarines. For more on the technical aspects of small modular reactors, see this story: “Experts say Virginia is capable of building a small modular reactor if approvals were in place.”
- Where are other small modular reactors? Right now, there’s only one in the world for commercial purposes – in Russia, which has deployed a small modular reactor on a barge anchored off the Arctic town of Pevek. Others are said to be under construction in Argentina and China. Canada has started site preparation to build a small modular reactor in Ontario and there are multiple proposals for others around the world – including one from the Tennessee Valley Authority in Tennessee. The Biden administration recently announced plans to help eastern European countries convert old coal plants into small modular reactors.
- What do we know about the safety of small modular reactors? Since there are no small modular reactors in commercial service elsewhere, there’s no record on them. All we can do is compare them with the records we have after more than 60 years of experience with conventional reactors. The most serious nuclear accident in the United States was at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, when a partial meltdown resulted in some radioactive material being released. On the 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale, it was rated a 5 – “accident with wider consequences.” Clean-up took until 1993 and cost $1 billion. Internationally, the two most serious nuclear accidents were at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986 and the 2011 earthquake at the Fukushima plant in Japan.
- Why does Youngkin want a small modular reactor? He questions whether an electric grid completely dependent on renewables would be reliable and says nuclear is necessary to provide that reliability. “When it comes to reliability, affordability and when it comes to clean, nothing beats nuclear energy,” he said in announcing his energy plan in October. “It is the baseload of all baseloads.” Dominion Energy agrees: Todd Flowers, Dominion’s director of business development, says of small modular reactors: “They are certainly reliable and the only source today of zero-carbon electricity where you can provide energy around the clock. 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.”
Others disagree. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says that is “obsolete” thinking. He makes the case in this article in Utility Dive that nuclear power is unnecessary. David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, says that with the development of wind and solar, we won’t need conventional power plants in the future. “We won’t need large baseload plants like SMRs to run 24/7,” he said during a recent panel discussion sponsored by Appalachian Voices and Appalachian Citizens Law Center.
Generally speaking, this is part of a worldwide debate: Is it possible to rely entirely on renewables or do we need something else – such as nuclear – to help carry the load?
- Why does Youngkin want the reactor in Southwest Virginia? Youngkin says it’s because Southwest has a “talented workforce, and has a feedstock in academia through Virginia Tech.” Flowers of Dominion Energy says Southwest Virginia is an attractive location because it has a workforce accustomed to working in the energy field, although not necessarily nuclear energy. Critics have warned that Southwest Virginia is a kind of ‘sacrifice zone” for energy development. “Residents of the coalfields have for generations been asked to disproportionately bear the social and environmental costs of energy development,” says Sharon Fisher, president of The Clinch Coalition. “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.”
- If we need more nuclear energy, why doesn’t Virginia prioritize getting North Anna 3 built? In 2003, Dominion Energy sought approval to build a third reactor at the North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa County. Preliminary approval was granted in 2007 with final approval coming in 2017. That same year, Dominion also paused its plans. Dominion now says it may pursue small modular reactors instead because that would be cheaper. “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 – including possibility at the North Anna site.
- Where will the nuclear waste go? According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the waste from the only SMR design that has NRC approval would have much in common with the waste from conventional, larger reactors operating today. Waste from these plants are currently stored on site. In Virginia, it goes into a spent fuel pool, which shields the radiation and cools the used fuel assemblies, for five years. It’s then moved to dry storage, where it is placed in dry casks – stainless steel containers that are welded shut and then placed in reinforced concrete bunkers. For more information, see this background story.
- How will it be transported? Questions about the transportation of current waste and fuel at current, traditional nuclear reactors often aren’t answered due to security issues. According to the NRC, over the last 40 years, thousands of shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been made across the U.S. with no radiological releases to the environment or harm to the public. It is shipped in containers or casks that shield and contain the radioactivity and dissipate heat.
- If waste is kept on-site or in coal mines, is there a chance that Southwest Virginia will become a storage place for nuclear waste from out-of-state as well? Efforts to build a national site for nuclear waste have failed. In 1987, federal law designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a permanent site for nuclear waste disposal but that’s been controversial and the site has not been built. So the federal government pays nuclear plant operators to store spent fuel from all commercial nuclear reactors on site, first in wet storage where the fuel rods cool in a pool of water and then dry storage for permanent disposal.
- Do small modular reactors produce more or less nuclear waste than larger reactors?This is a matter of dispute. A study by Stanford University and the University of British Columbia in early 2022 found that SMRs might produce more waste than conventional nuclear reactors. However, a recent report in Power Magazine quotes officials from SMR designer NuScale saying that study was based on faulty assumptions. A study by the U.S. Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory did not find that SMRs would be big waste generators. “All told, when it comes to nuclear waste, SMRs are roughly comparable with conventional pressurized water reactors, with potential benefits and weaknesses depending on which aspects you are trying to design for. Overall, there appear to be no additional major challenges to the management of SMR nuclear wastes compared to the commercial-scale large [light-water reactor] wastes,” it states.
- What will a small modular reactor cost taxpayers? Utilities pay for their own power generation and pass those costs onto customers – so the better question is what would a small modular reactor cost consumers? Since there’s not a specific proposal, and we don’t know which utility would operate such a facility, this question can’t be answered yet. Youngkin has proposed $10 million for state research on nuclear energy, so that would involve tax dollars.
- Will this mean uranium mining will need to take place in Pittsylvania County? Not necessarily. Youngkin has talked up the potential for recycling uranium and says part of the state research he wants to fund will be used for more research on recycling uranium. “The vast majority, almost 90% or more, of the capacity in enriched uranium is not used,” Youngkin told Cardinal News. “So we can recycle it and use it again – so I think the big steps out of the box are the technical capability to deploy in the next 10 years and on top of that to press forward to recycling opportunities for fuel.” The U.S. does not currently recycle nuclear fuel, but other countries do. The Washington Post reported that the U.S. has so far avoided recycling fuel because of concerns it could be diverted and used to make weapons. In short, while he has pushed for a new reactor he certainly hasn’t signaled a push to overturn the state’s moratorium on mining the uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County. That said, a Canadian uranium company has bought interest in that deposit and says it will push for overturning the moratorium – although not right away. Southside legislators, though, say they oppose this. The last time there was a push in the General Assembly to overturn the moratorium was 2013; then the bill never came to a vote for lack of support.
- If not, where will the uranium come from? Dominion Energy buys uranium from various sources worldwide, depending on the market price. Worldwide, the biggest source of uranium is Kazakhstan, which supplies 45% of the market, according to the World Nuclear Association. The next biggest suppliers are Namibia (12%) and Canada (10%). The United States presently gets 35% of its uranium from Kazakhstan, 15% from Canada 14% from Australia, 14% from Russia, 7% from Namibia, 5% domestically and 10% from a combination of other countries, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
- How many jobs would a small modular reactor provide? Traditional nuclear reactors employ thousands; small reactors would be about a third their size, so it makes sense that they’d employ fewer people. Dominion estimates a staff of 100 would be necessary for a small modular reactor. Ontario Power Generation projects the small modular reactor it’s planning in Darlington, Ontario, will employ 200 once it’s operational, according to the Canadian news site CP24.
- Would the plant be staffed by people from the area? The governor and other officials have said a big reason for locating a small modular reactor in Southwest Virginia is to create jobs for an area negatively impacted by the downturn of the coal mining industry, but there is no way to know. Dominion says it 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. Youngkin has proposed $5 million for nuclear research in Virginia, with some of that devoted to “fund nuclear energy workforce development programming.”
- Are there less expensive energy alternatives? The cost of energy by generation source is constantly changing. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has computed the price by energy source for new resources entering service in 2027. It currently says the cheapest form of energy is solar at $33.83 per megawatt hour and the most expensive is off-shore wind at $105.38. The price of nuclear is put at $81.71, slightly cheaper than coal at $82.61 but more expensive than onshore wind at $40.23. Youngkin says the rationale for nuclear isn’t cost but reliability; he doesn’t consider renewables sufficiently reliable. See question 5 above for the debate over that.
- Is the land around abandoned coal mines too unstable to safely house a nuclear plant? Depends on which sites. Some former mine sites do have issues with stability. On the other hand, before the Red Onion State Prison was built on a former mine in Wise County, the site was prepared through a process called “dynamic deep compaction” (basically, machines pounded it down) and prison officials say they’ve had no issues with site stability. The state Department of Energy says any sites with environmental or other issues would not be chosen as the site for a small modular reactor.
- Will studies be conducted on prospective locations before a decision is made about where to build? Yes. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission lays out the rules for selecting sites for nuclear plants and says “the geologic, seismic and engineering characteristics of a site and its environs shall be investigated in sufficient scope and detail to provide reasonable assurance that they are sufficiently well understood to permit an adequate evaluation of the proposed site.” Will Clear, deputy director of the The Virginia Department of Energy, has said the DOE has an “exhaustive” inventory of all former coal mining sites that includes any environmental issues that would prevent use for a small modular reactor. The department, he said, will be heavily involved in the site selection. Dominion says it’s already begun looking at potential sites, which include power stations it already owns. Youngkin has proposed $10 million for research into energy innovation, with $5 million of that set aside for nuclear-related research, including “to assist with site selection for future small modular reactor projects in the Commonwealth.”
- Which potential sites has the governor or members of his team visited, or asked for surveys and maps? While the governor has called for a reactor in Southwest Virginia, he does not have final say on where one is located. That’s up to the utilities and various regulatory authorities. Dominion says it’s looking at “multiple options” across the state. “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,” says Dominion’s Flowers, 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. As noted above, Youngkin has proposed state funding “to assist with site selection.”
- Who is on the governor’s team that is advising him on SMRs? (And what are their backgrounds?) The governor’s office says: “The Department of Energy and the Secretary of Commerce & Trade advise him on SMRs.”
- Is this expected to be a private venture or a public/private partnership? Private. Energy generation is paid for by the utilities, who then pass the costs on to customers.
- How much power does one of these plants produce in comparison to a coal-fired power plant? How many wind turbines or acres of solar fields equal one SMR? The size of power facilities vary, but here’s a comparison.
Coal: The coal-fired Clover plant in Halifax County – jointly operated by Dominion Energy and the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative – produces 865 megawatts of energy, enough to power 285,000 homes. The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, which burns waste coal, is officially listed at 610 megawatts.
Solar: The Solar Energy Industries Association says that solar requires 5 to 10 acres per megawatt, although that varies depending on location. Charlotte County has approved what would be Virginia’s largest solar farm – comprising 21,000 acres, although only 3,000 of those will be under panel. That project is expected to produce 800 megawatts of energy, enough to power 200,000 homes, so within range of the Clover coal-fired plant. Most solar projects, though, are much smaller. A report earlier this year said that at the end of 2021, there were 51 active utility-scale solar facilities in Virginia with a total capacity of 2,657 megawatts – an average of 52.09 megawatts per site. Distributed solar – aka rooftop solar – accounted for another 248 megawatts across Virginia.
Wind: The amount of wind energy depends on multiple factors, including the number of turbines, the height of those turbines and the amount of wind, so there’s not an easy formula the way there sometimes is with solar. The proposed Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County, which would be the state’s first on-shore commercial wind farm, is projected to produce 76.5 megawatts of energy. The current plan calls for 13 turbines. In August, the State Corporation Commission approved Dominion’s off-shore wind project, with 176 turbines that would produce 14.7 megawatts apiece for a total of 2,587.2 megawatts.
Hydro: The Smith Mountain Lake dam is listed at 605 megawatts, the Bath County Pumped Storage hydroelectric project at 3,000 megawatts.
Nuclear: Small modular reactors are generally described as producing up to 300 megawatts, so one SMR at that size would produce somewhat more than the energy produced by rooftop solar in Virginia, or about half the output of the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center.
- How long do SMRs last compared to full-sized plants? More longevity because of updated technology? “We’ll likely model SMRs to have a 60-year life, but various facilities could get subsequent license extensions just like their larger cousin facilities,” says Todd Flowers of Dominion.
- What’s the process for approving a nuclear plant? All nuclear power plant applications must undergo a Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety review, environmental review and antitrust review. In order to construct or operate a nuclear power plant, an applicant must submit a Safety Analysis Report. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the review process can take up to five years for a conventional nuclear reactor. Since the U.S. has no small modular reactors, we don’t know what the review timeline for that would be. In practice, the timeline for building a nuclear plant takes longer.
The most recent nuclear reactor built in the United States is Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2, which the Tennessee Valley Authority opened in June 2016. It also took 43 years to complete. The first license for that was issued in 1973 and many delays ensued. In 2012, the TVA approved the final construction phase. From there, the project took four years to complete.
Susan Cameron, Grace Mamon, Markus Schmidt, Megan Schnabel and Dwayne Yancey contributed to this report.