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RICHMOND – Just one day after the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee by a 11-3 vote backed legislation creating the Virginia Power Innovation Fund, another Senate panel on Wednesday removed nuclear research from the list of technologies that the fund would be used for.
Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, had filed House Bill 2386 in order to create a public fund that would be used solely for research and development in innovative energy technologies, also including hydrogen, geothermal, pumped storage hydropower, battery storage and manufacturing, and carbon capture and utilization.
But the exploration of new nuclear technologies was a key driver of O’Quinn’s proposal in light of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s announcement last year that his administration plans to deploy at least one small modular nuclear reactor somewhere in Southwest Virginia within 10 years.
The so-called SMRs are a class of nuclear fission reactors that are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors. Unlike the latter, which on average generate about 1,000 to 1,600 megawatts of power per plant, small modular reactors can produce up to 1,000 megawatts, but typically around 300 megawatts.
O’Quinn responded with disappointment to the committee’s decision.
“The knee-jerk opposition to nuclear innovation is very short sighted and puts Virginia behind the curve on energy diversification,” he said. “Nuclear energy is inevitably going to have to be a bigger part of Virginia’s energy portfolio. It produces zero carbon and is highly reliable.”
It is impossible to reach the arbitrary numbers set forth in the Virginia Clean Energy Act (VCEA) without nuclear, O’Quinn added. “And regardless of the VCEA, nuclear is one of the fastest growing technologies in the energy space,” he said.
Youngkin in October asked the General Assembly to set aside $10 million in the amended state budget to create the fund, of which $5 million would advance the goal laid out in the administration’s “all-of-the-above” Virginia Energy Plan to grow the state’s nuclear energy industry by establishing a Virginia Nuclear Innovation Hub.
The fund 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.
But after Senate Democrats last week amended Senate Bill 1464, a proposal sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier County, that initially was identical to O’Quinn’s, by removing the nuclear research provision, the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday by a 10-6 vote conformed both measures before unanimously sending the bill’s amended version to the House. Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, was the only Democrat siding with Republicans against amending the bill.
“It’s incredibly important to a lot of us, and to certain areas in the state it’s extremely important, so I would hope we would not do that,” Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, a member on both the Senate Finance and Commerce and Labor committees, said Wednesday before the panel’s vote.
“The committee that heard this before thought about that and decided not to do it, and it was the right move. Virginia, as you know, is on the cusp of being the nuclear leader, from Lynchburg, where we have three companies, and Tidewater is extraordinarily important, and I just hope we wouldn’t do it,” Newman said, adding that he believes that amending Vogel’s bill on the Senate floor to exclude nuclear research from the fund “was a mistake.”
But Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, Newman’s colleague on the Senate Finance Committee, said that he sees the matter differently.
“I look at it the other way, this is general fund money we are spending, and these are large, for-profit enterprises that have the ability to pay for this research and development,” Petersen said. “If we do use taxpayer money to pay for this fund, I think it’s important that we focus on those resources which are not just sustainable but also are environmentally friendly. Nothing against nuclear, but I think at this point we ought to keep this fund much more targeted.”
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in an email that as the bill heads to the budget conference, “the administration looks forward to building on Virginia’s nuclear competitive advantage and long history of bipartisan support for nuclear innovation through the Virginia Power Innovation Fund and to ensure Virginia is a hub for future advanced energy supply chains across the country.”
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Senate panel backs Ballard bill on gangs
Also on Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 10-0 vote – with one abstention – backed HB 1478, which is aimed at cracking down on gang violence and that would expand the definition of “predicate criminal act” to include all felonies and carrying a concealed weapon violation.
Sponsored by Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, the measure would also increase various penalties for gang crimes.