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.

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When Gov. Glenn Youngkin spoke at the Southwest Virginia Legislative Reception hosted by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce in Richmond in late January, he honed in on the region’s important role in making Virginia a national leader in nuclear power generation.

“We’re marching towards innovation together, building on the great energy heritage in Southwest Virginia, where we will establish the first commercial modular nuclear reactor in the United States,” Youngkin emphasized, earning applause from the audience gathered at the Library of Virginia.

Governor Glenn Youngkin speaks at a reception for Southwest Virginia legislators. At left is state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
Governor Glenn Youngkin speaks at a reception for Southwest Virginia legislators. At left is state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

“We can have reliable, affordable and increasingly clean energy in Virginia; we do not have to shut down our reliable generation ahead of its time,” Youngkin added. “We can in fact do this through common sense, and through something that we have more than anyone else in the United States — innovation. And we can do this right in Southwest Virginia, and I’m so excited about what’s right around the corner.”

Youngkin first announced his plans to deploy at least one small modular nuclear reactor, or SMR, in the commonwealth within 10 years when he rolled out his energy plan in October. And in December, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, told Cardinal News that the company shares Youngkin’s vision and that it has already been evaluating various technologies and sites across the commonwealth, including Southwest Virginia, although it has not publicly disclosed any.

(Disclosure: Dominion is one of our approximately 2,500 donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.)

Appalachian Power Co. is also considering advanced nuclear technology and has formed an internal team that is studying SMR options.

And in the months since Youngkin’s initial announcement, lawmakers from Southwest Virginia have filed several pieces of legislation aimed at creating a legal framework for SMR technology, and others that they hope would spur innovation programs at the state’s public and private schools and universities in order to train the state’s workforce. 

Most proposals passed the legislature with bipartisan support by the time the General Assembly adjourned last month, indicating that Democrats, who usually emphasize the importance of renewable energies, also consider SMRs as an important tool among a slate of reliable energy sources that can help put Virginia on a path to meet its goal of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2045.

Del. Israel O’Quinn. Courtesy of O’Quinn.

“I think that there’s widespread agreement that Virginia is going to have to do something,” said Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, who sponsored several bills relating to SMRs this year. 

“There aren’t enough votes to repeal the Clean Economy Act, and the energy reliability with the mix that is required by that is just an untenable position, and so something is going to have to be done, and that something is most likely going to be SMRs,” O’Quinn said in an interview last week. 

The Clean Economy Act, which passed in a Democratic majority in 2020 and was signed into law by then-Gov. Ralph Northam, requires the state to get all its electricity from carbon-free sources like renewables and nuclear. The legislation would also allow fossil fuel-powered plants to operate if they install carbon capture and storage technologies.

In 2019, 60% of Virginia’s electricity came from natural gas, 30% from nuclear, 4% from coal and 7% from renewables like hydropower, solar, wood and other biomass, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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.

Currently there are no SMRs in operation anywhere in the United States, but advocates of this new technology believe that it will play an indispensable role in achieving a carbon-free power grid in the near future — and that Virginia is a state that already has a lot of potential sites and experience to host a number of SMRs. 

“Virginia is a very fascinating place in the sense that they have a lot of existing infrastructure for nuclear energy,” said Victor Ibarra Jr., a nuclear engineer and analyst with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank working to enable advanced nuclear power as a global solution to mitigate climate change.

“You have utilities that have decades of experience operating nuclear power plants, you have a university system that has invested in nuclear science and technology, and you have your advanced reactor companies that are potentially interested in deploying their technologies here in Virginia,” Ibarra said in an interview last week.

Virginia also has a governor who made a “momentous announcement last year” about trying to develop and deploy the first advanced nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia, Ibarra said. “That announcement has really spurred what I feel is an additional amount of introductions in Virginia’s legislature, and it’s really exciting to see the variety of bills being passed.” 

O’Quinn said that SMR technology has, in a different form, been used since the 1950s, when the U.S. Navy began using it to power some of its submarines. “I think it has a lot of economic potential, but also potential for grid reliability, which we saw laid bare this winter, because the more you tinker around with your energy mix, the less reliable your grid becomes,” he said. “When it’s minus 19 degrees on Christmas Eve, people want their heat to work. And we had a real problem with that in Virginia.”

Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program established

Among O’Quinn’s successful measures during this year’s legislative session was House Bill 1779 that establishes the Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program to be administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The proposal sailed through both chambers of the General Assembly with bipartisan support. 

The program’s purpose is to award grants on a competitive basis to any public or private institution of higher education in the commonwealth that seeks to offer a nuclear education program.

O’Quinn said that the bill includes nuclear engineering and nuclear welding, which are already in very high demand through Newport News shipbuilding and in the U.S. Navy. “Of course there would be an even higher demand as we move towards the possibilities of the SMRs. That would help with the industry as it stands today, but also help get more credentialed and qualified people in the pipeline for what the industry might look like in two, five or 10 years from now,” O’Quinn said. 

Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority authorized to support nuclear

A bit more controversial, at least temporarily, was O’Quinn’s HB 2386, which tasks the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority — using state funds — with supporting energy development projects, geothermal energy, advanced wind and solar energy, and advanced reactors and advanced nuclear technologies, among others. 

O’Quinn said in the interview that the latter proposal is different from the former because instead of incentivizing schools and universities to provide degrees in nuclear related fields, HB 2386 focuses more on research and development initiatives in the private sector — including nuclear, but “all sorts of other cutting-edge type of energy production,” O’Quinn said. 

“Carbon capture is finally becoming a technology that is much more real than it was in previous iterations. This would allow pretty much anyone who has the capability to actually perform this research and development to be able to apply for funding through this program.”

The bill unanimously passed the House at the end of January and also advanced in the Senate by a unanimous vote. But one day after the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee backed the measure by a 11-3 vote, another Senate panel removed nuclear research from the list of technologies that the fund would be used for. 

After the House rejected this substitute, the proposal moved into conference, where it was changed back to its original form at the urging of Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who sees SMRs as critical in achieving a carbon-free energy grid. “Ultimately, it did go as I had planned,” O’Quinn said.

Revenue sharing proposal defeated

However, the Senate Finance Committee by a 10-6 vote killed O’Quinn’s HB 1780, which would have established an agreement to distribute the revenues derived from SMR-driven power generation among eight Southwest Virginia localities: Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise counties and the city of Norton.

“That bill was the most benign of all of them,” O’Quinn said, adding that he had filed the proposal because at this early stage in planning for SMR deployment no potential sites have been identified. 

 “I think everything is under consideration, I don’t think that anything has been ruled out or certainly no site has been selected, by any stretch,” O’Quinn said. “The abandoned and reclaimed mine lands that we have in Southwest Virginia are really great potential locations, because a lot of them are very remote, but the land is also very usable and most of them have access roads.” 

Only one or two of the localities in his bill would eventually be a host locality, and O’Quinn wanted to ensure fair treatment. “I know it’s tempting to roll the dice and say, we want to be the host locality and collect all this revenue, but that’s pretty short-sighted,” he said. 

“We’ve used revenue sharing with great success in the past [such as with the Bristol casino], and we thought that was a good approach. I think the localities that are named in that bill are probably your primary targets for where this thing might be located, but there are tens of thousands of quality acres in Southwest Virginia where I think a project like that could be sited.”

Bill to formally declare developing a small reactor as a state policy defeated

The legislature also rejected a proposal by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, that would have formally made it a policy of the commonwealth to promote the development and operation of small modular nuclear reactors at the earliest reasonable time possible. 

Under the Youngkin-backed HB 2333, Virginia would have set a goal of having the first small modular nuclear reactor operating by the end of 2032. The bill would also have required the State Corporation Commission to establish a small modular nuclear reactor pilot program. 

After passing the House narrowly, Marshall’s proposal advanced in the Senate with a substitute. “This was a watered-down version, so it was rejected when it came back to the House, and then to conference,” O’Quinn said. 

Because Marshall was absent for pressing personal business in the final days of the legislative session, the measure stalled in conference. “There was just no middle ground to be had for some reason,” O’Quinn said. 

A spokesman for Dominion Energy declined to comment on the legislation emerging from the General Assembly this year, but Teresa Hall, a spokeswoman for Appalachian Power, said that the company was disappointed when two of the SMR-related measures were defeated in the legislature. 

“Appalachian Power and our parent company, AEP, are exploring all options relative to low/no carbon generation sources including nuclear and specifically small modular reactors,” Hall said in an email. “SMRs are particularly attractive as they can provide carbon-free baseload generation as opposed to wind and solar, which are intermittent.

As a company, Hall said that Appalachian Power remains hopeful that the political environment “will become more friendly to the nuclear concept in coming years as we seek other means to become carbon-free by 2045.”

Christine Csizmadia, senior director of state governmental affairs and advocacy with the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute, said that she was encouraged to see Virginia’s progress toward a new nuclear project.  

“All of the bills introduced are steps in the right direction and we expect to see these types of policies continue to be considered in the commonwealth and around the country,” Csizmadia said. “Nationally we’re seeing similar measures in many other states and take this as a clear indication that states are looking to nuclear as a reliable, economically beneficial and clean option.”

But other stakeholders remain skeptical of SMR technology, including Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit that for years has been active in working to end fossil fuel practices such as mountaintop removal coal mining and construction of fracked-gas pipelines.

Peter Anderson, the group’s Virginia policy director, said in a phone interview that his organization does not yet have an organizational position on SMR technology itself. “We are in a learning and wait-and-see posture,” Anderson said. “It’s a complex thing in terms of costs, safety, community engagement, and there is a long list of pros and cons.”

But Appalachian Voices has taken positions on specific bills on this topic. For example, the group opposed Marshall’s HB 2333 because it would have asked Appalachian Power or Dominion Energy “to be on the hook” for a power project. “We are looking at this from a position that this technology has not proven itself to be commercially viable under any utility model,” Anderson said.

Citing a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis showing that the project cost for a demonstration SMR power plant at the Idaho National Laboratory has increased dramatically, Anderson questioned the cost-benefit ratio of the new technology. 

The project is spearheaded by Oregon-based NuScale Power, a company that designs and markets small modular reactors. If successful, the six-reactor, 462-megawatt carbon-free Power Project will go online by 2030 at the latest.

But NuScale and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems said in January that the target price for power from the plant is $89 per megawatt hour, up 53% from the previous estimate of $58 per megawatt hour — a jump that raised concerns about whether customers would be willing to pay for the power it generates, according to news reports

The higher target price is due to a 75% increase in the estimated construction cost for the project — from $5.3 to $9.3 billion. “Our biggest concern is that SMR technology is unproven in terms of commercial viability, and that encapsulates the cost,” Anderson said. “But my hope is that this cost curve shifts and we get a more affordable and deployable technology than where it stands today.”

Seth Grae, a board member of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, which was created by the General Assembly in 2013 to represent stakeholders invested in the development of nuclear energy, disagrees.

“The projected cost increase is mostly due to inflation, including the price of steel, so it’s not anything in particular related to SMRs,” said Grae, who is also the CEO of Lightbridge, a Reston-based company that designs advanced fuels for nuclear reactors and advises governments of countries that consider starting nuclear power programs.

A lot of people look at the levelized cost of electricity in trying to determine fiscal feasibility of an energy project, Grae said. “But with intermittent energy sources like wind and solar you have to make up for the time when you don’t generate electricity. But when you look at nuclear power, you’re looking at many decades without the volatility of energy prices like fossil fuels, and with power always being available and clean.”

Nuclear power generation, Grae added, requires a big initial investment in a plant, “but then you have very low fuel costs running it for decades, which is the opposite of fossil fuels.”

Reactors also prevent adversaries from cutting off a state’s or nation’s energy supply, and they are “very resilient, they operate in all kinds of conditions when other plants shut down or freeze over, and they provide power when you most need it,” Grae said.

O’Quinn, the state delegate from Washington County, said that this year’s legislative efforts aiding SMR technology in Virginia were an important first step, with more to follow in the coming years. 

“I never want to project what’s going to happen in a session 10 months from now, but I would say it’s a safe bet that there will be an attempt to try and advance some of these bills that didn’t make it as far this year, or there may even be a completely different approach,” he said.

Whether this will help to realize Youngkin’s goal of Virginia being the first state to deploy SMRs within the next 10 years remains to be seen.

Ibarra, the analyst with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, said while the 2030 target is feasible, his organization is tracking firm contracts that are already in place for nuclear reactors in the United States. “We are seeing advanced nuclear reactor deployment as early as 2024, and after the first come online in the next few years, we really hope to see that rapid deployment of new nuclear technologies that can help fight our climate issues and our energy security issues that we are facing here,” he said. 

With the aforementioned planned deployment of transportable micro-reactors to the Idaho National Laboratory site by 2024, it will be hard for the commonwealth to catch up, Ibarra said. “Virginia may not be the first state, but definitely very close to deploying one of the first grid-scale nuclear reactors.”

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.