Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed bills dealing with his energy plan during an appearance Thursday at the Energy DELTA lab space at the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator in Abingdon. Photo by Susan Cameron.

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During one of two stops in Southwest Virginia on Thursday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin doubled down on a pledge he made here in October that the state will build the nation’s first commercial small modular nuclear reactor and place it in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

“I can’t wait until I watch that first small modular reactor turn on, and hospitals flip switches for their NICU units and senior living facilities turn the air conditioning on in the summertime, when it’s so hot. And yeah, parents and children turn the light on in the early morning, when it’s dark outside and have breakfast together. That’s going to be pretty awesome,” he said.

The governor, accompanied by first lady Suzanne Youngkin, drew a standing-room-only crowd Thursday afternoon to the Energy DELTA lab space at the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator in Abingdon.

Since Youngkin announced his intention to deploy an SMR within 10 years, he said Thursday, the state has been inundated by leading companies from around the world who want to be involved and researchers who want to come to Virginia, plus he said there has been great cooperation from the state’s utilities.

SMRs are smaller, simpler versions of traditional nuclear reactors and would produce about a third of the power produced by the big reactors.

Asked what happens next, he said the state’s budget must be approved.

But he said he thinks that “may take a little while. I’m patient. I’m in Richmond all summer. I’m happy to meet with them when they’re ready, but I don’t think Virginia should wait. There’s too much to do. There’s no reason for us to be waiting. We have plenty of money. We can cut taxes. We can make important investments. We can go right now.”

The gathering included most of the senators and delegates who make up the Southwest Virginia delegation plus local officials, education leaders from a number of colleges and community colleges as well as students.

The purpose of the visit was to sign six bills approved during the session of the Virginia General Assembly that ended in late February, and the governor and the rest of those attending seemed to be in a celebratory mood.

Youngkin said the legislation will help him deliver on his “All-American, All-of-the-Above” Energy Plan priorities.

“We can, in fact, make Virginia energy more reliable, affordable and clean while creating jobs and spurring innovation and today is a testament to that. We’re not just making Southwest Virginia the energy capital of the commonwealth, we’re unleashing our rich, limitless potential to deliver for all. This is just the beginning,” he said.

The signed bills will:

  • Create the Virginia Power Innovation Fund to develop innovative energy technologies.
  • Create the Nuclear Education Grant Fund, which will award competitive grants to Virginia colleges and schools for the creation of employment and training pathways in the nuclear power industry.
  • Empower the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority to promote energy projects on former coal sites, develop Southwest’s energy workforce and supply chains, and advance Southwest Virginia’s energy industry.
  • Encourage the capture and use of coal mine methane in Virginia’s energy supply and direct the Virginia Department of Energy to research beneficial uses of coal mine methane.
  • Add coal mine methane extraction to the jobs eligible to receive green and alternative energy job creation tax credits.

    Not every nuclear-related bill the governor wanted passed. The General Assembly failed to pass a bill that would have declared establishing a small modular reactor to be official state policy. A Senate committee also defeated a bill that would have set up a revenue-sharing program among Southwest Virginia localities for any revenues derived from nuclear reactor.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin and first lady Suzanne Youngkin talk to the media after the discussion on the deadly drug fentanyl led by the governor at Virginia High School in Bristol. Photo by Susan Cameron.

 The governor emphasized that the state will also “innovate” uses for coal, which he called the “quintessential all American power source” that is needed to make steel. The downturn in the coal industry in recent years shut down a number of coal mines in the region and put many miners out of work.

Another bill that was signed states that funds included in the Coal and Gas Road Improvement Fund may go toward flood mitigation efforts in Southwest Virginia. In 2021 and 2022, the Hurley and Whitewood communities of Buchanan County were devastated by flooding.

Earlier in the day Thursday, the governor visited Virginia High School in Bristol, where he led a discussion on the deadly drug fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Youngkin said fentanyl has resulted in an “epidemic of despair” and is a difficult problem for which there are no simple solutions.

He said he hasn’t met a single person in Virginia who hasn’t been touched by substance use disorder and mental health challenges and noted the number of fentanyl overdoses in the state doubled from 2019-2021.

Youngkin said the supply chain must be interrupted, and that starts with securing the southern border. The supply chain, dealers and distributors must then be held accountable by making sure they face “far stiffer penalties,” he said.

Some of those in the crowd at Virginia High School in Bristol at the discussion on fentanyl led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Thursday. Photo by Susan Cameron.

And the state must continue to invest in law enforcement, which is stretched too thin, he said.

The governor added that he’s proud that Sen. Todd Pillion and Del. Israel O’Quinn, both Republicans from Washington County who were on stage with the governor, were involved with a team that passed legislation that made fentanyl a weapon of terrorism.

He added that one measure he hoped would be approved but wasn’t was legislation that would have made it a felony homicide when a dealer knowingly distributes fentanyl and that person dies. He said he will again support that bill and hopes it will pass next time.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...