Part 1: The changing politics of nuclear energy are bringing some liberals and some conservatives together.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for a new species of nukes called small modular reactors, or SMRs, to be built in Southwest Virginia.
Youngkin, joined by Republican state legislators from coal country, are the cheerleaders. The real players here are the state’s utilities, primarily Dominion Energy, which signaled well before Youngkin’s endorsement that it is interested in adding an SMR to its energy fleet. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You, too, can be one of our donors and have no say.)
Most of the discussion about these small reactors thus far has focused on policy questions or philosophical ones: Do we need more nuclear energy? (Youngkin says we do because it’s reliable baseload energy; critics say renewables will make the concept of baseload energy obsolete.) Should nuclear energy be considered clean energy? (Proponents point out that it’s carbon-free; critics point to nuclear waste.) Why should we put nuclear energy in Southwest Virginia? (Youngkin says it’s because the region has an energy-focused workforce, critics complain that Southwest Virginia has historically been treated as a “sacrifice zone,” and Dominion notes that it could put an SMR at one of its existing nuclear facilities, specifically the North Anna station in Louisa County.)
Now comes a Virginia Tech professor, widely regarded as an expert in the nuclear energy field, who raises a more practical consideration: He says the major challenge to developing these new small nuclear reactors isn’t a matter of technical challenges, it’s a matter of workforce.
In an interview posted on Virginia Tech’s website, Alireza Haghighat, professor of nuclear engineering, said: “In my opinion, the major challenge is training of the workforce at all levels and various aspects of a nuclear project.”
Haghighat went on to say: “State governments with serious plans to invest in small modular reactors should be prepared to invest in education, from K-12 programs through vocational training and nuclear engineering programs, both undergraduate and graduate. From 1970 to 1990, the U.S. built about 100 nuclear reactors, but very few have been built since and those skills are no longer readily employed.”
I was intrigued by this so I followed up. I asked him what sorts of programs the state should be setting up if it’s intent on creating a new nuclear workforce. This is clearly something that Haghighat has thought about. He responded with a point-by-point curriculum.
Some points are obvious and don’t apply strictly to producing future nuclear engineers. For instance, he says that K-12 schools should improve their curricula in math, physics and computer programming. I suspect even someone who is adamantly opposed to splitting atoms would agree to that; we need those skills for lots of other things. But Haghighat also says we should be training science teachers on the “fundamentals of radiation and radiation detection and protection” as well as how nuclear technology can be used — be it in the energy field or in medicine. (I’m trying to remember what I learned about nuclear things back in my school days, beyond having to memorize the periodic table of elements. All I can remember is an elementary school teacher telling us that atom bombs were handy because we could use them to blast a new canal through Nicaragua. I’m pretty sure that’s not in the curriculum today. That may also be why my nuclear expertise today is limited to using a microwave oven, sometimes even successfully.)
Haghighat says to have a nuclear-ready workforce, we need our high school career and technical programs and community colleges to produce more welders, electricians and construction workers. Again, that’s not something unique to nuclear power. I recently met with state Secretary of Labor Bryan Slater in Richmond, and he was telling me that one of the state’s biggest needs is more welders.
Where things get more specific is at the college level. For that, Haghighat lays out a four-point plan:
· Enhancing and establishing nuclear engineering departments to grant B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees.
· Enhancing and establishing programs/certificates for education of other engineers in nuclear engineering.
· Enhancing and establishing nuclear laboratories (radiation detection, detector design, thermal hydraulics, nuclear materials) at university campuses.
· Enhancing and building test and research reactors, and/or deploying novel microreactors at universities with the dual purpose of generating campus power and education and research.
This gives us a lot to think about (and for me to write about!). Here’s what really got my attention:
“In 1978 (when I started my graduate studies), there were 48 nuclear engineering departments in the U.S. and 51 nuclear engineering programs housed in other engineering disciplines,” Haghighat said by email. “Additionally, there were 65 research reactors built at different universities in support of nuclear engineering research and education. Today, we have 14 nuclear engineering departments and 16 nuclear engineering programs, and there are only 25 out of 65 research reactors operating. I should state that the majority of the reactors are 60-70 years old and are not equipped for training of the next generation nuclear engineers.”
These are pretty astounding numbers. From 48 nuclear engineering departments, we’re now down to 14? None of those are in Virginia (the closest are at North Carolina State and the University of Tennessee). Of the 16 programs, which exist as part of larger departments, two are in Virginia — at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. That makes one thing clear: If Virginia pursues its nuclear ambitions, the road will lead through either Blacksburg or Richmond, unless some other school wants to get into the nuclear education business. That’s certainly possible: This year’s General Assembly passed a bill by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, to establish a Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program to be administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia; it will award grants to any schools that offer nuclear programs. (That bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House 93-6; the only legislator in Southwest Virginia to vote against it was Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, the rare conservative who has expressed skepticism about nuclear power.) Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt has written in more detail about the nuclear bills in the recent session.
Fun fact: Both Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia used to have small reactors for research purposes. Tech’s operated from 1962 to 1981, Virginia’s from 1960 to 1998. (Ralph Berrier wrote about Tech’s reactor for Cardinal in this recent story.) Both schools’ nuclear reactors dated from a different era; the first commercial nuclear reactors in the United States went online in 1958 and the demand for nuclear-trained workers was high. Over the next two decades, nuclear generation in the United States grew from 10,000 megawatt hours to 274,403,000 megawatt hours — an increase of 27,400 times, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. However, interest in nuclear energy fell off considerably after the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, although capacity continued to grow as nuclear projects still under construction came online. We just didn’t build many more new ones after that. For the past two decades, nuclear generation in the United States has remained roughly the same: 778,152,000 megawatt hours in 2021.
Now there is renewed interest in nuclear energy, driven by two things: the push to decarbonize the electric grid and the promise of these small (and presumably cheaper) reactors. For many years, political views on nuclear energy split along ideological lines, with the left the most skeptical and the right the most supportive. Now that’s being scrambled. Here in Virginia, it’s Republicans — led by Youngkin — who are most enthusiastically pushing for small modular reactors. At the national level, though, it’s the Biden administration that has embraced the technology, that sees SMRs as a way to achieve both climate goals and national security ones. One of the most prominent voices warning about climate change is Microsoft founder Bill Gates; he’s also become a vocal champion of nuclear energy. Like Youngkin, he’s not convinced that renewables alone can carry the load.
No form of energy will happen, though, unless there’s a workforce available to build it. Haghighat is not the only one warning that we don’t have a big enough nuclear-trained workforce. The Atlantic magazine recently looked at nuclear power and wrote that the United States has lost the technological advantage it once had. After Three Mile Island, the magazine wrote, “supply chains withered; talented engineers and executives sought greener pastures. The United States, once the industry’s world leader, became an also-ran.” Haghighat cites China and South Korea as the world’s current leaders in nuclear technology. Within the United States, he says the states with the best nuclear education programs are Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. (Haghighat talked more about these issues in a recent interview with a Washington, D.C., television station.)
In the most recent General Assembly session, Youngkin pushed for ways to create a bigger nuclear industry in Virginia but didn’t get all he wanted. For instance, he wanted money designated for nuclear research; a state Senate panel killed that, saying utilities ought to be able to pay for their own research. For those who don’t think we should be splitting atoms, a “no” vote is the easy way to go. For those who think nuclear energy is an essential part of our grid, a conversation with Haghighat might be in order — followed by a lot of education funding.
Tomorrow: Can coal plant workers become nuclear plant workers?