When Gov. Glenn Youngkin declared that he wanted a nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia, there were naturally lots of questions.
One of those was: Why Southwest Virginia? Why specify a region at all?
Some found his answers less than satisfying: Youngkin said that the region has “a talented workforce” and that “Southwest Virginia has to get a real shot.” That sounds a lot like political pablum.
Let’s be honest: Some of this interest in Southwest Virginia is simply political. Coal country, in particular, is a region looking to build a new economy and its legislators see a chance that nuclear energy will help create jobs. They’ve been among the ones pushing hardest for legislation to speed the way for development of these small modular reactors that Youngkin wants.
Others see this as an example of Southwest Virginia being consigned as a “sacrifice zone” — out of sight and out of mind to the rest of the state.
There is, though, an economic reason for connecting nuclear reactors with coal. Maybe this is what Youngkin had in mind and just didn’t say or maybe he didn’t know. Last September, a month before Youngkin rolled out his energy plan, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report on the prospect of converting coal-fired power plants to nuclear plants. It concluded that many coal plants (but not all) would make good locations, both for reasons of infrastructure and because of their workforce.
Not all coal plants are in coal country, of course. In Virginia, the only coal-burning power plant actually in coal country is Dominion Energy’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in St. Paul, which burns a mix of coal waste and biomass. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors; but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy and full list of donors. You, too, can be a donor and have no say in what we write.) However, from a national perspective, a lot of coal plants are in or near Appalachia and the report makes the case that their workforce is actually well-suited for transitioning to nuclear sites.
We’re not talking here about coal miners becoming nuclear engineers, but there are many misconceptions about the nature of coal work — and nuclear work, too, for that matter. My inquiries into this report led me to Christine King, director of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear at the Idaho National Laboratory, where much of the work on this report was done. King (who once worked in Lynchburg) says about 90% of the jobs in the coal business overlap with the nuclear business.
“One of the things misunderstood is the belief that a nuclear site is run by a bunch of nuclear engineers,” she said. Yes, nuclear sites do need nuclear engineers, but those are a relatively small percentage of the workforce. “For the secondary side of the station, you need the same trades” that coal plants do — electrical engineers, industrial machinery mechanics, security guards and so forth.
“The folks who operate coal units are energy professionals just like the folks who operate nuclear, and the skills are not radically different,” King said. While the type of energy and the way it’s generated are different, once that energy is created, the transmission to the electric grid is basically the same. “It’s not more complicated than running a coal station, especially with all the changes coal stations have made,” she said. “We’ve painted the coal worker as only there with a pick-ax when there’s so much more to it. I think it makes a very good transition into nuclear energy.”
Again, there’s a distinction to be made between coal mining and a coal-burning power plant, but coal mines are really highly industrialized operations with lots of electricians and mechanics.
The Department of Energy report turned up this interesting comparison: “In 2020, the most common educational achievement in the fossil fuel workforce was a high school diploma. The second and third most common educational achievements in the fossil workforce were post-secondary certificates and bachelor’s degrees, respectively. The three most common educational achievements in the nuclear workforce in 2020 were (1) bachelor’s degree, (2) high school diploma, and (3) post-secondary certificate.”
Notice that you don’t see doctorates in nuclear engineering listed there. The report finds that less than 10% of the nuclear workforce in the country has a master’s degree or doctoral degree. Meanwhile, “80% of both workforces have educational levels between a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree.” That’s a lot of overlap in terms of basic education — and, as we’ve seen, the specific trades.
Here’s another way to think about things: Virginia’s existing nuclear plants (run by Dominion) are in Louisa County and Surry County. No offense to either county, but neither ranks particularly high in educational attainment, as measured by a recent report by the Lumina Foundation.
In Louisa County, only 33.6% of the adult workforce has anything beyond a high school diploma. That’s lower than Norton, where the figure is 37.1%, and two localities on the edge of coal country. Washington County is also 37.1% and Bristol is 35.9%.
In Surry County, only 30.4% of the adult workforce has gone beyond high school. That puts it on a par with Tazewell County, which stands at 30.5%, and not much different from, say, Scott County at 28.4% or Wise County at 27.4%.
In other words, the argument that Southwest Virginia isn’t a good site for a nuclear plant because the workers aren’t educated enough to operate one is a canard. Workforce-wise, it’s on par with the two places where we already have nuclear facilities. There may well be good reasons to argue against a nuclear plant in Southwest Virginia (or anywhere), but the workforce isn’t one of them.
I’m not here to try to sway people one way or another, but if you’re looking for arguments to oppose a nuclear plant, better arguments would seem to be about cost (nuclear historically has been expensive) or just plain old opposition to the notion of splitting atoms.
The report went on to run an analysis of what would happen, jobs-wise, if a coal plant were converted to a nuclear plant. The conclusion: a net increase of 650 new jobs. “These jobs are distributed across positions at the power plant, the supply chain, and in the community,” the report said. “The results suggest that economic activity could increase by as much as $275 million, of which $102 million is new labor income (i.e., wages).” That may well be why the legislators representing far Southwest Virginia are so eager to embrace nuclear, and what Youngkin means when he says, “Southwest Virginia has to get a real shot.”
The jobs aspect may not be the most interesting part of this report. Tomorrow, I’ll take a deep dive into the part that is.