Part 1: The changing politics of nuclear energy are bringing some liberals and some conservatives together.
Part 2: Virginia Tech nuclear expert says U.S. needs to rebuild its nuclear energy workforce.
Part 3: Energy Department says coal plant workers would make good nuclear plant workers
Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants a small modular nuclear reactor built somewhere in Southwest Virginia.
Many Southwest legislators and economic development groups also want a small modular nuclear reactor built somewhere in Southwest Virginia.
Dominion Energy wants a small modular nuclear reactor built somewhere in Virginia.
The one missing word could be a big deal.
(First, the usual disclaimer: Dominion is one of our 2,500 donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You can be a donor and have no say, as well.)
Dominion, the state’s largest electric utility, signaled its interest in adding an SMR, as they’re called, to its energy fleet a year ago. That just didn’t get much attention until Youngkin unveiled his energy plan in October in Lynchburg and made a big deal about an SMR in Southwest.
Dominion, though, has been more circumspect about where a new reactor might go. In an interview with Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt, Dominion’s director of business development, Todd Flowers, said: “We are looking in Southwest Virginia, and we certainly are looking at other facilities that either have operating fossil fuel plants or fossil fuels plants to be retired.” He also noted that Dominion had space at its two existing nuclear stations — North Anna and Surry — to add another reactor. In fact, Dominion has been licensed to add a third reactor at North Anna but hasn’t yet.
I’d always read that to mean that Southwest Virginia isn’t a lock to get a reactor — assuming it happens at all. Whether that’s a relief or a disappointment depends on your point of view, of course, but either way the essential thing to know is that the governor won’t be the one making the decision. It will be whichever utility wants to build one (Appalachian Power has also expressed interest) and all the regulatory agencies that would be involved. One notable and recent exception: Last week a Northern Virginia developer announced plans to build at least 30 data centers next to Dominion’s Surry nuclear plant, with an eye toward eventually adding “four to six” small modular nuclear reactors to power the electricity-hungry facility. Youngkin has said it might take 10 years to build a small modular reactor in Southwest, but that Northern Virginia developer — Green Energy Partners — said it could be done in about five years at the Surry site.
The notion of a private developer building their own nuclear reactor is a new one, although conceptually it’s no different from a company with its own coal-fired power plant, something we’ve often seen in the past. Nonetheless, let’s stay focused on utilities and let’s go back to what Flowers said. Why would a utility look at a fossil fuel-burning power plant as a possible site for a nuclear reactor? There’s one easy answer: They already have the transmission lines, and siting new transmission lines is often as difficult as siting a new nuclear plant.
This isn’t a random thought. It’s become part of the general thinking about this new breed of nuclear reactors. The Biden administration, trying to wean eastern European nations off coal as part of a strategy to reduce carbon emissions, has proposed that their existing coal-burning power plants be converted to nuclear plants. And last year the U.S. Department of Energy released an entire report on the subject: 127 pages devoted to “Investigating Benefits and Challenges of Converting Retiring Coal Plants to Nuclear Plants.”
Spoiler alert: This report thinks coal-to-nuclear would generally be a good thing. What caught my eye, though, was one specific aspect of this report. The study looked at every coal plant in the country, along with every recently retired coal plant (recent as in the past six years). Some sites were eliminated because they weren’t owned by utilities (they might have been owned by universities or manufacturers) and others were eliminated because their capacity was small. That left 237 existing coal plants and 157 retired ones. The report’s authors then compared all of those sites against the Oak Ridge Siting Analysis for Power Generation, lovingly called OR-SAGE by those in the industry. It’s considered a good guide for identifying potential nuclear sites. The tool was first developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in 2012, which noted at the time: “Nuclear power plants share some of the same siting considerations as advanced coal. For example, both need to be within about 20 miles of a large body of water to meet cooling needs. In making siting decisions, OR-SAGE also takes into account population density, protected lands, seismic activity, terrain, proximity to airports, military bases, oil pipelines, refineries and a number of other factors.”
The Department of Energy report last year found that, when run through the OR-SAGE formula, about 80% of the coal plants studied were likely suitable for a nuclear plant. That doesn’t mean they automatically are, cautions Christine King, director of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear at the Idaho National Laboratory, where the report originated. It just means they’re considered good candidates, pending more detailed analysis.
Still, 80% seems a lot. That’s not the figure that’s most interesting, though.
The report found just one operating coal plant in Virginia with no flags raised through the OR-SAGE analysis. Another warranted two flags and a third was disqualified altogether.
Naturally, I was curious: Which site passed the first screening for a nuclear site?
The Idaho National Lab says that information isn’t available. To find the answer, the lab would have to run the analysis again — the lab doesn’t have a list pinned to the wall. This was a more theoretical analysis to test the overall premise, not to identify specific sites, King said in an interview.
I’m still curious, though.
Virginia has three operating coal plants: the Chesterfield Power Station in Chesterfield County, the Clover plant in Halifax County and the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County. The first and last are operated by Dominion Energy; Clover is a joint operation between Dominion and the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.
So which of these three made the initial cut?
All the report says is that the one plant that passed the initial screening has a capacity of 848 megawatts. So which of the three coal plants above has that capacity?
Not Virginia City. Dominion lists its capacity at 610 megawatts.
That leaves Chesterfield and Clover. Neither matches exactly.
Dominion has two coal-fired units operating at Chesterfield; both are also scheduled to be retired in May. They are listed at a total of 1,037 megawatts.
Dominion lists the Clover plant at 865 megawatts.
That’s not the same as the 848 in the Department of Energy report, but it’s mighty close.
King also told me that the most frequent reason a site was disqualified was that it was too close to a population center. We don’t know why the third Virginia coal plant was disqualified but Chesterfield, in the Richmond suburbs, would be the one nearest to a major population center.
I have no inside information — I’m just working by process of elimination with publicly available data — but I’d be willing to wager that the one site in Virginia that made it through the screening is the Clover plant in Halifax County and the one that was disqualified was Chesterfield, with Virginia City winding up with two flags. That Halifax plant is relatively remote and also is close to a big body of water that nuclear plants require — Lake Gaston. Dominion operates a hydroelectric plant there.
If I were a Dominion executive — which I’m most assuredly not — and I were looking to locate a nuclear power plant, which by definition is going to be controversial, I’d look for where it would be easiest. I’d look at the existing nuclear power plants, and I’d look at the Clover plant.
Now, maybe there’s a site in Southwest Virginia that would work just fine for an SMR, but here are some existing sites that would probably get considered — and might have an advantage.
As for recently retired coal plants, the report says five were examined but doesn’t say anything about how they ranked. The five most recently retired coal plants in Virginia are:
Birchwood Power Plant, King George County (Birchwood Power Partners)
Chesterfield Power Station Units 3 and 4, Chesterfield County (Dominion Energy).
Mecklenburg County Units 1 and 2 (Dominion Energy)
Spruance Genco, Richmond (Cogentrix)
Yorktown Units 1 and 2 (Dominion Energy)
I’m guessing the two Richmond-area sites would get disqualified for being too close to a population center, which would leave three others: on the edge of Hampton Roads, on the Northern Neck, and in Southside. None of them, though, are in Southwest Virginia.
That’s why my takeaway is that the chances of a nuclear reactor winding up in Southwest Virginia may be longer than advocates would like.
Tomorrow: What does science say about uranium mining in Pittsylvania County?