This September, Purdue visits Virginia Tech for the Big Ten football squad’s first trip ever to Blacksburg, which gives us occasion to remark upon the visiting team’s nickname: the Boilermakers.
Historically, this refers to Purdue’s engineering school roots, in which students in the 1890s maintained a fully operational steam locomotive.
In the years to come, Purdue might acquire a boiler for a very different sort of purpose: a nuclear reactor.
In May, the university and Duke Energy Indiana released a report that suggested a small reactor — the technical term is a small modular reactor, or SMR for short — be built on or near campus to “achieve a carbon-free future with reliable energy 24 hours a day.”
This doesn’t mean a reactor will be built in West Lafayette, Indiana, anytime soon.That study recommended yet more study and, given the lengthy nature of getting a nuclear reactor licensed, the report said it might be the late 2030s before a reactor is operational. That seems a long way out, although Purdue’s athletic department also has football games scheduled as far out as 2033 and 2034 — and they’re not planning as far ahead as Virginia Tech, which already has games booked for 2035 (at Alabama and home against South Carolina), 2036 (Notre Dame at home) and 2037 (at Ole Miss).
Nonetheless, the point is that here’s yet another example of the growing enthusiasm for small modular reactors, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in particular, wants to add to Virginia’s fleet of energy generators — and which he and Southwest Virginia legislators would specifically like to see in Southwest.
The customary disclaimers apply here: I’m not here to advocate for or against nuclear energy. I can, though, describe how the prospect of SMRs has started to captivate a lot of imaginations long before a single one is ever deployed in the United States.
Some background for those just joining us: We’ve had small nuclear reactors for a long time and many of those were built in Virginia. The world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, set sail from Groton, Connecticut, in 1954. The world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, was commissioned at Newport News in 1961. The U.S. Navy presently has 86 nuclear-powered vessels, including all 11 of our aircraft carriers — all of which were built in Newport News and six of which are homeported in Hampton Roads. If you’ve ever been to Virginia Beach, you’ve passed by a lot of small nuclear reactors without realizing it. We’ve also had small reactors for research purposes; as Ralph Berrier Jr. reported recently for Cardinal News, Virginia Tech maintained a small nuclear reactor on its Blacksburg campus from 1960 to 1985. The University of Virginia had one in Charlottesville from 1960 to 1998.
What’s new is the interest in small commercial nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy has traditionally taken a long time — and a lot of dollars — to build. The hope is that smaller reactors will be simpler and cheaper to build. There are two such small reactors now working in the world — one in China, one in Russia — and growing interest in the technology in the West.
Dominion Energy, in 2022, formally expressed interest in adding SMRs. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.) Last year, Youngkin embraced the concept and declared that he wants Virginia to be the first in the country to deploy an SMR — and specifically wants to see that reactor in Southwest Virginia. Keep in mind that it’s not his decision to make; siting for a nuclear reactor would be up to a utility and all the various regulatory agencies involved. Southwest Virginia politicians, though, have made it clear they’d really like one — they see it as a jobs generator — and have been at the forefront of pushing for one. Earlier this week, a report paid for by the GO Virginia economic development board for Southwest Virginia identified seven potential sites for an SMR in the region encompassing Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Wise counties and the city of Norton. Dominion, if it proceeds with an SMR, will have to balance that welcome pitch against the reality that it could simply put a small reactor at one of its existing nuclear facilities in North Anna and Surry, which would surely be less expensive — and involve fewer objections.
Historically, conservatives have been the ones most interested in nuclear power. As I’ve reported before, we’re now seeing more Democrats embrace nuclear — starting with the Biden administration — because they see it as a way to replace fossil fuels on a larger scale than solar and wind. The criticism of nuclear energy remains its high cost and the potential for things to go very wrong in a Chernobyl kind of way. The renewed interest in nuclear is driven by the concern that renewables may not be able to supply the entire power grid on a reliable basis.
Here’s how interest has manifested itself lately, which helps put Youngkin’s interest in SMRs — whether foresighted or faulty — in some perspective.
- A utility in the Canadian province of Ontario broke ground in December for a small modular reactor at an existing nuclear site in Darlington, 42 miles east of Toronto; it’s expected to be completed by 2028. For now, that’s the only SMR under construction in North America. However …
- The Tennessee Valley Authority in March signed a four-way agreement with that Ontario utility, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (which is involved with the Ontario project), and a Polish company to design and finance an SMR in Oak Ridge. TVA officials told Knox News they were partnering with the Ontario Power Generation because that project is “18 to 24 months ahead” and TVA will be able to learn from the construction there.
- Dow Inc. — some of us remember the company as Dow Chemical — recently announced plans to build four small reactors to power one of its plastics plants on the Gulf Coast in Texas. Dow hopes to have construction underway in 2026 and be online by 2030. (I’m no nuclear expert but this sounds quite fast to me.) The Dow project stands as an example of the Biden administration’s support for nuclear: The Department of Energy is providing up to $25 million for engineering work as part of the department’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. “The project would help Dow solve two problems at the site: the need for clean, reliable power and for steam,” The Houston Chronicle reported. Dow said the reactors, when operational, would eliminate 440,000 metric tons of carbon emissions a year and make the plant net zero for carbon.
- NuScale Power, the Oregon company which presently has the nation’s only authorized design for an SMR, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Charlotte, North Carolina-based Nucor to explore using small reactors to power Nucor’s steel mills.
- Green Energy Partners has announced plans to build data centers next to Dominion’s Surry nuclear station, with an eye toward someday having SMRs power them. “The plan is to run the data centers on existing power sources, then, using the revenue from the data centers, build to a hydrogen production facility and four to six 250MW small modular reactors to meet the long-term needs of the data centers and other facilities on campus,” reports Data Center Frontier. This isn’t unusual. A Swedish data center company is also looking at using an SMR to power its facilities near Stockholm, according to Data Center Dynamics. “I am absolutely prepared to go into it,” the company CEO told a Swedish news site. “Ten years from now it is quite possible.”
- Westinghouse is bullish enough on the technology that it’s announced plans to build a series of SMRs called AP300s and, according to Reuters, “has had informal talks with parties in neighboring states Ohio and West Virginia about the potential building of AP300s at former coal plants.”
- Romania has set its sights on being the first nation in Europe to deploy a small modular reactor; NuScale has now opened a simulator there in preparation.
- Two small modular reactor projects are being studied in Indonesia. The U.S. has awarded a $1 million grant to Indonesia to begin site selection and design for a small modular reactor. Separately, an Indonesian ammonia factory has partnered with a Danish energy company to explore the prospect of an SMR powering that plant.
- And then, of course, there’s the Purdue-Duke Energy study that said an SMR could power the campus.
This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of every SMR proposal out there, just some of the main ones to give some flavor for what’s happening. As I noted, support for SMRs is increasingly bipartisan. The chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida — recently held a roundtable discussion on SMRs. It’s perhaps telling that this was a discussion prompted by national security concerns, not purely energy ones. In a joint statement, Warner and Rubio said: “China and Russia have recognized the potential of nuclear power and are investing heavily in their advanced reactors, while attempting to secure nuclear contracts all over the world. The United States must not let our adversaries monopolize the growing civil nuclear industry, set the safety standards around nuclear power, dominate the supply chains for such a critical source of energy, and/or attempt to use advanced reactor contracts to exert undue geopolitical and economic leverage.”
That’s not to say that everyone is on board, of course. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudea’s Liberal Party government has helped fund construction of the SMR that’s underway in Ontario — but he’s also been criticized by those within his party (and some further left) for his support of nuclear power. The Toronto Star recently reported on some of that blowback. “There’d be no interest in small modular reactors if it wasn’t for the pro nuclear lobby,” said Green Party leader (and member of Parliament) Elizabeth May. “It’s not based on evidence.” On the other side, one of Trudeau’s cabinet minister counters that there’s plenty of evidence: “Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, a former environmental activist acknowledged … he was opposed to nuclear energy but now believes it is needed to keep global warming to as close as possible to 1.5 C above pre-industrial temperatures,” the Star reports.
Those debates in Canada are more advanced than ours — the groundbreaking for that Ontario plant was in December, with a target opening date of 2028 — but mirror what we’ll likely see here. One side says the country needs more electricity, that nuclear is the only way to produce it while the country is trying to reduce carbon emissions, and that SMRs will be cheaper than conventional nuclear plants. The other side says that nuclear is far too expensive, far too dangerous — and that small reactors in a commercial setting are unproven technology.
In Canada, at least, the political momentum — driven by a left-of-center government at the national level and right-of-center governments in some provinces — seems to be on the side of SMRs. Alberta recently began formal explorations into small reactors and Saskatchewan has already picked two potential sites for a small reactor and may make a formal decision on one of them by the end of this year.
Closer to home, Virginia Tech doesn’t have any future games scheduled with Purdue but the school is booking games in the late 2030s, it’s possible that the next time the Hokies visit West Lafayette the stadium lights will be nuclear-powered.