A collaboration involving Lynchburg-area and Southwest Virginia groups will make the case that the region’s nuclear industry is the right candidate to receive tens of millions of federal dollars through a new economic development program called Tech Hubs.
With a goal of boosting the domestic economy and national security, the U.S. Economic Development Administration plans to designate at least 20 regional tech hubs across the country, focusing on places that have the assets and potential to be globally competitive within 10 years in areas of “critical technologies” such as advanced energy and manufacturing. The EDA says the selection process will also consider “geographic diversity and equity.”
In the program’s first phase, for which the application deadline is Aug. 15, each of the 20-plus chosen applicants will get a planning grant of approximately $500,000 or will be designated as a hub but without grant money. During a second phase this fall, initial grant recipients and designees will have the opportunity to compete for at least five grants of $50 million to $75 million each to implement their strategies.
The Lynchburg Regional NITCH (for “Nuclear Industrial Technology Commercialization Hub”) proposal builds on work already being done to promote the region’s nuclear presence, said Megan Lucas, CEO and chief economic development officer of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. Companies that call the Lynchburg area home include the large nuclear-industry firms BWX Technologies and Framatome.
“We’re the leaders in nuclear energy and technology in the continental U.S.,” Lucas said. “We are already blazing a trail and we’ve already begun to put a strategy around that. So if we can get a planning grant to help us grow that strategy, and a nuclear hub designation, giddyup — more power to us.”
Tech hub applicants must be a consortium. The Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance is leading a team that includes Lynchburg’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism, the Central Virginia Planning District Commission, the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, the Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub, InvestSWVA and the Energy DELTA Lab.
With that lineup, the partnership is putting forward not only the nuclear assets of the Lynchburg region but also the nuclear deployment potential of Southwest Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin has said he wants a small modular reactor in place within the next decade and where feasibility studies for such a project are already underway.
InvestSWVA is a public-private group that markets Southwest Virginia to attract new businesses. It’s also a partner in the Energy DELTA (Discovery, Education, Learning and Technology Accelerator) Lab, which aims to reuse former mining land in Southwest Virginia as testing grounds for deploying new energy technology.
Will Payne, director of InvestSWVA, said collaborating with the Lynchburg region on the tech hub proposal could help accelerate the work the lab is already doing.
“One of the key requirements of the tech hub is that you’re building on existing success,” Payne said. “But it’s a way to really scale it in a big way, in a faster way, that with this EDA designation, with the financial support, with this coordination that will come with it, that you’ll be able to scale faster.”
The tech hub program, authorized by last year’s bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, has a number of requirements.
One is that the 20-plus hubs must be distributed across the EDA’s six regions, with at least three in each region. Virginia is on the southern edge of a region that stretches up to Maine.
Another requirement is that proposals must emphasize equity and diversity, while another says at least one-third of the initial planning grants will go to proposals that benefit small, rural communities.
Furthermore, each applying consortium must have representatives from specific categories, including government, higher education and private industry.
The Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority was created by the General Assembly in 2013. Working under the authority, the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium represents academic and industry stakeholders who are invested in nuclear energy. Last year, Youngkin announced the formation of the Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub, which will be facilitated by the authority to support academic research and workforce development in the nuclear industry.
The Lynchburg-based team’s inclusion of the consortium and the Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub brings representatives from four universities — Liberty University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech — to the table.
“You’re meeting that higher education requirement with not just picking one university but a whole group that gathers together on this topic,” said Marjette Upshur, director of economic development for the city of Lynchburg.
April Wade, executive director of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium and acting director of the Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub, praised the collaboration between the Lynchburg and Southwest Virginia groups on the tech hub proposal.
“It’s great to see communities partner up and look at things to further Virginia in leading in the nuclear industry,” Wade said.
On the private industry front, two large nuclear industry players, BWXT and Framatome, employ thousands in the Lynchburg area between them.
BWXT produces nuclear fuel and components for the military and is developing nuclear medicine and space travel technology. It’s headquartered in Lynchburg and employs about 2,600 people in the area.
Framatome designs and maintains nuclear reactors. The French company has its North American headquarters in Lynchburg and employs about 1,320 locally; it is a member of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium.
Lucas declined to name specific companies as being committed to the proposal, saying it was too early in the process.
“We’ve had conversations with our leading nuclear industries in this region,” she said.
But in a statement, Framatome spokesperson Denise Woernle said the company “is supporting a regional application for the tech hub grant and designation through the Economic Development Administration.”
“We agree that our region has tremendous assets well-suited to hosting a nuclear technology hub, especially as utilities operate the current fleet of nuclear power reactors for many more years and developers design and deploy new nuclear reactors to support clean energy demand for generations to come. The economic growth potential is significant and we think our region is well-positioned to be one of the technology hubs,” Woernle said.
BWXT declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the Lynchburg-based team will have some competition in the nuclear arena from a Virginia neighbor.
One of five tech hub proposals to come out of Tennessee is from a Knoxville-based consortium that also focuses on nuclear energy, with partners that include the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Regardless of how the Lynchburg group fares in the tech hub competition, the regional collaboration to promote nuclear energy has already been beneficial, Upshur said.
“We are shooting to win on this, but at the same time the bigger thing is we are committed to bringing a group together to promote this in our own backyard,” she said.