The U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Tech Hubs program aims to boost the domestic economy and national security by focusing on places that can be globally competitive within a decade in critical technologies. Photo by Matt Busse.
The U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Tech Hubs program aims to boost the domestic economy and national security by focusing on places that can be globally competitive within a decade in critical technologies. Photo by Matt Busse.

Efforts to promote the nuclear industry in the Lynchburg region and Southwest Virginia have crystallized into two separate applications to a new federal economic development program.

Both share a common goal of growing the nuclear industry, which employs thousands regionally, both directly through the large Lynchburg-area companies BWX Technologies and Framatome and indirectly through the associated supply chain.

But the two applications have some key differences as they compete with likely hundreds of others in the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Tech Hubs program, which aims to boost the domestic economy and national security by focusing on places that can be globally competitive within a decade in critical technologies.

“The two proposals are very complementary of each other. They’re not competitive. Both address aspects of the industry’s needs,” said April Wade, executive director of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, which the General Assembly created in 2013 to represent academic and industry stakeholders who are invested in nuclear energy.

The consortium is leading a group seeking to be designated as one of at least 20 tech hubs under the program with an application called Virginia’s Technology Workforce and Innovation in Nuclear Hub, or TWIN for short.

Regional proposals that earn a tech hub designation during the EDA program’s first phase can then compete this fall for a handful of implementation grants of $50 million to $75 million each to bring their economic development strategies to fruition. The deadline to apply was Aug. 15; an EDA spokesperson said the agency expects to publish a roster of applicants online within the next several weeks.

The TWIN proposal focuses on workforce development, the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors and opportunities for advanced reactors to support data centers, Wade said.

Meanwhile, the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance is leading a consortium applying for an approximately $500,000 strategy planning grant from the Tech Hubs program — a shift from its original plan to apply for both the grant and for tech hub designation.

The business alliance’s proposal, called Lynchburg Regional NITCH — for Nuclear Industrial Technology Commercialization Hub — focuses on nuclear manufacturing with a workforce component, said Megan Lucas, CEO of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance.

Applicants to the Tech Hubs program can vie for a planning grant, designation as a tech hub, or both.

Because the Lynchburg Regional NITCH application isn’t seeking tech hub designation, it won’t be eligible for one of the larger implementation grants in the program’s second phase, according to EDA rules. 

Nonetheless, it could be eligible for a future round of funding if the program expands beyond its current plans.

“The planning grant, with or without a tech hub designation, is going to be of immense value for regional growth and development,” Lucas said.

Securing a planning grant, Lucas said, would allow the NITCH consortium to hire a regional innovation officer and a consultant to manage the group’s work and further develop the strategic plan to advance the nuclear industry.

Each Tech Hub program applicant must be backed by a consortium of supporters from specific categories, including government, higher education and private industry.

Lynchburg-based BWX Technologies produces nuclear fuel and components for the military and is developing nuclear medicine and space travel technology. It employs about 2,600 people in the Lynchburg area. 

Because BWXT views the TWIN and NITCH proposals as complementary to each other, the company wrote letters of support for both proposals and would gladly serve as a member of either consortium, spokesperson Jud Simmons said in an email.

“The Lynchburg area and its surrounding communities in the Commonwealth have tremendous resources to help move the nation’s energy imperatives forward,” Simmons said. 

Framatome is a French nuclear reactor design and maintenance firm that employs about 1,320 people around its North American headquarters in Lynchburg. 

A company spokesperson said last month that Framatome supports the NITCH proposal and said the region’s nuclear industry has significant growth potential. It’s unclear whether the company also supports the TWIN application; Framatome spokespeople could not be reached for comment for this article.

TWIN’s supporters include the Virginia Department of Energy, the Virginia Tech College of Engineering and Mountain Empire Community College, Wade said.

NITCH’s backers include Lynchburg’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism and the Central Virginia Planning District Commission, Lucas has said.

The Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub, a group announced last year to support academic research and workforce development in the nuclear industry, supports both groups.

So do InvestSWVA and the Energy DELTA Lab, which seek to deploy energy solutions including small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, in Southwest Virginia.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has set a goal of deploying an SMR in Southwest Virginia within the next decade.

A recent feasibility study showed seven potential sites in the LENOWISCO Planning District area of Lee, Wise and Scott counties and the city of Norton, plus Dickenson County, that have capabilities to be a “competitive hosting ground” for SMRs.

Officials there have secured funding to perform a supply chain study for SMR deployment, and LENOWISCO Planning Commission Executive Director Duane Miller noted that both studies received funding in part from the EDA, the same federal agency behind the Tech Hubs program.

Southwest Virginia’s efforts to deploy SMRs and develop data centers — which require significant amounts of electricity — dovetail with the Lynchburg region’s work to advance the nuclear industry, Miller said.

“It’s a regional effort,” he said of the Tech Hub program applications, “but one could almost go as far as to say it’s really close to statewide, because you’re hitting what we would refer to as Central Virginia, Lynchburg, Southwest Virginia, and what comes from this would certainly benefit the entire commonwealth, if not really the entire United States.”

The Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium and the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance are members of each other’s consortia, and Wade and Lucas said each organization supports the other’s work.

While VNEC is seeking designation as a tech hub, it is not applying for an initial strategy development grant. Wade said previous strategic planning work for the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub have made it so that “we do have a lot of things in place to move forward on these projects.”

The business alliance-led consortium initially planned to apply for both the strategy development grant and the tech hub designation, but Lucas said the plan changed after discussions with Sen. Mark Warner’s office and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.

“We essentially split up the responsibilities,” Lucas said.

Wade expressed similar sentiments.

“As we went through this whole process … we just saw that there was an opportunity for two different applications supporting the growth of the nuclear industry in Virginia,” Wade said.

The Tech Hubs program was authorized by last year’s CHIPS and Science Act, which Warner co-authored.

“I believe Virginia is in a strong position to earn a tech hub designation and secure some of this funding,” Warner said in a statement. “I’m going to continue working to support the dual goals of the tech hub program, which are solidifying our global leadership in key technologies, and bringing tech jobs to smaller or more rural communities, not just Silicon Valley. No one should have to leave their hometown to find a good-paying job.”

Glenn Davis — a former state delegate who now is director of the Virginia Department of Energy, which is a member of the TWIN consortium — said the dual applications of NITCH and TWIN comprise a plan to “have the best of all worlds.”

“Lynchburg is going after this one pathway for the strategic development grant, which would be enormously beneficial for them. VNEC has an avenue to bring the tech hub designation to the commonwealth for an advanced energy nuclear workforce, which would be hugely advantageous. I think we’ve actually found a very strong model to get two potential awards out of this,” Davis said.

NITCH and TWIN join other Tech Hub program proposals coming from Virginia. While Tech Hubs is a nationwide program, among its requirements is that the 20-plus hubs must be distributed across the EDA’s six regions, with at least three hubs per region. Virginia is in the southern end of a region that runs up to Maine.

An application from the New River Valley and Danville areas highlights additive manufacturing and advanced materials. A Richmond-area proposal focuses on artificial intelligence. And a Hampton Roads-area bid is based around autonomous systems for air, land, sea and space.

The Hampton Roads-based application covers GO Virginia Region 5 — which includes Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg and the Eastern Shore — as well as the Delmarva peninsula of Delaware and southern Maryland. 

The consortium there has a proposal called NEXUS, which is short for “National Excellence in Uncrewed Systems – Air, Land, Sea, and Space Tech Hub,” said Nancy Grden, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Executive Roundtable, a regional economic development group that is leading the consortium. It’s applying for a tech hub designation but not a planning grant.

The region has a number of major companies and universities working in that space, as well as federal partners including the Department of Defense and NASA, Grden said.

Examples of practical applications of uncrewed vehicle technology include using drones to deliver medical supplies to underserved communities, assessing damage in areas struck by natural disasters where human crews can’t reach, or submersible vehicles being employed in Virginia’s offshore wind industry, she said.

Developing autonomous systems blends key technology areas including advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and robotics, Grden said.

“It was a perfect mix that we thought fit very well with our region,” she said.

The EDA has indicated there is heavy interest in the Tech Hubs program. For now, applicants await the announcement of which proposals will succeed in securing strategy planning grants and/or tech hub designations ahead of the competition’s second phase, which is anticipated to make its debut this fall.

“It’s in the lap of the federal government now and the folks that are responsible for grading and scoring,” Lucas said.

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...