A study released earlier this year identified seven possible sites for a small modular nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia.

One site sits on a former limestone mine whose interior is described as a domed cathedral with 40-foot ceilings and a waterfall. It was also once considered the largest bomb shelter in the world.

Another property was home to one of the biggest underground coal mines in Southwest Virginia, owned by the oldest and at one time one of the largest coal companies in the country.

Two others are also on former coal mined land that are now being reshaped as successful industrial parks — one is in a Wise County town and the other is just outside a town.

All are among the seven properties identified as possible sites for a small modular nuclear reactor, or SMR, in a feasibility study conducted for the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission. The study, released in May, was done in the months following Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s announcement last October that he planned to place the first commercial SMR in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

SMRs are smaller, simpler versions of traditional nuclear reactors that produce about a third of the power produced by the big reactors. They can be built in a factory and shipped to a site, which saves construction time, reduces the risks and is cheaper than constructing a large reactor.

This is an interactive map. Click on a site to see a photo and read more about the area.

No SMRs have yet been built in the United States, although one SMR design has been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Nearly two weeks after Youngkin announced his SMR plan as part of his energy package, the governor held a news conference on a former coal mine site near Norton to release more details. On the way back to his office, LENOWISCO Executive Director Duane Miller said he and his team strategized about how they could take action and be ready if that opportunity does come to the region.

They decided to seek funding in hopes of launching a study to answer the question of whether the region has the capabilities to be a “competitive hosting ground” for an SMR. The $150,000 in funding came through from Virginia Energy and GO Virginia Region 1.

Dominion Engineering Inc. of Reston was hired to conduct the study. (Dominion Engineering is not related to Dominion Energy.)

The analysis took place over three months and looked at technical feasibility, safety considerations, economic viability and preliminary sites in the LENOWISCO area of Lee, Wise and Scott counties and the city of Norton, plus Dickenson County.

The review was conducted using the Siting Tool for Advanced Nuclear Development, or STAND, which is used by the NRC and aggregates data from multiple governmental sources and ranks the proposed sites with respect to socioeconomic, proximity and safety suitability factors.

The sites identified in the study were chosen because they are “pretty much the seven predominant sites that are either in development or we’ve discussed for development in our region,” Miller said.

However, he and Thomas Lawson, a regional planner with LENOWISCO who was the project lead on the feasibility study, emphasized that the sites are all just potential, example sites that show the variety of what’s available in the region.

“There’s a strong possibility all seven of these sites, none of them would be utilized, but it was kind of to say, ‘OK, here’s some of the example sites we have, how do they stack up with this feasibility study?’” Miller added.

It turned out that all the sites scored well with the STAND tool.

“We were either equal to or better than all the sites in the United States. I mean we’re as competitive as anywhere,” he said.

Still, several environmental groups have raised concerns about some of the sites, particularly those that are in or near towns and so are closer to homes and businesses. 

But the biggest complaint has been that so far, the public is being left out of the process. 

Miller has said that there will be opportunities for public participation in 2024. Until the planning district commission completed the feasibility study that answered the question of whether the region was capable of deploying an SMR, there was no need to seek public input, he said.

Here’s a closer look at the seven sites:

The Bullitt mine site encompasses 4,000 acres in Wise County, near the Lee County line. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Bullitt Mine site, Wise County

At 4,000 acres, the largest by far of the identified sites is the former Bullitt Mine site, which is outside the town of Appalachia in Wise County near the Lee County line. This huge parcel could house multiple 300-megawatt SMRs, according to Miller.

The property is privately owned, at least partially by A & G Coal Corp., according to Wise County’s online property records.

Both Miller and Will Clear, chief deputy director of the Virginia Department of Energy, consider the parcel of land one of the best sites for development in the area.

“That piece of property, I think, can be utilized for a lot of different things, including data centers, industrial, solar, potentially there’s a little bit of wind opportunity there,” Clear said. “It’s a very large site with about five really good pad locations. ”

The land has a long history of mining, both surface and underground, including one of the largest underground mines in Southwest Virginia, the Bullitt mine, which was owned and operated by Westmoreland Coal Co. and closed in the mid-1990s as production declined, Clear said. There are three underground mined seams beneath the land.

According to the U.S. Mines Database, the status of the mine is “abandoned and sealed.”

The site is permitted with Virginia Energy and most of the permit area has been reclaimed, but it has not met all the necessary qualifications to be released from the agency’s authority, according to Tarah Kesterson, public relations manager for Virginia Energy.

The site, near the Wise-Lee County line, has been mentioned as a possible location for the Energy DELTA Lab, an energy technology testbed announced last fall. The project intends to turn some of the 100,000 acres of former coal mining sites in Southwest Virginia into laboratories to promote energy innovation.

“The discussion has been locating one of the main hubs of the Energy DELTA Lab” on the Bullitt property, Miller said. “There would be distinct advantages of having an SMR in an area where you also have all the things that are going on with the DELTA Lab.”

An initial site for the DELTA Lab — near the town of Pound in Wise County — was announced last October. The property is owned by the Cumberland Forest Limited Partnership and managed by the Nature Conservancy.

The Bullitt Mine site was also one of two considered by Dominion Energy Virginia as a location for a pumped hydroelectric storage facility. Ultimately, Dominion chose the 4,100-acre East River Mountain site in Tazewell County and decided against moving forward with a smaller one at the Bullitt site.

[Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

Hydroelectric storage works by storing water in an upper reservoir and releasing it into a lower body of water, spinning turbines to produce electricity when it’s needed.

Dominion said in a June 2019 news release that the Bullitt Mine site was analyzed by the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, which determined that it’s “not suitable for a utility-scale pumped storage project.”

The Bullitt site is also “inundated” with a minimum of about 4 billion gallons of water, according to Clear. The water is considered very clean and could be used to cool an SMR or data center, according to the feasibility study.

Much of the site is flat as a result of mining, which makes it a strong candidate for development in the mountainous region.

Undermining is an issue because developers must make sure the site surface is stable, Clear explained.

That happens when a “a piece of property has been undermined so effectively they’ve taken the coal out and they’ve either let it collapse or they let piers allow for that support,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure there is surface stability and make sure there’s not some kind of collapse or something that would come to the surface that would result in surface issues, and that’s the real issue with a lot of sites in and around mining areas.”

The power infrastructure is ample and already in place.

Some of the most successful economic developments in Southwest Virginia have occurred on previously mined properties, Clear added.

The site is also one of the most remote pieces of property identified in the study, away from the population centers in Wise County, although an environmental official pointed out that it is near an old coal camp, where there are more than 100 houses.

Another feature that might make it attractive for an SMR or another development: It is less than a mile from a Lee County property that is also among the seven sites identified in the feasibility study.

The Lee County site offers access to nearby rail lines and to sources of water. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Energy.

Lee County site

The Lee County site also has a lot of features that might make it attractive to the developer of an SMR.

The property is isolated, in addition to being just across Virginia 606 from the Bullitt site. In the future, Clear said the two properties might be combined.

“I think the idea is to connect that whole area long-term, no matter what we do,” he said. “Because once you get one thing out there, you know, for example a data center, you’re going to get multiple things out there. And so having all that property together is a huge opportunity.”

The feasibility study also states that SMRs and data centers are “synergistic industries” that can be developed together because an SMR needs a customer for its power and data centers need clean, reliable energy.

At 10 acres, the Lee County site is much smaller than the Bullitt property, but it’s still large enough to house multiple 300-megawatt SMRs, the study states.

It is also privately owned.

The land is currently permitted for coal mining, but it is going through the final stages of reclamation, Clear said. Reclamation, which occurs once mining is completed, rehabilitates the land so it can be used for other purposes.

The process can take five or six years to complete; it takes about three years just to vegetate a site, and it requires patience, Clear said.

There are three mine seams below the site, which contains a lot of mine water that could be used for cooling an SMR or data center.

It also has access to nearby rail lines for transportation and is less than a mile from Lake Keokee, a 92-acre impoundment surrounded by national forest lands that could also provide water for cooling. The site is also near a Kentucky Utilities’ power substation.

Currently, there is enough backfill material on the land to be used for a pad for an SMR, the study states.

The property also carries a financial incentive: A $500,000 grant from the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization, or AMLER, program is committed to it, according to the study. Directed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the program is designed to explore and implement strategies that return legacy coal mining sites to productive uses through economic and community development.

The site of a former limestone mine in Scott County offers about 4 acres for development. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Limestone site, Scott County

The site with the most colorful history is a former limestone mine near Duffield in Scott County, which was once set aside as a national fallout shelter.

The above-ground site totals about 4 acres, making it large enough for multiple 300-megawatt SMR units, and is privately owned.

In 1909, as the South Atlantic and Ohio Railroad was building a line through the area, geologists discovered a pure source of limestone at the site, according to a history of Foote Mineral Co. written by historian Dr. Lawrence J. Fleenor Jr. of Big Stone Gap in 2017.

It was 1953 when Foote Mineral opened a plant at a community called Sunbright in rural Scott County, the history states. Foote already had a lithium plant in Pennsylvania.

There are a lot of stories about the mine, some that are vague or difficult to substantiate with the passage of time, including that its smoke stacks released a white powder that coated the landscape for miles around while liquid waste was dumped in settling ponds.

The history notes that it was common practice at that time for local governments to release untreated sewage into nearby streams, for local industries to release all types of gasses into the air, and for sinkholes to be used to dispose of garbage, dead animals and other materials.

The mine shut down in 1971, the history says. There are also reports of ties to the nuclear or atomic industry.

Inside the vacant limestone mine, the temperature stays a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit and the mine water is 51 degrees. The mine also features a waterfall.

Its interior is like a huge cathedral, with 40-foot ceilings and rooms as big as football fields, Miller said.

At some point, the underground mine was designated a fallout shelter that was believed to be the largest in the world because it could accommodate as many as 45,000 people, according to a 1964 article in the Kingsport Times-News. The federal government supplied the site with medical supplies, food, sanitation and radiation supplies in case of an atomic attack, the story states.

The story said the mine is cut through by 16 miles of tunnels.

In 2021, the site was being considered for a data center, according to a story in The Roanoke Times.

Clear called the mine a “very interesting asset” whose low ambient temperature would mean a cost savings for businesses like SMRs or data centers, which need to be kept cool.

The site was described by Miller as the third most isolated site of the seven that were examined, although the feasibility study points out that it is near a residential area as well as a Tempur-Pedic mattress manufacturer, which is several miles away in Duffield.

Other attributes are a nearby Kentucky Utility transformer, an Appalachian Power substation and close access to rail lines.

The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center is an active power plant and isn’t available for immediate development. It was included in the study for future reference. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, Wise County

The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center site in St. Paul is an active coal-based power station owned and operated by Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility company.

There’s not much about the site in the feasibility study, which states that it’s an operating coal plant and that the property is not available for immediate development. It was included in the study for future reference, the document says.

According to Dominion, Virginia City is a 610-megawatt electric generating facility that uses a combination of waste coal, waste wood and run-of-mine coal, which is raw coal that comes directly from a coal plant, as fuel.

Since opening in July 2012, the center has generated more than 22.2 million megawatt hours of electricity, or enough to power the entire United States for two days. 

Under the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which requires power companies to emit zero carbon by 2050, the Virginia City facility was originally set to close in 2030 but it will stay open until 2045, thanks to an amendment secured by Southwest Virginia legislators. Some environmentalists have said the plant is “uneconomic” and want it to close sooner.

Todd Flowers, Dominion’s director of business development, was asked about the sites included in the LENOWISCO feasibility study, including Dominion’s own Virginia City plant, and he said he was aware of the report but had no comment on the sites.

A November 2022 study by Dominion on the hybrid plant’s economic viability noted the inclusion of an SMR in the governor’s 2022 energy plan and said that when the Virginia City plant retires, an SMR “may offer a viable option for continued generation” at the site.

In a section of the Dominion study focused on repurposing the site once the plant is closed, the company analyzed the potential to use the site for solar, wind, energy storage and SMRs. Dominion said it identified approximately 65 acres that are suitable for development.

The study rules out solar, wind and energy storage for the plant site for different reasons, but states that the site could support various SMR technologies, including a 300-megawatt design.

But because SMR technology is still under development, “it would be too speculative to analyze and provide a more extensive discussion of the economic impacts, system reliability, environmental justice, or the social cost of carbon at this time,” according to Dominion’s study.

Mineral Gap, also known as the Lonesome Pine Regional Business and Technology Park, has 76 available acres. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Mineral Gap and Project Intersection sites, Wise County

Two of the proposed sites, Mineral Gap and Project Intersection, are industrial parks that are being developed in Wise County, and both are near larger population centers, homes and businesses.

Both properties are also believed to be better locations for microreactors, nuclear reactors that are smaller in size and strength and that could provide power to one business or town.

Mineral Gap, also known as the Lonesome Pine Regional Business and Technology Park, is just outside the town of Wise, adjacent to the Lonesome Pine Airport.

A former coal mine site, the property currently has 76 acres of available land and totals 400 acres. It is home to the Wise Solar Project, the Intuit Call Center and the Mineral Gap Data Center.

The Project Intersection site totals 80 acres. Photo by Susan Cameron.

It is also the temporary home of EarthLink, an internet service provider headquartered in Atlanta that is building a new customer service center at Project Intersection.

Project Intersection is in Norton, totals 80 acres and has four sites, one that’s taken and three that can be developed.

Nearly $22 million in grant funding, including money from the AMLER program, has been secured for its development, according to Miller.

Clear said he is particularly proud of the site, which he said is one of the best for development in Southwest Virginia.

“That is a true example of what AMLER was intended to do, is couple economic development with the cleanup of some of these old, abandoned mine sites,” he said.

EarthLink, whose customer service center is expected to open in March, will be its first tenant. The roads in the park were paved earlier this summer and the building is taking shape with a visible presence above the junction of U.S. highways 23 and 58.

A power substation is also adjacent to the property.

The feasibility study does say the site is close to a population center, single-family homes, businesses, a school and shopping center, which “must be carefully considered during siting” of an SMR.

The Red Onion site in Dickenson County was mined for coal decades ago. Photo courtesy of Duane Miller.

Red Onion site, Dickenson County

The Red Onion site is in Dickenson County near the Wise County border. The land was mined for coal more than 30 years ago.

There was also once a wood chip mill on the site and a vacant building remains there, according to Clear.

He considers it a good site because although it’s remote, it’s close to U.S. 23, a combination that is hard to find, he said.

This site is also big enough to accommodate multiple 300-megawatt SMRs, according to the study.

The property is also close to Red Onion State Prison, a state supermax prison near the town of Pound, “which must be considered when evaluating evacuation zones,” the study states.

The Red Onion site intersects with the Clintwood, Imboden, Imboden Marker, Lower Banner and Norton mines, the study states.

The property was purchased in 2014 by the Dickenson County Industrial Development Authority, according to Dana Cronkhite, the IDA’s director of economic development.

The IDA is working to develop the site to include water, sewer, power, gas and broadband, with a project budget of $2.56 million, she said. Once the work is complete, the site is expected to offer three build-ready pads totaling 5 acres, 10 acres and 15 acres.

“At this time no action has been taken by the county with regard to the target market for the future industrial park,” Cronkhite said.

Coming Tuesday: Community concerns over SMR siting, and what happens next in the process.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...