Mineral Gap was one of seven potential SMR sites identified in Southwest Virginia. It's an industrial park just outside the town of Wise that also houses Wise County Christian School and baseball and softball fields. It's about a mile from the University of Virginia's College at Wise. Photo by Susan Cameron.

The locations of two properties identified as potential sites for a small modular nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia hit close to home and work for Wally Smith, vice president of The Clinch Coalition, an environmental group.

Wally Smith is vice president of The Clinch Coalition, an environmental group, and teaches at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He also lives and works close to two of the potential SMR sites. Photo courtesy of Wally Smith.

Smith is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, which is a little more than a mile from the Mineral Gap site, an industrial park just outside the town of Wise that also houses Wise County Christian School and baseball and softball fields.

And Smith’s home is about a mile and a half from the Project Intersection site, a developing industrial park in the city of Norton. The site is even closer “as the crow flies,” according to Smith, who said he often hears the sounds of construction on the EarthLink building now going up at the property.

The two sites are among seven identified in a May study conducted for the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission. Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced a year ago that he wanted to put a commercial SMR in the coalfields area within 10 years; the commission wanted to know whether that would be feasible. The verdict was that it would be a good fit.

SMRs are smaller, simpler versions of traditional nuclear reactors that produce about a third of the power produced by the big reactors and are being discussed as a source of carbon-free power. They can be built in a factory and shipped to a site, saving time and money.

No SMRs are operating in the U.S., but there are a number of designs in the works and one has been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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

Officials have said the two Wise County sites would be more suitable for a microreactor, a compact nuclear reactor that can generate up to 20 megawatts of thermal energy or power.

More SMR coverage

Read more about the seven possible Southwest Virginia SMR sites in Monday’s Cardinal News.

But Smith said the inclusion of the two sites caught environmental officials and the public “off guard.” 

“The comments that we were seeing … in the press that local officials were giving and some of the reassurances we were hearing was that these [SMRs] will be put on former surface mines, but in very isolated places nowhere near population centers. Our county administrator even told The Washington Post that they were not going to be in anybody’s backyard or something similar in a piece last February. Then, all of a sudden this report came out and two were literally in backyards,” he said.

They’re not the only sites that are close to residential or commercial development: The Bullitt mine and Lee County sites, which are close together in a rural area of Wise and Lee counties, respectively, flank the Exeter coal camp and its more than 100 houses by a few hundred yards, according to Smith. 

In recent months, there’s been much talk by state and local officials about the fact that there are more than 100,000 acres of former coal mine land in the region. With so many sites available,  Smith said there should be plenty that are in more remote locations away from homes and businesses. 

But the proximity to people, homes and business isn’t the biggest issue at this point, added Smith, a wildlife biologist whose academic work involves land use and land use policies, specifically as they relate to the use of former surface coal mines.

“My concern wouldn’t necessarily just be that there’s one close to where I live or work. It’s more the process of how it’s developed,” he said.

“As a resident, as somebody who’s a stakeholder living and working nearby, what are the opportunities for me and people that live around me, especially vulnerable neighbors who maybe are disadvantaged? How are they being engaged? What role do they play in the planning for the project? That’s been my biggest concern so far is that piece has not been there, and we keep hearing that there’s going to be public input at some later date.”

LENOWISCO officials have emphasized, however, that the sites are just examples of what’s available in the region and that no site has been chosen. It’s possible none of the seven sites would be selected, they said.

At this point, Smith said he is neither a supporter nor an opponent of SMRs or nuclear power. He said he just doesn’t know enough about them and he hasn’t had an opportunity to learn because the process of deciding whether to pursue one for the region has not been transparent.

The role of utilities in the site selection process

Dominion Energy’s long-term plan is to have its first SMR in operation by the end of 2033. The first site in Virginia — and possibly Southwest Virginia — might be selected as soon as the next year or two in order to meet a federal licensing timeline, according to Todd Flowers, Dominion’s director of business development.

Both Dominion, headquartered in Richmond, and Appalachian Power, which serves Southwest Virginia and is headquartered in Charleston, West Virginia, have expressed an interest in building an SMR in Virginia, although Dominion appears to be further along in the process.

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

Dominion operates two huge nuclear power plants in Virginia — North Anna Power Station in Louisa County and the Surry Power Station in Surry County — and each has two large, traditional nuclear units.

Although Appalachian Power has no nuclear assets in Virginia, its parent company, American Electric Power, owns and operates a nuclear plant in Michigan.

According to Dominion’s comprehensive 2023 Integrated Resource Plan, which was filed May 1, the utility “anticipates that SMRs could be a feasible supply-side resource as soon as the 2030s and has included SMRs as a supply-side option in this IRP starting in 2040.” The plan also notes that some light-water SMR designs use current nuclear fuel technologies, so their commercial availability could come sooner.

“The company’s position is that SMRs can play a vital role in meeting not only the energy and capacity needs of our customers, but ensuring reliability for our customers, and they can contribute to our decarbonization plans,” Flowers said.

Dominion is considering sites in Southwest Virginia, as well as other parts of the state, including land at its two large nuclear plants, Flowers said. Those sites are ideal, he said, because both offer interconnection to the grid, a community that supports nuclear power, existing operating facilities, a relationship with the locality and the necessary workforce.

Another factor that could weigh in favor of the North Anna power plant is that the utility is already licensed for a third conventional nuclear reactor there and an SMR could serve as a substitute, Flowers said earlier.

Still, Youngkin said when he announced his plan to deploy an SMR last October that he wanted to place it on former coal mine land in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

Asked whether former coal mined land would make a good site for an SMR, Flowers said: “We’re certainly interested in the coal region of the commonwealth. If you place the facility directly on a mine, there’s this additional investigative work that would need to be done if there’s underground mines that are still present. So as part of a site review of any site, one of the things that you need to review of any site is the geotech characteristics of that site.”

Flowers said earlier that with the siting flexibility and smaller size of SMRs, Dominion could place SMRs in several locations across the state. 

Like Dominion, Appalachian Power spokesperson Teresa Hall said company officials are aware of the feasibility study that said the region is capable of hosting an SMR and they have reviewed the results.

The company earlier formed a team to study SMR technology.

Appalachian Power released the following statement when asked about its plans regarding an SMR.

“AEP, parent company of Appalachian Power, is engaged with many of the advanced reactor vendors and continues to stay informed of their developments. Consistent with Governor Youngkin’s energy plan, AEP considers nuclear to be an important part of Virginia’s energy portfolio and supports the development of SMR technology for deployment,” the statement read.

“AEP is unlikely to be a first adopter of new nuclear technologies but plans to increase its involvement in this space as the technology becomes more mature. AEP’s interest in the nuclear space is currently focused on larger SMR site deployments (those 300 MW) because the company is most interested in grid scale generation. AEP is open to working with other utilities and regional stakeholders to ensure the success of new nuclear projects in Southwest Virginia.”

Getting the public involved

Duane Miller, executive director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission, agreed that there’s been little public involvement in efforts to bring an SMR to the coalfields. But he said there was no point until officials discovered through the feasibility study that deploying an SMR in Southwest makes sense.

“We didn’t want to do a whole lot of public outreach until we actually found out if it was even feasible,” he said.

The study did include an anonymous survey sent to between 18 and 22 stakeholders in the area, including several environmental groups, according to Miller. The 12-question survey was answered by 10 respondents, and the results were included in the study.

Miller said it was a small sampling done to get an idea of what people were thinking. The results were “fairly positive,” he said.

All of the respondents said that they believe energy policies should consider nuclear energy as one of many energy sources, and 90% agreed that they would support additional studies to determine the feasibility of SMRs in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia if the new technologies receive approvals by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The majority of respondents said that the Virginia Department of Energy would be best qualified to facilitate community meetings to provide information on the development of SMRs.

The survey was followed by interviews with representatives from each county in the planning district and the city of Norton, according to the study, which also says that the “success of any large infrastructure project begins with the support of the local community.”

The next step is to conduct another study, this time on the SMR supply chain, Miller said. It will help the region identify and prepare to retool existing businesses and recruit new ones with manufacturing jobs to support the SMR manufacturing supply chain, said Thomas Lawson, a regional planner with LENOWISCO who was the project leader on the feasibility study.

“The study will analyze where our manufacturing capabilities currently stand within the region (i.e. thinking about the workforce we have, if any businesses already existing within the region could be adapted/retrofitted to support the SMR manufacturing supply chain), and also identify expected needs where the region can work to fill anticipated gaps,” he wrote in an email.

The supply chain study has been awarded $250,000 total, $200,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and $50,000 from GO Virginia Region 1.

Dominion Engineering, which conducted the first feasibility study, will also conduct the second study and work has begun. It is expected to be completed after the first of the year. (Dominion Engineering has no connection to Dominion Energy.)

More public participation will start in 2024, most likely in late winter or early spring, after the results of the supply chain study are announced, Miller said. 

Want to know more about SMRs?

Regional environmental groups have scheduled a town hall meeting about SMRs in Southwest Virginia from 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Norton Community Center.

Those attending will be able to comment and ask questions.   

The sponsors are The Clinch Coalition, the Alliance for Appalachia, the Appalachian Peace Education Center, the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and the Virginia Organizing Wise County Chapter.

He said he is exploring opportunities for public input and education and is still determining the best ways to accomplish that.

In the meantime, Sharon Fisher, president of The Clinch Coalition, said the Alliance for Appalachia and the Virginia Organizing Wise County Chapter have joined the coalition, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and the Appalachian Peace Education Center to inform residents and government officials of their concerns regarding SMRs in Southwest Virginia.

A petition calling for more public input posted on The Clinch Coalition’s website had 756 signatures on Oct. 20. The organization has also posted an online resource library, www.clinchcoalition.org/smrs, for those who want to know more about SMRs.

A town hall meeting about SMRs in Southwest Virginia will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Norton Community Center. Attendees will be able to offer comments and ask questions, according to a news release from the coalition.

The forum is being hosted by local residents concerned about “the onrush by government officials and special interests to push a nuclear agenda,” the release states.

The Nature Conservancy is a stakeholder in the region. In 2021, the nonprofit and Dominion Energy Virginia announced a partnership to develop a utility-scale solar project on 1,200 acres of the former Red Onion surface mine and surrounding properties in Wise and Dickenson counties. Kelley Galownia, a spokesperson for the conservancy, said earlier this month that the project is moving forward.

Brad Kreps, Clinch Valley program director of the Nature Conservancy, said his organization is also interested in “learning more about SMR development, and we encourage a process that involves local communities in a meaningful way.”

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