Southwest Virginia could get small modular nuclear reactor
In early October, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced his goal of developing a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) in Southwest Virginia within 10 years, part of a plan to make the region an epicenter of energy innovation.
Not long after, Youngkin said he planned to allocate $10 million to create the Virginia Power Innovation Fund, with $5 million going toward development of the proposed SMR.
An emerging technology, SMRs are being designed to generate up to 300 megawatts per unit, about one-third of the capacity of conventional nuclear reactors. Supporters see SMRs as a solution to the climate crisis because they don’t emit greenhouse gases. Unlike wind or solar energy, nuclear reactors aren’t dependent on the elements and don’t require battery storage, but critics have safety concerns.
Doug Lawrence, vice president of nuclear operations and fleet performance for Dominion Energy Inc., describes SMR as a “clean, reliable source of energy that is always on and not dependent on weather conditions.”
There are more than 70 commercial SMRs in development worldwide, but only one in Russia is operational. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved an SMR design from Oregon-based NuScale Power Corp. in summer 2022.
In a 2022 update to Dominion’s integrated resource plan, the utility said it could add an SMR to its fleet by 2032, with the potential to build one 285-megawatt SMR each year after that.
Critics of the technology claim SMRs are not cost effective and express concern about radioactive waste that could be generated by SMRs, as well as the danger of nuclear accidents. A 2022 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that SMRs would likely create more nuclear waste, by a factor of up to 30, than conventional reactors.
Nevertheless, this isn’t a case of Richmond lawmakers trying to dump dangerous but needed technology in a rural part of the state, says Will Payne, director of economic development initiative InvestSWVA. “There are … other regions that want to have SMRs throughout Virginia,” Payne says. “It’s highly competitive.”
It’s too early to know how many jobs an SMR could create or the economic impact a small reactor could have on Southwest Virginia, says Duane Miller, executive director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission.
By spring, Miller hopes to have a needs assessment explaining what SMR developers seek in a site location. The next step, he says, would be to identify sites in the region that meet those criteria