Small modular nuclear reactors:  A bad deal for Southwest Virginia! And all of us!

Infographic shows how small modular nuclear reactors work
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

In announcing his 2022 Virginia Energy Plan, Gov. Youngkin said, “A growing Virginia must have reliable, affordable and clean energy for Virginia’s families and businesses.” The Governor’s plan to promote and subsidize Small Modular nuclear Reactors (SMnRs) in Southwest Virginia fails all three of the Governor’s own criteria:

  1. SMnRs can’t be reliable when they cannot reliably be built and brought on line in a predictable and timely fashion.
  2. SMnRs can’t be affordable because nuclear power is close to the costliest of all forms of electric power generation.
  3. SMnRs can’t be clean since they produce extremely toxic high and low-level nuclear waste, which has no safe storage or disposal solution.

Appalachia has long served as a sacrifice zone for rapacious energy ambitions of other regions. Southwest Virginians have had reason to hope that would change as opportunities for low-cost solar development emerged in recent years. Instead, politicians like Youngkin are making too-good-to-be-true promises about SMnRs, sidelining opportunities to promote solar, which can produce power in a matter of weeks, not decades.

Imposing SMnRs on Southwest Virginia is disturbing. My father worked for the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s. The promise the nuclear industry and the government touted then – “electricity, too cheap to meter” – never has been realized. TVA and other utilities abandoned nuclear plants under construction, leaving costly monuments to that folly and sticking electricity customers with the bill. 

COSTS: It’s not at all clear that SMnR technology will succeed, or when. Levelized cost charts of electric power generation rate nuclear as among the very most expensive means to generate electric power at utility scale. If nuclear waste management, insurance, and decommissioning costs are counted, actual costs are far higher. (Some of these costs are already socialized for nuclear power – e.g. insurance in the Price-Anderson Act.) 

The first commercial SMnR is not expected to be completed until 2029, but already its developers have raised the target price of its power by 53%. This is not a surprise; nuclear power construction history documents an extremely strong correlation between new designs and cost increases and project delays. Indeed, the Lazard research shows that nuclear is the ONLY grid-wide generation source to increase in price, 2009-2021. The increase was 36%!

NUCLEAR WASTE, TRANSPORT, AND REPROCESSING: Nuclear waste and reprocessing are also serious concerns. Make no mistake, unreprocessed nuclear waste, for all practicable purposes, is FOREVER. The fact that we have become accustomed to risk does not, by any means, reduce risk. Nor will SMnRs generate less waste than their larger forebears. Indeed, a recent Stanford University study concluded that “small modular reactors may produce a disproportionately larger amount of nuclear waste than bigger nuclear plants.” 

Safeguarding this waste is already costing taxpayers and utility customers tens of billions of dollars. With the failure of the U.S. to designate a central storage facility, nuclear power plants are forced to continue to store the waste in pools on site. 

Yet nuclear waste recycling, known as reprocessing, is no panacea. In November, the Governor spoke in Bristol in support of recycling nuclear waste from SMnRs: “I think the big steps out of the box are the technical capability to deploy in the next 10 years and on top of that to press forward to recycling opportunities for fuel.” He may have had in mind BWX Technologies of Lynchburg, which is beginning reprocessing of uranium at its Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) plant just south of the Virginia border in Erwin, Tennessee, for nuclear weapons. 

It took over a decade, but in 1984, Congress finally killed the last proposal to reprocess nuclear waste into nuclear fuel. The reprocessing would have taken place at the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, also south of the Virginia border, near Oak Ridge, TN. The concern then was the potential for accidental highly toxic “spills” of nuclear wastes or purposeful diversion of plutonium into the international weapons market. I recall this clearly because I spoke at a public hearing in Abingdon about the transportation of nuclear waste that would be bound for the Clinch River plant.

Transportation of SMnR nuclear wastes along Virginia mountain roads or railroads across the border to Erwin presents further risk of accident and contamination. Longstanding concerns about transportation and security of nuclear wastes have never been adequately addressed.

In addition, Princeton University physicist, Frank N. von Hippel reported in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, charged with protecting U.S. citizens from reactor disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima, has moved toward offering greater flexibility for a nuclear industry plagued by cost overruns and calls for safety improvements, rather than hewing to its primary responsibility for maintaining safety of nuclear generating facilities and the American people. The Bulletin also reports that, because of longstanding financial troubles experienced by the commercial nuclear power industry, state legislatures are increasingly being asked and are feeling compelled to subsidize nuclear power. Gov. Youngkin’s state energy plan would take Virginia down that road, a road that could be very long. 

URANIUM MINING in VIRGINIA? Because of toxic pollution risks, mining uranium in Virginia is currently prohibited under a moratorium enacted by the General Assembly. Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County contains the largest deposit of uranium in the U.S. Just a month ago, Consolidated Uranium, a Canadian company, announced its purchase of Virginia Energy Resources, which owns Coles Hill. It sounds like those executives think that another run at overturning the mining moratorium might be successful. That this purchase announcement comes so shortly after Youngkin’s announcement of SMnRs in his Virginia Energy Plan feels like more than coincidence. 

Uranium mining in a wet, eastern location would present a far higher opportunity for contamination than mining that has for years had problems affecting water and public health in the West. We Appalachians know the social and environmental costs of an extractive economy. We should not support any enterprise that forces that kind of exploitation upon our neighbors, especially mining with known, pervasive health, safety and environmental risks.

CORPORATE CRONYISM and POLITICAL BOONDOGGERY: BWX Technologies of Lynchburg (formerly Babcock and Wilcox) is the nuclear contractor we can anticipate would be charged with Gov. Youngkin’s wish to reprocess nuclear waste into fuel. BWX has been on the ropes for years, since nuclear became so unpopular with utilities in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident. It has managed to stay afloat with military contracts and wants to develop the reactors it builds for subs and aircraft carriers for commercial power production. The SMnRs are its ticket, and Gov. Youngkin is playing both their salesman and the state’s purchasing agent. Some General Assembly members are angling to help their localities and favored industries cash in.

Here’s how the boondoggery works:

  • Del. Danny Marshall, representing Danville and Pittsylvania Co. – where those huge untapped uranium reserves lie – submitted HB 2333: “It is the policy of the Commonwealth to promote the development and operation of small modular nuclear reactors at the earliest reasonable time possible, with a goal of having the first small modular nuclear reactor operating by the end of 2032, and requires the State Corporation Commission to establish a small modular nuclear reactor pilot program…The pilot program shall be limited to three small modular nuclear reactor sites [note: the bill allows for multiple SMnRs at each site] in the Commonwealth… In considering an application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a small modular nuclear reactor under the pilot program…in the coalfield region of the Commonwealth.” The pilot program requires the SCC to grant coalfield SMnRs special treatment under a state-mandated SMnR pilot program. Under this bill, Virginia’s largest utilities, Dominion Energy and American Electric Power would be granted permission from the General Assembly to charge its customers for SMnR construction, regardless of whether these unproven facilities are ever able to produce a kiloWatt of power.
  • Del. Kathy Byron, representing Lynchburg – home of BWX Technologies – is patron for  HB2197, which defines “advanced nuclear [SMnR] technology…as renewable energy,” which allows SMnRs to access the benefits under law afforded to renewable energy under Virginia’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards, designed to incentivize  adoption of renewable energy by utilities.
  • Del. Israel O’Quinn, representing Bristol, Washington Co. area, introduced HB 1780, that would establish “A revenue-sharing agreement requiring the Counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise and the City of Norton to enter into a perpetual revenue-sharing agreement regarding advanced nuclear technologies and an advanced nuclear reactor to be located in one of these localities.” The legislation would have divided property tax benefits from SMnRs among coalfield counties by a formula, since no one yet knows which ones will have the “benefit” of hosting SMnRs. 

All three bills passed the Virginia House and moved to the Senate last week. A Senate committee has since rejected Del. O’Quinn’s bill.

UNDERMINING REGIONAL GREEN ENERGY DEVELOPMENT: Given the questions about cost, practicality, and safety, the governor’s choice of SMnRs as the cornerstone for future energy development in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia risks leaving residents here with nothing. This is especially worrisome as it pulls state support from proven, cheaper, and ready-to-deploy-now solar and energy storage applications. 

It also redirects government resources away from homegrown economic projects, like the New Economy Program, based on cleaning up and repurposing unrestored mine lands for a burgeoning utility solar energy industry, employing local residents and adding restored land to productive purpose and to the taxbase.

Counties across eastern and Piedmont Virginia are benefitting from a property tax bonanza flowing from utility scale solar development. Coalfield counties are being told to ignore a sure solar bet and place their few economic development chips on a risky, unproven, costly, pie-in-the-sky energy prospect.

Why should SWVA be forced to endure the burden of risky and more costly electric energy, subsidized by the state to benefit powerful corporations, which seek to exploit our region and its people? Why indeed, while the rest of Virginia benefits economically from low-cost, safe solar energy and advanced energy storage systems?

This same shell game occurred when state mining regulation allowed mountaintops to be blown away and thousands of acres of forestland despoiled. Once again, government officials are choosing to make decisions which benefit the interests of corporations outside the region instead of the people who actually live here.

Rees Shearer is a retired school counselor and community organizer who has researched and organized around regional environmental protection and clean energy issues for over 50 years. He lives with his wife Kathy in Emory, VA.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 16, 2023. 

3 thoughts on “Small modular nuclear reactors:  A bad deal for Southwest Virginia! And all of us!

  1. From the three “failures” listed, #1 is not correct. Reliability is not defined as whether a technology is mature or not, it’s defined as how reliably electricity is produced. Nuclear is second only to hydro in reliability.

    If you want solar and wind to be reliable, them you have to add storage which means they “fail” on #2, affordability (using your definition of failure) When you say SMnR is not affordable in #2 you use the current high cost of nuclear as the evidence. Yes, current nuclear is expensive. But that doesn’t mean SMnR will be expensive too. That mostly depends on #3.

    Yes, current nuclear has a waste problem. There is a political impass trying to get Nevada to accept waste. Instead the waste is mainly stored at current plants. It appears that SMnR will have about the same amount of waste as current reactors: so that problem will remain (and grow if SMnR is expanded).

    Yes, #3 is genuine failure, because there’s no way to avoid the production of nuclear waste. But it’s a failure worth addressing with more studies, since it is the main reason for the high cost (#2) and we have a batter-than-even shot at #1, high reliability.

    A big picture perspective is that demand shifting can help counteract the unreliability of wind and solar. The need for nighttime power is so low that essentially nuclear is being used to pump water at Virginia’s pumped storage facility. So in that case why build more nuclear? Well one reason is that some demand cannot be shifted and that includes nighttime use. A prime example is very cold weather where nuclear, gas, coal and other reliable sources meet the extreme demand created by resistive heaters used when electric heat exchangers fail to provide adequate heat, or simply fail (go into endless defrost cycles wasting grid power).

    But relatively rare cold weather events are not a case for nuclear when the same electricity could be provided by a bunch of spare gas plants. Keeping spare gas plants will be expensive though.

    The big picture tells me that nuclear is temporary. Even wind is temporary since it relies on mechanical components. In the long run energy will be solid state and will probably have intrinsic storage (e.g. capacitive). The question is whether it is worth doing some nuclear in the mean time.

    • Eric, I appreciate your thoughtful and informed comments.

      You are correct that generation reliability is a measure of consistency with which a generation facility produces electric power at nameplate capacity upon demand. While “mature” nuclear power is generally quite reliable, unproven SMnR technologies have not been successfully brought online for commercial production anywhere in the U.S. Your comments appear to assume a measure of reliability for a proven technology will hold true for an unproven technology. In my view, if a power plant can’t predictably be brought online, producing power, it cannot be considered reliable in terms of planning to meet projected energy capacity needs.

      Regarding renewable storage costs, in 2020, renewables represented approximately 6% of annual energy production in the PJM region (the multi-state grid of which Virginia electric utilities compose a fraction). Increasing that small percentage of renewable, should have minimal or no impact on capacity factor for several years. You are correct that as renewables become a more significant percentage of a grid’s generating capacity, more storage will be a necessity and the cost for this should be accounted as a cost of increasing the reliability of variable sources such as solar and wind. It will be years before the percentage of renewably generated power impacts PJM capacity factor and therefore grid reliability. Yes, we need to accelerate research and adoption of low-cost solar hybrid and other energy storage capabilities. Aggregating these generation sources across the geography of the grid provides some low-cost, immediate relief. As electric vehicle adoption expands, use of EV batteries opens up new possibilities for dispersed energy storage reserves. Other storage technologies are rapidly maturing, following a similar cost/benefit trajectory as solar panels did in the previous decade.

      Thank you for expressing your concerns. -Rees

  2. the Sunday WaPo this week had an excellent article echoing the same warnings about hazards, expense, waste. I hope we can avoid this expensive experiment! Solar and Wind are proven now and storage solutions improving rapidly.

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