Gov. Youngkin wants a small modular reactor. What exactly is that?
Newer form of nuclear technology comes with fuel, waste questions
Dominion Energy’s North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Louisa County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Within the span of two months, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin made it clear he wants Virginia to be a leader in the use of nuclear technology, specifically by having a small modular reactor operational in Southwest Virginia within the next decade.
He first announced the new focus at the unveiling of his statewide energy plan, a document every Virginia governor is required by law to craft, in early October. He then leaned in on it by proposing a $10 million fund for energy innovation efforts, half of which would be devoted to the deployment of an SMR.
Critics of Youngkin’s energy plan were quick to say small modular reactors are in their infancy compared to already deployable and scalable renewable energy technologies.
Nuclear generation has been around for decades, but SMRs are an emerging advanced form of the technology, with the first three expected to be deployed in different parts of the country by decade’s end.
While Virginia has had two traditional nuclear plants in operation for years, the smaller nuclear reactors are unique in how they function and the fuel they use. However, many of the concerns that come with nuclear technology — such as waste, operational requirements and costs — also accompany SMRs.
How do SMRs work?
SMRs are designed to be a “plug and play” form of nuclear generation in the sense that they can be manufactured at a factory and then installed at a site, according to an August report commissioned by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
Whereas many of the country’s current large nuclear reactors were built to generate between 300 and over 1,000 megawatts, SMRs are intended to generate between 20 to 300 megawatts of power in a baseload capacity. There are also microreactors, generating between 1 and 20 megawatts of power, that are about 1% of the size of traditional reactor models.
Nuclear reactors generate heat through fission, or the slamming of atoms into one other. This process is carried out using fuel assemblies of rods filled with uranium pellets.
Uranium atoms can be split easily. When atoms split, radioactive isotopes are created. Uranium is commonly found in rocks all around the world, but the specific type used in nuclear energy production, U-235, is rare.
Once heat has been generated, it can be used to make steam that turns turbines to generate electricity primarily in two ways: through boiling-water reactors or pressurized water reactors. In the former, water is boiled to produce steam. In the latter, steam is produced by exchanging heat from a primary loop of water traveling through the core at high pressure to a second lower-pressure loop.
Traditional reactors use water for their processes, but advanced reactors like SMRs can use molten salt, liquid metals like sodium or lead, or gases like helium or carbon dioxide. These approaches allow them to operate at higher temperatures, with higher efficiency rates and potentially less radioactive waste.
Along with being more efficient than traditional nuclear, SMRs are being endorsed by the federal government because they offer certain safety features that don’t require operators, according to Alice Caponiti, a deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Where does the fuel come from?
SMRs run on an enriched form of uranium, a mineral that was once mined in the United States but is now sourced primarily internationally. In 2020, just over a quarter of uranium purchases for U.S. reactors came from each of Canada and Kazakhstan, with an additional 19% from Russia, 13% from Australia and 9% from Uzbekistan, according to NARUC.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 led to many new reactor projects being canceled, creating a global oversupply of uranium. Competing energy sources like natural gas and wind also caused several mining companies in the U.S. to permanently halt their operations.
Today, the U.S. has only two uranium mines operating in Wyoming, one mill operating in Utah and one enrichment plant operating in New Mexico. A conversion plant, which adapts the fuel for reactors, in Ohio is set to restart next year, NARUC found.
Whereas the current nuclear fleet relies on what’s known as “low-enriched uranium,” advanced reactors like SMRs rely on “high-assay low enriched uranium,” or HALEU. This type of fuel has a higher concentration of uranium that allows reactors to operate more efficiently. Currently, Russia is the only country that has commercially available HALEU enrichment capabilities.
Once uranium pellets are stacked into rods that are bundled together to make a fuel assembly, trucks transport them to reactor sites where the assemblies stay in bins until needed, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The uranium is only mildly radioactive at this point.
Dominion Energy, which operates Virginia’s only two nuclear plants, said in its 2022 integrated resource plan that the company intends to add a small modular reactor to its fleet by 2032.
Scott Miller, manager of nuclear communications and media relations at Dominion, said that “all indications are that, right now, uranium for future SMRs will come from the same supply chain sources that provide uranium for the existing fleet.”
The Virginia-headquartered Lightbridge is working to develop an advanced nuclear fuel source that can operate at a cooler temperature than standard fuel requires.
How is waste handled?
Nuclear fuel must be treated after use to safely allow radioactive decay and cooling.
That process begins by storing the fuel in water-cooled pools for about five to seven years, the NARUC report details. It’s then transported to large concrete stainless steel containers for storage.
Because the U.S. doesn’t have a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel, casks must be stored onsite. A video of Dominion energy nuclear processes shows the fuel being stored in large structures.
“Surry and North Anna have been storing their spent nuclear fuel for 50 years safely,” Miller said.
A plan to store spent fuel permanently at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was halted due to state pushback.
“All of the fuel we’ve produced to date could fit on the size of a football field, three meters high,” Caponiti said.
But while boosters tout SMRs’ efficiencies, one research paper determined that the waste they create is “more voluminous and chemically/physically reactive” than that generated by traditional nuclear reactors.
A DOE spokesperson said work on a system for final disposal of the fuel and how to handle future spent SMR fuels is underway.
What will it take to get one SMR operational?
The federal government has contracted with three companies to get small modular reactors functioning by the end of the decade.
Those include a light water reactor by NuScale in Idaho, a sodium-cooled reactor by TerraPower in Wyoming and a gas-cooled reactor by X-Energy in Washington. All are expected to be operational by 2029.
According to a report by the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, there are over 60 private-industry nuclear operations in the state working on engineering, manufacturing, security, staffing or infrastructure. One of those is Lynchburg-based BWX Technologies, which is involved with the building of a GE small modular reactor in Canada by the end of the decade.
How the company will be involved in reaching Youngkin’s goal is unknown, president and CEO Rex Geveden said in an interview with the Mercury, as “there’s been no reactor selected, no architecture, no technology type selection.” But it will be in the supply chain somewhere, he added.
Despite those plans, Geoff Fettus, a nuclear, climate and clean energy program lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he is skeptical an SMR can be operational in Virginia within a decade.
“We especially don’t think it will be operational in a free market capacity this decade or maybe the next,” Fettus said, considering competition with “cheaper, safer, faster, cleaner renewables.”
How much do they cost?
NARUC estimated that capital costs of SMRs are cheaper than those for other advanced and conventional nuclear reactors, at about $5,969 per kilowatt per hour, compared to about $6,432 or $7,740, respectively.
Further, reusing retiring coal plants for SMRs can create savings, as nuclear requires far less acreage than solar or wind.
“Many new advanced nuclear reactor designs currently in development do not require water to cool the reactor and are, therefore, not bound by the access and availability of water from nearby rivers, lakes, or oceans,” the NARUC report added.
However, while SMRs are more cost-effective than fossil fuel plants to operate, costs associated with recent projects in South Carolina, Georgia and Idaho have triggered concerns.
NuScale says it can generate power at $58 per megawatt-hour, but some estimate SMR power costs could reach $200 per megawatt-hour.
Geveden acknowledged that advanced reactor projects “may not be quite as cheap as wind and solar in the beginning, but it gets more competitive when you evaluate it over the life of the plant.”
Still, Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director with the NRDC, said SMR technology just isn’t necessary.
“On the hottest summer day we still have an excess of 20% extra capacity beyond what we need,” Shepherd said. “The notion that we need to go after this currently non-existent power technology to meet a need that has already been met, it’s like building a Mars spaceship to drive down to the corner grocery store.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Alice Caponiti’s name.
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