Small modular nuclear reactors: a good deal for Southwest Virginia?

February 16, 2023 12:03 am

Buchanan County, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

By Rees Shearer

In announcing his 2022 Virginia Energy Plan, Gov. Glenn 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 (SMRs) in Southwest Virginia fails all three of the governor’s own criteria:

  • SMRs can’t be reliable, when they cannot reliably be built and brought on line in a predictable and timely fashion.
  • SMRs can’t be affordable, because nuclear power is close to the costliest of all forms of electric power generation.
  • SMRs 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 SMRs, sidelining opportunities to promote solar, which can produce power in a matter of weeks, not decades.

Imposing SMRs 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,” has never been realized. Tennessee Valley Authority and other utilities abandoned nuclear plants under construction, leaving costly monuments to that folly and sticking electricity customers with the bill. 

It’s not at all clear that SMR 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 included, actual costs are far higher. (Some of these costs are already socialized for nuclear power, such as insurance in the Price-Anderson Act.) 

The first commercial SMR 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 analysis  shows that nuclear is the ONLY grid-wide generation source to increase in price between 2009 and 2021. The increase was 36%!

Nuclear waste and reprocessing are also serious concerns. Make no mistake, un-reprocessed 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 SMRs generate less waste than their larger forbears. 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. Since the United States has failed 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 SMRs: “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 plant in Erwin, Tennessee, for nuclear weapons. 

Transportation of SMR 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.

Given these questions about cost, practicality and safety, the governor’s choice of SMRs 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 more readily deployable 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 productive purpose to restored land and benefiting the tax base. 

Counties across eastern and Piedmont Virginia are benefiting 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?

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 that 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.

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