Seeking carbon-free power, Virginia utility considers small nuclear reactors

Virginia’s largest utility said Wednesday it will explore the possibility of using small nuclear reactors to meet growing demand for electricity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear energy is on the rise as an attractive option for states transitioning away from coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Proponents of a new generation of smaller reactors have said they will be cheaper and faster bring online.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent agency that oversees the civilian use of radioactive materials, there are no small modular reactors, also called SMRs, in operation in the U.S.

A project to build the first SMR, in Idaho, was terminated last year after cost increases and a lack of subscribers. But a pilot project is going on in Tennessee, while Bill Gates and his energy company plan to build a commercial SMR plant in Wyoming.

Dominion Energy Virginia said Wednesday that it has asked SMR companies to evaluate the feasibility of developing a project at the site of the existing North Anna nuclear power plant outside Richmond.

Dominion CEO Robert Blue, speaking at its cooling towers, said nuclear power already accounts for 90% of Virginia’s carbon-free electricity. A new state law allows the company to explore using SMRs, with associated costs capped at $1.40 per month for a typical residential customer.

Blue said he expects the cost impact to be much lower. Dominion serves about 2.7 million customers in Virginia. It is the construction of solar parks and is installing a huge wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach.

A 2020 state law set a goal for 100% of Virginia’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by 2050. During Wednesday’s news conference, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said it’s important to embrace new energy generation technologies.

“We can’t build enough wind,” Youngkin said. “We can’t build enough solar to power the Virginia of the future. We need all of the above.”

A 2022 Associated Press investigation of energy policy in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that a large majority — about two-thirds — say nuclear energy will help replace fossil fuels.

But opponents, especially in Democratic-led states, cite the cost of new reactors compared with installing wind turbines or solar panels, as well as safety concerns. There is also the question of how to store dangerous nuclear waste.

Some environmentalists oppose small modular reactors for similar reasons. And a 2022 Stanford-led study discovered that SMRs will generate more waste than conventional reactors.

Still, interest in SMRs seems to be growing, even though one project has already been cancelled.

In January 2023, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the first design for one from Oregon-based NuScale Power. The company partnered with a group of Utah utilities to demonstrate a six-reactor plant at the Idaho National Laboratory that generates enough electricity to power more than 300,000 homes.

But the project has been terminated in November. Costs had risen more than 50 percent in two years to $89 per megawatt hour. And it was unlikely that enough local energy providers would sign up to allow the project to proceed.

Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the commission, said Wednesday that NuScale Power’s design remains certified and available for companies to consider. Meanwhile, the commission is reviewing other designs for other sites.

For example, the NRC has granted a building permit to Kairos Power, which is building a test version of a SMR in Oak Ridge, TennesseeBurnell said. It also filed for a larger test version at the same site.

Burnell said another application is being reviewed by the company TerraPower, of which Gates is chairmanthe co-founder of Microsoft. That project would use an SMR for a commercial power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

“We have multiple other reactor designers talking to us about potential applications, either for other building permits or to get their designs generically approved,” Burnell said. “So there are a lot of other names (of companies) that are talking to us. But at this point, there are no formal applications.”