Virginia's Possible Nuclear Future

Covington, Virginia. Photo by the author.

The past two weeks, I spent a fair amount of time hiking in my native state of Virginia (I was born in Roanoke, though I grew up mainly in Florida). While Virginia offers some amazing natural areas to explore including some of the best national forests and state parks in the entire nation, I spent some time in small cities and towns, just walking around and seeing what was going on there, too. Covington was one such city I explored. Covington is best-known as the site of a MeadWestvaco paper/pulp mill—the second-largest in the eastern United States and its economy is, and always has been, based around this mill. Covington is a very pretty city and I've met some very nice folks up there, but the downtown business district has suffered just as many other small American downtowns have suffered and a lot of retail/office space is sitting vacant. Covington has affordable housing, some great examples of mid-century American architecture including some fine homes, a strong community and schools, good rail and truck transport routes, and ample downtown real estate all of which should make it attractive to light industry. But industry needs power and needs a community and region-based support for sound energy stewardship choices. It's that tandem goal of attracting industry to Virginia and also ensuring the state's ability to provide dependable, affordable, electrical power for such industries in the future that has brought Virginia's government to very aptly focus now on nuclear. 

The Commonwealth of Virginia has taken some very smart measures to see that nuclear power is considered both as a power-production means and also as a high-tech industry itself that the state wishes to support, and to that end a consortium has been created to explore nuclear's future in Virginia (see the Nuclear Street article on this at the following link: 

Virginia already has established interests in all areas of nuclear, and it is from these foundations that future interests in the areas of power production, nuclear technology, general research, and naval reactors can be grown:

—Dominion Power has four power reactors in Virginia already in service, indicating the public support plus the industrial presence to make nuclear power viable in the state.

—Babcock & Wilcox, Areva, Newport News Shipbuilding and other nuclear-related businesses serving the power, naval, and DOE markets are established in Virginia. Babcock & Wilcox's operations in Lynchburg have brought this mid-sized and somewhat-isolated city a high-technology economic presence offering great jobs while those same operations could well be in Atlanta, Houston, or another, large, American city. Yet they're in Lynchburg, as they should be, because Lynchburg is a beautiful city and Babcock & Wilcox both benefits from the quality of life there while contributing greatly to the local community. Newport News Shipbuilding is one of the world's leading ship-building/drydock concerns and their establishment in Virginia is crucial to our Navy's ability to protect our nation via its carrier and submarine forces. 

—The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, on the research side of things, is one of our nation's leading accelerators and offers partnership opportunities with both industry and academia. 

—The wide array of defense/energy/national security business concerns in Virginia near Washington, DC, makes Virginia an attractive location for like-minded businesses to locate with easy access to both governmental client bases and other peer-level commercial concerns. 

Also, there is the issue of Virginia's ample uranium deposits, which if the ban on mining was lifted, could realign America's domestic uranium supplies in a manner that would greatly help secure our home-grown ability to provide for our own uranium needs. Whatever environmental concerns are tied to such mining pale in contrast to those found in coal mining despite the latter being a long-standing industry in West Virginia and western Virginia. With the EPA and many environmental groups growing more and more concerned with the environmental impact of coal plus the dangers to miners in the coal mining process itself, it's high time to look at nuclear, our ability to provide the raw materials for nuclear, and our willingness to do so. 

France provides a staggering 78% of its overall electrical generation output via nuclear. Why? Because by the 1970s, the French realized they didn't wish to rely on the Middle East for oil nor to rely on the USSR for natural gas or oil via the pipelines that ran into other European nations like Germany, Poland, and Belarus. As I reported in an earlier blog post, Belarus got bitten by the unpredictable mouth of Russia's Gazprom: given their long association with Russia under the USSR and their help in establishing the Gazprom pipeline through their nation, Belarus always assumed favorable pricing on natural gas from Gazprom. When prices became astronomically high, Belarus protested to no avail then considered the merits of nuclear as the French had decades prior. Germany, though captive even today (there's not a more polite way of saying it, really) to Gazprom's tap, gets around 30% of its power via nuclear and many probably wish it was much more than that. (Marshall Goldman's book Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia is, by the way, a great book regarding how Russia under Putin has put its vast oil and natural gas reserves to work for Russia and, truly, leaving a lot of other nations at Russia's mercy in this regard.) 

Yet to have sustainable nuclear and evade the unsure markets of fossil fuels, we have to provide the next generation of nuclear technology, too. All over the world—from China to Russia to Belarus to Serbia to France and beyond—I see and hear about people highly interested in the new wave of reactor technologies because these are all nations with robust, growing, industries and populations and the keen desire to see their own, domestic, secure, means to power such growth. I saw a need for the same in Covington and elsewhere in western Virginia despite this being the holy historical ground of King Coal. Small modular reactors could spell the ability for cities like Covington that have good water supplies and transport routes established to court light, high-tech, industry. Commercial concerns such as semiconductor plants and data centers require massive amounts of electrical power and SMR technology could supply this at low-cost and without straining the extant power grid in Virginia. In theory—though it would require major changes in legislation and regulatory approach—a large enough plant, mill, or other enterprise could even have its own native reactor on site to supply its power needs. That would be predicated upon a lot of legal changes and a different outlook than our current one, but it cannot be ignored in the grand scope of things, either. Virginia has been very, very, bright to establish this consortium and consider in detail the needs and possibilities for nuclear in the state. I would hope other states will follow this example and do the same. The DOE and NRC both have a lot of outreach activities they can provide for industry and state governments alike, but such expertise firstly must be requested and, for both political and economic reasons, prior to asking for that type of federal help a state is wise to gather its own experts and draft out what needs, ways, and means have to be investigated. Too many states—and even communities—have waited for power companies to express their interest in nuclear and start that process of discernment and examination when it can only benefit a state as a whole to have a baseline of insight established beyond specific commercial interests. 

I am not a fan of big government, and I could fault France especially for many aspects of its own government and political system, but I have to hand it to the French that their astute consideration of nuclear has only served them well. To see a state like Virginia take on that concern at the state-level and to see the groundwork being done in such a way that a foundation for future directions can actually be established is an action I find very encouraging. When I look at a city like Covington and dream of the light industry and things like software businesses—and the retail and other supportive economic base—that could grow there, I know nuclear can in many ways be part of that growth. I'm glad to see how Virginia is approaching this with a take-the-bull-by-the-horns attitude. 

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  • Anonymous

    Good article and I am all for the US to be self sufficient. I also believe that we should put some money into the US steel companies and we could manufacture major nuclear components and not rely on Japan, Korea and China. That was we can reduce unemployment and maintain the quality and pride that our country once had.