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Youngkin, Dominion announce "moonshot" goal to build nation’s first small modular nuclear reactor

The SMR bill signing event at Dominion Energy's North Anna nuclear plant on Wednesday, July 10.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
The SMR bill signing event at Dominion Energy's North Anna nuclear plant on Wednesday, July 10.

Gov. Youngkin has advocated for investing in the nascent SMR industry as part of his “all of the above” energy strategy.

Dominion Energy hopes to build a small modular nuclear reactor in Virginia in the 2030s that would be the nation’s first such commercial facility.

Bob Blue, the utility’s president and CEO, made the announcement Wednesday at Dominion’s existing North Anna nuclear plant northwest of Richmond.

“For generations, nuclear energy has been the most reliable workhorse of our fleet and the largest source of zero-carbon power in Virginia,” Blue said. Small modular reactors, known as SMRs, “could play an equally pivotal role in our energy future.”

The company is opening a request for proposals from nuclear technology companies to evaluate how feasible it is to build an SMR at North Anna, which opened more than four decades ago.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has advocated for investing in the nascent industry for years as part of his “all of the above” approach to energy. The governor’s state energy plan released in 2022 called for launching such a reactor within a decade.

At Wednesday’s event, Youngkin ceremonially signed a new state law that encourages small modular nuclear reactor development by allowing Dominion to recover associated costs from customers. The utility plans to seek approval to do so this fall from the State Corporation Commission. A potential monthly rider would be capped at $1.40, though the company expects less.

Youngkin called the race to open an SMR “Virginia’s version of the moonshot.”

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

Nuclear power plants harness nuclear fission to split apart tiny atoms of uranium or plutonium and produce steam that generates electricity without emitting fossil fuels that cause climate change.

Small modular reactors work the same way but with a smaller footprint, producing up to about 300 megawatts of electricity. By contrast, each reactor at the North Anna plant generates about three times that.

SMRs are typically built with smaller components that can be more easily assembled and transported than traditional reactors, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

China and Russia are the only places that currently have commercial SMR facilities in operation.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was on track last year to approve a six-reactor SMR facility in Utah, but the company behind the project ultimately scrapped it, citing costs that soared to nearly $10 billion. (Nuclear power plants are notoriously expensive to build and operate.)

Dominion spokesperson Tim Eberly said the new RFP process, which will likely run through the end of this year, is meant to assess those types of challenges that could lay ahead.

“Cost is a big one,” he said, as well as supply chain issues and actual reactor design. “If SMRs are in fact the next generation of nuclear energy, we want to be at the front of the line taking advantage of that.”

The company emphasizes it’s in an exploratory phase and has not committed to build an SMR at North Anna.

Several vendors of SMRs have designs in varying states of regulatory approval with the national Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

North Anna and Virginia’s other nuclear power plant, located in Surry, together generate about 40% of Dominion’s total electricity output and 90% of its clean energy.

Dominion says pursuing advanced nuclear technologies is part of its strategy for meeting net-zero carbon emission goals by 2050, as required by the Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020.

“SMRs present the opportunity to provide an additional energy source which is available at all hours of the day to complement renewable energy,” the company writes on its website.

The federal government touts SMRs as a key opportunity in the fight against climate change.

But the concept has also drawn criticism from environmental groups that argue the reactors produce hazardous waste and are a distraction from other forms of clean energy.

One 2022 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that SMRs might actually produce “more voluminous and chemically/physically reactive waste” than traditional reactors.

Separately, next week federal officials plan to conduct a biennial emergency preparedness exercise at the North Anna Power Station. It will “assess the ability of the Commonwealth of Virginia to respond to an emergency at the nuclear facility,” according to FEMA.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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