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Dominion Energy says small modular nuclear reactors could be a part of the grid in Va, in a decade

The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in Londenderry Township, Pa., was the site of a partial meltdown in 1979. The plant, with its one still-functioning reactor, is having trouble selling its power because it's more expensive than other resources, including natural gas.
John S. Zeedick
Small modular nuclear reactors won't feature the large tower commonly associated with conventional nuclear power plants.

As Virginia officials and utilities work towards reducing carbon emissions there has been a lot of talk about something called small modular reactors. SMR’s are a modern twist on decades-old nuclear technology. But with none currently in operation anywhere in the U.S., just how viable of an option is it?

At BWXT Advanced Technologies just outside Lynchburg a 3-D printer is plugging away.

“This is a binder jet 3D Printer, and so it works just like an inkjet printer,” explains Joe Miller, president of BWXT Advanced Technologies.

Except instead of ink and paper, this printer uses fine-grain silicon carbide. Building up layers like a sandcastle. This kind of tech allows nuclear engineers to push the envelope of their designs. When the mathematical equations aren’t limited by conventional sizes and shapes fission can come in a smaller package.

Joe Miller describes a micro nuclear reactor, which the company is currently under contract with the Defense Department to build.

“Like you see a shipping container? The entire system would fit into four of those shipping containers,” he says.

But the technology that’s most interesting to Virginia officials is one size up. Called a small modular reactor, or SMR.

“All of the supporting equipment and power conversion equipment could fit into the footprint you could see in the size of a Wal-Mart or something that size,” says Miller.

There aren’t any SMR’s in operation in the U.S. But not because the technology isn’t sound, Miller says much of it has actually been around for decades. The problem is that there hasn’t been market demand. For so long utilities focused on natural gas.

But now that’s changing.

“And so I think it’s just a matter of time and once you break that seal on that first deployment of a small modular reactor a lot will follow because of the big benefits you get from the technology,” says Miller.

Proponents say those benefits include the way SMR’s are constructed. Once the legwork of design is done the components can be mass produced and shipped to different sites. It’s like the IKEA of nuclear energy.

“I envision it almost like Legos,” explains Todd Flowers, director of business development for Dominion Energy. “It’s not as simple as legos by any means, these are nuclear power plants, but you’re assembling these on site. All the design work is completed when you put shovels in the ground.”

Flowers expects SMR’s to become an important part of the grid in about a decade. He says Dominion Energy is currently considering locations and designs.

“You need to pick a site, pick a technology. Go through that design engineering, go through the regulatory licensing, and then construct,” Flowers says. “When you develop the details of that deployment schedule we think it is foreseeable that you could have an SMR placed in service over the next decade.

Detractors though point to major cost overruns at an early project in Idaho, and they question whether officials can promise reliability from a tech that hasn’t contributed to the grid anywhere yet.

Rees Shearer is a community organizer in Southwest Virginia and he sees SMR’s as a raw deal for a part of the state that’s already had a lot of raw deals. He’d like to see utilities focus their investment on more proven technologies.

“And that’s solar energy, and there’s plenty of mine land that can be restored and utility infrastructure from those mines that can support utility scale solar,” Shearer says.

Shearer questions whether utilities would be so interested in SMR’s right now if it weren’t for the hefty economic incentives beingoffered by the federal government.

“They tend to be animals like pigs at the trough when there’s any kind of subsidy around they like to jump in and grab as much as they can from it,” he says.

Opponents point to a host of other uncertainties about the technology, including waste storage and transport, the timeline for development, and whether the cost will fall to utility customers instead of shareholders.

But the fact remains that some major shift is going to have to happen if Virginia is going to reach its net-zero goal by 2045, all while the state is still on track to use significantly more energy each year. Not less.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.