Early voting nears $1 million in Virginia

Dominion Energy’s North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Louisa County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Within two months, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin made it clear that he wanted Virginia to be a leader in the use of nuclear technology, particularly in having a small modular reactor operational in the Southwest. West Virginia over the next decade.

He first announced the new direction when unveiling his statewide energy plan, a document every Virginia governor is required by law to draft, in early October. He then built on this by proposing a $10 million fund for energy innovation efforts, half of which would be devoted to deploying an SMR.

Critics of Youngkin’s energy plan were quick to say that small modular reactors were in their infancy compared to already deployable and scalable renewable energy technologies.

Nuclear generation has been around for decades, but SMRs are an emerging form of advanced technology. The first three are expected to be deployed in different parts of the country by the end of the decade.

While Virginia has had two traditional nuclear power plants in operation for years, the smaller nuclear reactors are unique in how they operate and the fuel they use. However, many of the concerns of nuclear technology – such as waste, operational requirements, and cost – also accompany SMRs.

How do SMRs work?

SMRs are designed to be a “plug and play” form of nuclear generation in the sense that they can be manufactured in a factory and then installed at a site, according to an August report commissioned by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

While many of the country’s current large nuclear reactors were built to generate between 300 and over 1,000 megawatts, SMRs are intended to generate between 20 and 300 megawatts of electricity in base-load capacity. There are also microreactors, generating between 1 and 20 megawatts of power, which are about 1% the size of traditional reactor designs.

Youngkin to propose funding for small modular nuclear reactors

Nuclear reactors generate heat by fission, or the slamming of atoms together. This process is carried out using fuel rod assemblies filled with uranium pellets.

Uranium atoms can be split easily. When atoms separate, radioactive isotopes are created. Uranium is commonly found in rocks around the world, but the specific type used in nuclear power generation, U-235, is rare.

Once the heat is generated, it can be used to make steam which spins turbines to produce electricity mainly in two ways: via boiling water reactors or pressurized water reactors. In the first, water is boiled to produce steam. In the latter, steam is produced by exchanging heat from a primary loop of water passing through the core at high pressure to a second loop at lower pressure.

Traditional reactors use water for their processes, but advanced reactors like SMRs can use molten salt, liquid metals like sodium or lead, or gases like helium or carbon dioxide. These approaches allow them to operate at higher temperatures, with higher efficiency rates and potentially less radioactive waste.

In addition to being more efficient than traditional nuclear, SMRs are federally approved because they offer certain safety features that don’t require operators, according to Alice Caponiti, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. .

Where does the fuel come from?

SMRs operate with an enriched form of uranium, an ore once mined in the United States, but now primarily international in origin. In 2020, just over a quarter of uranium purchases for US reactors came from Canada and Kazakhstan, with an additional 19% from Russia, 13% from Australia and 9% from Uzbekistan, according to NARUC.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 led to the cancellation of many plans for new reactors, creating a global oversupply of uranium. Competing energy sources like natural gas and wind have also caused several US mining companies to shut down operations for good.

Today, the United States has only two operating uranium mines in Wyoming, one operating plant in Utah, and one operating enrichment plant in New Mexico. A conversion plant, which adapts fuel for reactors, in Ohio is expected to restart next year, NARUC has found.

While the current nuclear fleet relies on what is called “low enriched uranium”, advanced reactors like SMRs rely on “high dosage low enriched uranium”, or HALEU. This fuel has a higher concentration of uranium, allowing reactors to operate more efficiently. Russia is the only country with HALEU enrichment capabilities available on the market.

After the uranium pellets are stacked into rods which are bundled together to form a fuel assembly, trucks transport them to reactor sites where the assemblies remain in bins until they are needed, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Uranium is only slightly radioactive at this point.

Dominion Energy, which operates Virginia’s only two nuclear plants, said in its 2022 Integrated Resource Plan that the company intends to add a small modular reactor to its fleet by 2032.

Scott Miller, head of nuclear communications and media relations at Dominion, said: “Everything indicates that, at this time, uranium for future SMRs will come from the same sources in the supply chain that provide uranium. to the existing fleet.

The Lightbridge, headquartered in Virginia, is working to develop an advanced nuclear fuel source that can operate at a cooler temperature than that required by standard fuel.

How is the waste treated?

Nuclear fuel must be processed after use to allow radioactive decay and safe cooling.

This process begins with storing the fuel in water-cooled pools for about five to seven years, the NARUC report details. It is then transported in large concrete stainless steel containers for storage.

Because the United States does not have a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel, the drums must be stored on site. A video of Dominion Energy’s nuclear processes shows fuel stored in large structures.

“Surry and North Anna have been safely storing their spent nuclear fuel for 50 years,” Miller said.

A permanent spent fuel storage project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has been halted due to the state’s refusal.

“All the fuel we’ve produced so far could fit on the size of a football pitch, three meters high,” Caponiti said.

But while boosters tout the effectiveness of SMRs, a research paper determined that the waste they create is “larger and more chemically/physically reactive” than that generated by traditional nuclear reactors.

A DOE spokesperson said work on a final fuel disposal system and how to handle future spent SMR fuels is underway.

What will it take to make an SMR operational?

The federal government has contracted three companies to operate small modular reactors by the end of the decade.

These include a light water reactor from NuScale in Idaho, a sodium-cooled reactor from TerraPower in Wyoming and a gas-cooled reactor from X-Energy in Washington. All should be operational by 2029.

According to a report by the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, more than 60 private industry nuclear operations in the state are working on engineering, manufacturing, safety, staffing or infrastructure. One is Lynchburg-based BWX Technologies, which is helping build a GE small modular reactor in Canada by the end of the decade.

How the company will be involved in achieving Youngkin’s goal is unknown, Chairman and CEO Rex Geveden said in an interview with the Mercury, because “no reactor has been selected, no architecture , no technology type selection”. But it will be somewhere in the supply chain, he added.

Despite those plans, Geoff Fettus, a nuclear, climate and clean energy program advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he’s skeptical an SMR could be up and running in Virginia within a decade.

“We especially don’t think it will be operational in an open market capacity this decade or maybe next,” Fettus said, considering competing with “cheaper, safer, faster and cleaner renewables.” “.

How much do they cost?

NARUC has estimated that the capital costs of SMRs are cheaper than those of other advanced and conventional nuclear reactors, at about $5,969 per kilowatt per hour, compared to about $6,432 or $7,740, respectively.

Additionally, reusing decommissioned coal-fired power plants for SMRs can create savings, as nuclear requires much less land area than solar or wind.

“Many new advanced nuclear reactor designs currently in development do not require water to cool the reactor and are therefore not bound by access and availability of water from nearby rivers, lakes or oceans” , the NARUC report added.

However, while SMRs are more cost-effective to operate than fossil-fuel plants, the costs associated with recent projects in South Carolina, Georgia and Idaho have raised concerns.

NuScale says it can generate electricity at $58 per megawatt hour, but some estimate SMR power costs could be as high as $200 per megawatt hour.

Geveden acknowledged that advanced reactor projects “may not be as cheap as wind and solar at first, but they become more competitive when you evaluate them over the life of the plant.”

Still, Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director at the NRDC, said SMR technology just isn’t necessary.

“On the hottest summer day, we still have 20% extra capacity beyond what we need,” Shepherd said. “The idea that we have to tackle this currently non-existent energy technology to meet an already-met need is like building a Mars spaceship to get to the corner grocery store.”

Comments are closed.