Virginia's four nuclear reactors are located at two sites, in Louisa County (red X) next to Lake Anna and in Surry County (blue X) next to the James River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Virginia is not self-sufficient in producing the nuclear material that is used to create electricity and ionizing radiation. All the nuclear material used within Virginia is imported into the state. The Code of Virginia does not include any provisions that allow for mining or processing uranium ore yet, though a large uranium deposit is located at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County.
The Virginia Department of Health regulates 17,000 radiation-producing machines. The most widespread use of nuclear material in Virginia is for medical services. Hospitals use radioactive isotopes, plus other nuclear material to generate X-rays and other ionizing radiation needed to scan body parts and treat cancer. X-ray equipment at dental offices relies upon Cobalt-60, and some engineering facilities also rely upon X-ray equipment to check the quality of welds. Construction firms rely upon nuclear gauges to test the density of soil, asphalt, and concrete.1
A different scale of safety planning, financial investment, and oversight is involved with reactors generating electricity via fission of U-235 atoms, compared to medical, engineering, and construction devices with relatively tiny amounts of nuclear material.
The US Army built two nuclear reactors at Fort Belvoir, and the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech built reactors for education, training, and research, but the main focus of nuclear energy in Virginia has been for generation of electricity.
The investor-owned utility known now as Dominion Power has built a total of four reactors at two sites. Two reactors are located on Hog Island peninsula in Surry County (Surry 1 and Surry 2, started in 1972 and 1973) are capable of generating a total of 1,638 megawatts. Two nuclear reactors in Louisa County (North Anna 1 and North Anna 2, started in 1978 and 1980) are capable of generating a total of 1,863 megawatts.
nuclear power plants were built at locations with adequate cooling water
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, North Anna and Surry, Power Stations - License Renewal Application
Surry nuclear power plant (through car windshield)
Both sites were isolated from large population centers, which provided a measure of safety in case of any form of nuclear incident. Most importantly, both sites offered access to enough water to cool the nuclear fuel containers. Fission generated the heat needed to boil water in a secondary system into steam, which was used by conventional steam turbines to generate electricity.
all of Virginia's military and commercial reactors have used the pressurized water design
Source: Army Engineer History, Nuclear Power Generation
The reactors are most efficient when running at a steady rate, so they are used for baseload rather than peaking power. Baseload plants run 24 hours per day and supply the electricity needed even when demand is at its lowest level. In contrast, peaking plants are turned on and off during the day, and supply extra energy needed in the morning (when people wake up, get ready for work/school, and turn on lights/hairdryers etc.) or in the evening (when people come home and cook dinner, do laundry, etc.)
power lines headed south from Surry nuclear power plant
In 2017, 41% of the electricity generated in Virginia was produced by the four nuclear reactors at North Anna and Surry. Nuclear reactors total just 23% of the potential generating sources in Virginia, but produced a higher percentage of the state's electricity because the reactors run steadily. Other generators are used only intermittently for peaking power.2
Virginia total electric power industry, summer capacity and net generation, by energy source, 2010
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, State Nuclear Profiles 2010
Before the development of solar panels, nuclear reactors produced the lowest-cost electricity. Back in 1954, the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission predicted that nuclear power plants could generate electricity at such a low cost that it would be "too cheap to meter."
That did not come true; construction of almost every large nuclear power plant was plagued by cost overruns. In 1974, climbing interest rates made it too expensive to borrow the massive amount of dollars required to construct a large nuclear power plant. For the next 34 years, no more were ordered by utilities.
In 2011, Virginia Dominion Power compared the various costs of the primary sources of electricity in Virginia:3
nuclear - 0.6 cents per kilowatt hour
coal - 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour
combined cycle (natural gas) - 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour
Lake Anna was built in 1971 to provide cooling water for nuclear reactors - note channel next to (circled) reactors
Source: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Lake Anna West 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2010)
Lynchburg, Bedford and Newport News are the focal points in Virginia for technical nuclear support services, plus construction of nuclear fuel assemblies and other power plant components. Hopes for industrial growth based on the nuclear power industry have been dashed by the failure of utilities to manage cost and safety issues. Without construction of new nuclear power plants, and with the retirement of existing plants, the future of nuclear support services is limited. The most reliable business in the industry is servicing reactors for nuclear-fueled ships operated by the US Navy.
The largest concentration of nuclear reactors in Virginia is the US Navy fleet of surface ships and submarines in Hampton Roads. The number of nuclear reactors in Virginia fluctuates, as ships come and go into different bases there. The Navy has a major nuclear power program in Virginia, installing and refueling small nuclear reactors in aircraft carriers and submarines on the northern bank of the James River. Newport News Shipbuilding:4
the US Navy has the largest number of nuclear reactors in Virginia at Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Newport News
Source: Wikipedia, Naval Station Norfolk
In 1955, when Babcock and Wilcox decided to make equipment for nuclear plants in Campbell County, the area was a center of foundries and manufacturing (especially shoes). Workers had the technical expertise needed by the new industry. Babcock & Wilcox completed the Mount Athos Nuclear Fuel Plant in 1956.
Between 1969-2011, the facility received pressed U02 pellets, placed them into rods and nuclear fuel assemblies, and shipping the assemblies to nuclear power plants. Between 1975-1982, it also created pellets from U02 powder. After closing down the pelletizing operation, the equipment was disposed as low-level radioactive waste and the area was decontaminated so it could be used for creating fuel assemblies.
In 2011, when Areva was the owner, the company decided not to renew its license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for production of fuel assemblies in Lynchburg. It shifted to production in Richland, Washington, and decontaminated the production line at Lychburg.5
Areva, a French multinational group, later placed its "Operational Center of Excellence for Nuclear Products and Services in North America" in Lynchburg. Areva upgraded its commitment to the area in 2013, committing to invest another $26 million for technical services and machinery.
Nuclear power plant trainees, including some from France and Germany, practiced operations such as welding underwater there. A "shake table" enabled testing reactor responses to earthquakes. The governor of Virginia formally welcomed the company's growth with a speech in 2014 that declared:6
Babcock & Wilcox split in 2015, and BWXT retained the nuclear business. The company still compresses uranium powder into pellets and loads the pellets into tubular fuel rods. It fabricates all fuel assemblies, the cores of reactors, for the US Navy's nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. In 2020, it had nearly $4 billion in contracts with the US Government to manufacture nuclear propulsion systems for warships. The BWXT facility was one of just two non-government facilities licensed to possess and process highly enriched uranium in the United States.7
The company had plans to expand its nuclear operations and technical services group to include manufacturing new reactors that would require less capital investment for constructing new nuclear power plants. That business opportunity is challenging, with little demand and wavering support from state and Federal agencies.
The "small modular reactor" program developed by Babcock & Wilcox, before splitting off BWXT in 2015, was based on the mPowerTM design. The company bet that the future of traditional, massive 900+MW nuclear power plants would be limited because of the extraordinarily high costs for initial construction. Utilities face enormous financial risk with such plants. They must borrow money and repay the bonds, even if a nuclear plant is not completed or is closed before its intended lifespan for safety reasons.
Babcock & Wilcox projected a bright future for generating electricity using nuclear reactors by advocating a different strategy. It proposed that new nuclear plants should be assembled in individual 50MW-300MW modules, built according to a standardized design in centralized factories to obtain the economies of scale. Modules would be shipped to the final site of the power plant, then buried underground when the radioactive fuel is added.
Separate modules would be funded individually, reducing the financial risk to an acceptable level for investors and state regulators. The low cost, with high reliability to produce electricity to meet baseload demand 24/7, could overcome public objections to constructing new nuclear power plants.
Engineers at the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research, an industry-led research center in Bedford, prototyped this dramatically different approach with a scale model, built above ground for testing. Babcock & Wilcox also used its facilities in Lynchburg for simulating operations in the future mPower control room, and for managing nuclear fuel.
uranium fuel pellets are encased in metal rods, which are then bundled together to create a fuel assembly
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Fact Sheet on Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel
The Department of Energy awarded grants for design, development, and ultimately construction of up to six new small modular reactors, providing 180 megawatts each, at the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor (CRBR) site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Commercial operations were projected to start in 2022.
As described by the Department of Energy:8
13 states consumed more nuclear-generated kilowatts of electric power than Virginia in 2011,
while 36 states consumed less (19 states consumed no nuclear power)
Data Source: US Energy Information Administration, Table F23: Nuclear Energy Consumption, Price, and Expenditure Estimates, 2011
Based on Babcock & Wilcox's mPower design, US Department of Energy and Lynchburg officials hoped to create a US-based manufacturing center for constructing self-contained nuclear power plants. The Small Modular Reactors (SMR's) would then shipped as via truck, to be assembled and installed in locations across the United States and in other countries.
Babcock & Wilcox failed to make sales of mPower reactors to other customers, or to attract other investors besides the Department of Energy willing to finance the research and development costs. In 2014, the company announced it was cutting funding for mPower by 75%, and laying off over 10% of its employees in central Virginia. The $30 million Integrated Systems Test facility, built by Babcock & Wilcox at the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research to simulate accidents and test new equipment at nuclear power plants, was shut down.
In 2016 the Tennessee Valley Authority announced it would apply for a permit to install small modular reactors (SMR's) at the Clinch River site. Bechtel committed to partner with BWXT, the portion of Babcock & Wilcox that retained the nuclear business, to develop a 195-megawatt modular reactor. That breathed new life into the small modular reactors program. However, in 2017 Bechtel and BWXT announced they were cancelling the mPower program, saying:9
NuScale has continued research into small modular reactors, each producing 50MW of electricity and costing $200 million to build. Small modular reactors will generate a highr volume of radioactive waste, compared to reactors in conventional nuclear power plants. "Neutron leakage" will activate more metal surrounding the larger number of small fuel assemblies.
In 2018, NuScale selected BWXT to do the engineering work for a small modular reactor. In 2020, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the design.
NuScale planned to build and test the reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory. If successful, nuclear energy could remain in the generation mix along with renewable sources of electricity, and companies based in Lynchburg might have an expanding market for business.10
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) offered another potential market for nuclear reactors designed by BWXT in Virginia. Rockets powered by nuclear thermal propulsion have the potential to provide more thrust than rockets powered by chemical fuels and oxidizer, cutting in half the amount of time astronauts must spend in space to reach Mars. The NASA Administrator told an audience at Liberty University in 2020:11
AREVA also produced fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants in Lynchburg. In 2009, AREVA and Huntington Ingalls Industries broke ground on a plant in Newport News that would manufacture major, heavy components for AREVA's EPRTM pressurized water reactor, with plans to start manufacturing in 2012. Fundamental to that planning was the assumption that new nuclear power plants would be constructed in North America.
nuclear fuel assemblies are not handled as radioactive waste, when transported to Newport News for installation in aircraft carriers
Data Source: US Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, Naval Spent Fuel Transportation
In 2010, AREVA and Huntington Ingalls Industries stretched out the deadlines. AREVA stopped production in 2011, after construction of the Calvert Cliffs 3 reactor in Maryland was delayed and then followed by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.
Five years later, Westinghouse tapped into the manufacturing capacity at Newport News Industrial, a subsidiary of the Huntington Ingalls Industries shipyard. Westinghouse had contracts to install its AP1000 pressurized water reactor at new nuclear plants in Georgia and South Carolina. The ability to manufacture large ships was suitable for constructing the steel components needed for shielding nuclear reactors.12
Plans for the nuclear industry's growth were excessively optimistic. Construction of the new nuclear plants in South Carolina was cancelled after costs far exceeded estimates. Westinghouse went into bankruptcy, and AREVA fragmented and moved its headquarters to Charlotte. In 2018, the company moved back to Lynchburg and rebranded itself as Framatome. That was the name used in Lynchburg until 2006, when Areva purchased the business.13
In 2020, Framatome purchased BWX Technologies' commercial nuclear services business.Framatome consolidated staff and research at its Lynchburg building on Old Forest Road in Lynchburg It signed a contract with Dominion Energy in 2021 to continue support of the company's reactors, including refueling services at the North Anna and Surry plants.
As part of its 2020 deal, Framatome sold its land and advanced manufacturing building on Mount Athos Road to the adjacent property owner, BWX Technologies. The new owner branded the former Framatome site as the BWXT Innovation Campus. In the transactions, BWX Technologies pivoted away from support of large nuclear power plants, and chose to focus on advanced technologies for space power, microreactors and medical radioisotopes.
In 2021, the company won a contract worth up to $21 billion from the Energy Department for environmental management at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Expansion plans on the BWXT campus intended to relocate 150 employees from nearby facilities were modified, since almost 100 new employees making an average annual salary of $115,000 would be hired.
BWXT did not dispose of its business units that created fuel assemblies. It retained that profitable work, including production of tristructural isotropic (TRISO) particle fuel for the U.S. Department of Energy. A news article highlighting a new contract for that fuel noted:14
BWX Technologies purchased land/building from Framatome (red X) and established the BWXT Innovation Campus on Mount Athos Road
Source: Campbell County, Parcel Data Viewer
The microreactor efforts of BWXT Advanced Technologies won Federal government support. In 2020, BWXT was selected by the Department of Energy as the lead contractor to design a microreactor in partnership with partner with Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Federal agency chose the Virginia company as one of five to create different designs for the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.
The high temperature, gas-cooled microreactor was designed to meet the Department of Energy's priority to provide portable, carbon-free electricity. Other Department of Energy priorities, not pursued by BWX, were to create an advanced reactor demonstration leading to a fully functional advanced nuclear reactor within seven years and to propose advanced reactor concepts that could be used to create commercial reactors in the mid-2030s.15
BWX Technologies purchased land/building from Framatome (red X) and established the BWXT Innovation Campus on Mount Athos Road
Source: US Department of Energy, 5 Advanced Reactor Designs to Watch in 2030
In 2021, the company was one of two finalists in "Project Pele," sponsored by the Department of Defense, to create a final prototype design for a transportable nuclear microreactor to power military installations and potentially forces deployed in the field. There could also be civilian uses:16
In 2022, BWXT won the Project Pele contract worth up to $300 million to build a prototype and deliver it to the Idaho National Laboratory by 2024. The plan was to build the microreactor components in Lynchburg and Euclid, Ohio, then deliver the prototype to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) for several years of testing.
As described in World Nuclear News:17
After adoption of the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, the focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions created a new opportunity for commercial nuclear reactors based on a different design. Utilities and government agencies were no longer willing to build massive nuclear power plants which cost billions of dollars and were high-risk investments, with inevitable cost-overruns during construction and changing licensing requirements. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimated that 300 Small Modular Reactors would be operating by 2050.
Bill Gates saw the opportunity to use standardized microreactors fueled by uranium, to create electricity with almost zero emissions once a reactor was installed. Gates started TerraPower in 2008, and it has pursued a design based on using molten salt to cool the reactor. The diversity of designs was expected to create new business opportunities for BWXT Advanced Technologies, sufficient to justify selling the relatively safe nuclear services business to Framatome, its next-door neighbor in Lynchburg.18
TerraPower developed a new reactor design that did not require a cooling tower
Source: TerraPower, About Us
Advocates for developing new designs and building new nuclear power plants claimed that they would generate electricity without creating greenhouse gases, and would reduce the safety risks by using passive techniques for cooling the reactor. In case of a problem, reactors would not overheat even if they lost all power for maintaining the cooling system.
nuclear reactors in Virginia do not have iconic cooling towers, but instead discharge heated water into Lake Anna (above) and the James River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In contrast, when electrical power was cut off to nuclear power plants cooled by water, reactors began to overheat after the water circulation stopped. Diesel generators were included in power plant designs to maintain the cooling water systems until power could be restored, but at Fukushima a tsunami destroyed the diesel backup system. Three reactor cores melted through the containment vessels in Japan, and pressurized hydrogen gas explosions destroyed the outer containment buildings.
There have been eight core-melt accidents in military and civilian reactors since 1952, including experimental reactors. Three separate events caused core-melts in nuclear power plants generating electricity between the incident at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukishimna in 2011, averaging almost one per decade.
Despite the expensive safety systems, by one calculation a full or partial meltdown should be expected every six to seven years. A 2016 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, after the Fukushima disaster, estimated the likelihood of another core-melt accident:19
New designs sought to prevent such a disaster. New designs were also supposed to be uranium-efficient, generating more electricity from fuel rods before they had to be replaced. However, high-level nuclear waste would still be produced by any new sodium-cooled fast reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and molten salt-fueled reactors, and no permanent repository for storage was available for new waste.20
If small modular reactors are approved and gain public acceptance as cost-effective sources of carbon-free electricity, they could be constructed by Dominion Energy as an alternative to a third pressurized-water reactor at North Anna. Small reactors with six modules ("six packs") up to 12 modules ("12 packs") could be located where coal-fired power plants were closed, taking advantage of the substations and transmission infrastructure already in place.
Otherwise, it is unlikely another nuclear power plant will ever be built in Virginia. Without commitments to build more of the traditional pressurized water reactors after completion of Vogtle Unit 3 and Unit 4 in Georgia, the supply chain and skilled labor force will disappear. A former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said bluntly in 2021:21
Governor Youngkin revealed his 2022 Energy Plan in Lynchburg. He highlighted the capabilities of BWX Technologies and Framatome, and called for a "moon shot" effort to build a small modular reactor (SMR) in Southwest Virginia within 10 years as part of his all-of-the-above strategy to increase energy supplies:22
nuclear reactors run at maximum power more than other sources of generating electricity
Source: US Department of Energy, What is Generation Capacity?
The US Department of Energy identified that many sites of former coal-fired power plants were suitable for small modular reactors. The electricity transmission lines were already in place, and sites were zoned for industrial use.
In contrast, construction of new solar facilities was delayed by the slow pace at which the grid operator, PJM, was completing the interconnection studies required to avoid overloading transmission lines. In April 2022, PJM had a backlog of 1,200 projects. The speed at which the grid would be decarbonized was affected by the inability of clean energy projects to deliver electricity.23
there will be little electricity provided by nuclear power plants by 2050 unless licenses are renewed for existing nuclear power plants or new ones are constructed
Source: US Department of Energy, National Offshore Wind Strategy (2016) (Figure 2-6)
the Department of Energy sees great potential in small micro-reactors
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, State Nuclear Profiles 2010