Nuclear power supplies both electricity and thousands of jobs in Virginia. Lynchburg, Bedford and Newport News are the focal points in Virginia for technical support services, plus construction of nuclear fuel assemblies and other power plant components.
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.1
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, practice operations such as welding underwater there, while a "shake table" enables testing reactor responses to earthquakes. The governor of Virginia formally welcomed the company's latest growth with a speech that delared:2
Babcock & Wilcox fabricates fuel assemblies for the US Navy's nuclear submarines, pressing uranium powder into pellets and loading them into tubular fuel rods. The company 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.
The "small modular reactor" program of Babcock & Wilcox is based on the mPowerTM design. The company bet that the future of massive 900MW nuclear power plants will be limited by the extraordinarily high costs for initial construction; utilities must borrow that money and repay the bonds, even if a nuclear plant is closed for safety reasons, exposing the utility to financial risk.
The low cost and high reliability of nuclear power could overcome public objections to constructing new nuclear power plants, and Babcock & Wilcox projected a bright future for a different strategy - small nuclear plants that could be assembled in modules, and then buried underground.
Engineers at the Babcock & Wilcox Center for Advanced Engineering and Research in Bedford prototyped this dramatically different approach with a scale model, built above ground for testing. The company 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 has 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:3
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 reactors would then shipped as complete units via truck, to be installed in locations across the United States and in other countries. However, 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.4
AREVA also has 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. However, in 2010 operations were stretched out and then stopped in 2011, after construction of the Calvert Cliffs 3 reactor in Maryland was delayed and then the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred in Japan.5
Virginia has commercial nuclear power plants generating low-cost electricity at two locations. There are two reactors at a plant in Surry County (Surry 1 and Surry 2, started in 1972 and 1973) capable of generating a total of 1,638 megawatts, and two nuclear reactors in Louisa County (North Anna 1 and North Anna 2, started in 1978 and 1980) capable of generating a total of 1,863 megawatts. Dominion Power, a private investor-owned utility, built the plants, and the rural counties benefit from property taxes paid on the high-value facilities. All four units use the Westinghouse, three-loop, pressurized water design.6
The four reactors at North Anna and Surry 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.).
Between 1999-2009, 38% of the electricity generated in Virginia was produced by the four nuclear reactors at North Anna and Surry. Nuclear reactors total just 15% of the potential generating sources in Virginia, but produce 35-40% of the state's electricity because the reactors run steadily, while other generators are used only intermittently for peaking power.7
Nuclear reactors produce the lowest-cost electricity in the state. In 2011, Virginia Dominion Power compared the various costs of the primary sources of electricity in Virginia:8
nuclear - 0.6 cents per kilowatt hour
coal - 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour
combined cycle (natural gas) - 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour
Dominion Resources has plans to add a new 1,470 megawatts reactor at the North Anna site. The utility submitted an Early Site Permit (ESP) proposal to the Nuclear Regultory Commission based on a larger, 1,700 megawatt reactor based on a different design (the Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries), but now proposes to use the Hitachi Economic Simplified Boiling-Water design. The new design would allow for a more cost-effective reactor than the Westinghouse, three-loop, pressurized water design used for Units 1 and 2.
In addition to financial inducements to shift back to the Hitachi design, Dominion reconsidered safety issues after the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima and the 5.8 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter very near the Louisa location. The Hitachi Economic Simplified Boiling-Water model has passive gravity-based safety features, including cooling water stored above the reactor, that can keep the core cool for up to seven days even if electrical power to the site was disrupted by an earthquake or other event.9
The third reactor, if built, would be expected to operate for 60 years before being decommissioned. Dominion has received one 20-year extension of its licenses for North Anna and Surry plants, and anticipates receiving another from the Nuclear Regultory Commission. With a second extension, nuclear facilities designed and built in the 1960's would stay operational in Virginia into the middle of the 21st Century. The proposed third reactor could cost $8 billion, so the utility has been cautious about making a commitment.10
Dominion Resources obviously recognizes that the risks of using nuclear fuel differ from other sources of power; spent niclear fuel assemblies are stored differently from fly/bottom ash residue at coal-fired power plants. After the August, 2011 earthquake (5.8 magnitude, with the epicenter in Louisa County), the North Anna reactors automatically tripped offline. Metal casks storing spent fuel assemblies slid up to 4.5 inches on their concrete pad, and 12 casks ended up closer than the minimum 16-foot separation. The reactors were not restarted for almost three months.11
vertical (and horizontal) dry casks are used to store spent fuel assemblies "temporarily" at Lake Anna, since no permanent repository for permanent storage has been built
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Backgrounder on Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Typical Dry Cask Storage System
The economics of the private company are affected by the costs to manage those risks, including the day in the future when the nuclear power plants must be closed permanently (decommissioned). In its 2004 Annual Report, the utility said that it had set aside $2.6 billion to satisfy the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's minimum financial assurance amounts for the future decommissioning of its nuclear facilities:12
In 2010, however, the company reported:13
Dominion Resources has purchased liability insurance in case of an accident at North Anna or Surry. The maximum coverage offered by private insurance companies is not sufficient to cover potential costs, however. In addition to the $375 million in coverage for each site that Dominion has bought from private commercial insurance pools, the utility also relies upon a $12 billion pool of insurance funded by every utility using nuclear power. The Federal government created the insurance safety net when the Price-Anderson Act was first passed in 1957, to spur commercial use of atomic energy.
Still, fear of nuclear power after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 limited the development of additional nuclear power plants in Virginia as a source for electricity. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 included new subsidies for nuclear power, and popular support for more commercial nuclear power plants appeared to be growing untilt the meltdowns at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 after a tsunami.
Nuclear power plants generate no greenhouse gases, but the facilities do generate fear of a disaster. To present the case that nuclear power is safe, Dominion has visitor centers at each plant and even an online tour of a nuclear power plant.14
Disaster plans have been developed for the four reactors in Virginia, plus the Calvert Cliffs plant 22 miles away in Maryland. The plans document how people within 10 miles of the reactors would be evacuated from the Plume Exposure Pathway (or Ten-Mile Emergency Planning Zone), based on the assumption that "For the worst core melt sequences, immediate life-threatening doses would generally not occur outside of the zone." The Ingestion Exposure Pathway (or 50-Mile Emergency Planning Zone) was defined based on the assumption that "Much of any particulate material in a radioactive plume would have been deposited on the ground within 50 miles of the facility."
The Virginia Department of Emergency Services also risk management plans in case of an accidental release of radiation from nuclear-powered ships in Hampton Roads at the Naval Station Norfolk, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, and the Newport News Shipyard. In case of an incident, an Area of Planning Attention extending 0.5-mile from the ship will be declared instead of the 10-mile and 50-mile zones, because the amount of radioactive material on the ships and consequences of an accident is lower.15
By comparison, a 12-mile zone was evacuated around the Fukushima plant in 2011, but some locations further away are "hot spots" with excessive radiation levels. After the meltdowns at Fukushima, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that all Americans evacuate from a zone within 50 miles of the crippled plants. Later, health inspectors discovered that food from areas far outside the evacuation zone (including ocean-caught fish) were contaminated with radioactive isotopes of cesium.16
Virginia Tech operated a research reactor from 1962-1981. It was a 100kW reactor based on the Argonne National Laboratory's Argonaut design (Argonne Nuclear Assembly for University Training), developed to teach reactor theory and nuclear physics.
When Tech's reactor was first built, peaceful uses of atomic energy were expected to create a demand for engineers to build nuclear power plants and for operators to manage the facilities. Ultimately, 70 teaching and research reactors were constructed in the United States, before the accident at Three Mile Island interrupted (or ended...) plans of utilities to provide electricity generated at nuclear-fueled power plants.
Without a demand for graduates, the Virginia Tech reactor shut down in 1981 and was decommissioned five years later. When the reactor was dismantled, 70% of the concrete shield originally built to protect against release of radiation was placed in the local Blacksburg landfill. The 30% (68 tons) that was too radioactive was shipped to an out-of-state facility for disposal as low-level radioactive waste.17
Two nuclear reactors were built for research and educating engineering students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The 2-megawatt University of Virginia Reactor (UVAR) was in operation between 1960-1998, and the 100-watt "Cooperatively Assembled Virginia Low-Intensity Educational Reactor" (CAVALIER) ran from 1974-1988. In 2002, radioactive components at the facility were dismantled and shipped to Envirocare in Utah and to Barnwell, South Carolina for disposal. The site was converted into the Observatory Mountain Engineering Research Facility, and served as the headquarters for the university's Solar Car Team.18
The Army Nuclear Power Program, based at Fort Belvoir, built and tested two small nuclear power plants at that site. It created the first nuclear power plant to generate electricity in Virginia, the 10-megawatt SM-1. The Army claims the SM-1 was the "first nuclear power station to be connected to an electrical grid" before it was deactivated in 1973.19
That power plant was an early model of what the Army expected to be many small nuclear power plants built for deployment to locations without electricity or conventional petroleum-based fuels, places that were not "on the grid" in an industrialized location.20
The Army also tested its last nuclear power plant in Virginia. The MH-1A reactor capable of producing as much as 45 megawatts was installed in a World War Two Liberty ship, renamed the USS Sturgis after the recently-deceased Chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The ship's propulsion system was removed, in order to make space for the reactor. After a successful test of the reactor at Gunston Cove on the Potomac River, the floating power plant was towed to the Panama Canal. The USS Sturgis served in Panama as a 10-megawatt power barge during the Vietnam War. Nuclear-generated electricity replaced output from a hydropower plant, allowing more water from Gatun Lake to be used for ship transits in the canal.21
Both the SM-1 and MH-1A reactors have now been deactivated. The Army may wait as long as 50 years for radiation to decrease, before complete decommissioning of the reactors. The USS Sturgis has been placed in the Reserve Fleet in the James River, before it is recycled.22
The Navy has continued its nuclear power program in Virginia, installing and refueling nuclear reactors in aircraft carriers and submarines at Newport News.
(NOTE: In many Virginia communities, hospitals and dentist offices have radioactive isotopes in various medical equipment, but these are generating radiation for X-rays and other medical purposes rather than generating electricity.)
SM-1 nuclear power plant at Fort Belvoir
Source: Fort Belvoir
USS Sturgis with MH-1A nuclear power plant, operating in the Panama Canal Zone
Source: Panama Historical Society Facebook page