What Role for Nuclear Power in Virginia’s Energy Future?

virginia_nukesby James A. Bacon

Virginia can lead a national renaissance in nuclear energy, argue Robert Hartwell and Donald Hoffman in a new white paper published by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. They advance two main arguments: (1) nuclear is an economical source of green energy emitting near-zero levels of carbon dioxide, and (2) nuclear can support job creation and contribute to the tax base in Virginia.

As the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan compels Virginia to retire coal-fired power plants as the only practical way to meet strict CO2 emission goals, citizens face a critical decision whether or not to build a new nuclear power plant at Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna nuclear facility. While Hartwell and Hoffman do not endorse the particulars of Dominion’s plans, they make the case that nuclear power is both safe and economical.

Neither Hoffmann nor Hartwell are disinterested parties. Hoffman chairs the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority and Hartwell is president of Hartwell Capitol Consulting, which does work on energy and environmental issues. But as the debate over a third nuclear plant at North Anna heats up, they provide an advance look at how the pro-nuclear side will frame the debate.

Safety. Despite the impression created by highly publicized incidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, nuclear power is safe, they assert. “There has never been a nuclear power accident in the United States resulting in radiation being emitted into the atmosphere.” Likewise, there have been “no accidents of any kind involving nuclear” in Virginia, including Dominion’s nuclear plants, dozens of nuclear-powered vessel, and experimental reactors at Fort Belvoir near Alexandria.

As for the North Anna nuclear plants being located on a fault line, they write:

During the 5.8 earthquake centered in Louisa County in August 2011, the North Anna 1 and 2 plants automatically shut down and were carefully checked before restarting nearly 90 days later. No damage occurred although some of the nuclear storage casks were moved closer together and some slid more than 4.5 inches.

Cost. Studies have found that nuclear power generated in Virginia was the least expensive of any power generation source. The cost per kilowatt hour was estimated at 0.6 cents compared to 3.5 cents for coal and 4.5 cents for natural gas. (The authors do not cite their sources for this data.)

Economic development. Aside from California, Virginia is the largest electricity importer among the 50 states. Moreover, the state will need more than 4,000 megawatts of additional power to meet the increased demand for electricity by 2021. Building power plants in Virginia creates jobs locally and bolsters the tax base.

Experts have found that the average nuclear power plant generates $470 million in sales of goods and services annually. One plant provides approximately $40 million in labor income each year and 400 to 700 full-time permanent jobs which pay 36% more than other local jobs. Each plant also generates an average of $16 million in state and local tax revenue for schools, roads and hospitals.

Virginia is particularly well suited for nuclear power, the authors contend. “The sheer number of nuclear operations and nuclear-related facilities, engineering schools and federal facilities and critical infrastructure which could benefit from safe and secure nuclear power is breathtaking.” An idea of the number of players who could benefit from a renaissance of nuclear power can be seen in the list of nuclear-related companies with a presence in Virginia:

  • Areva
  • Babcock and Wilcox
  • Bechtel Power Corporation
  • Bridgeborn
  • Dominion Virginia Power
  • Excel Services Corporation
  • Fluor Daniel Services Corporation
  • GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
  • Huntington Ingalls (Newport News Nuclear)
  • Siemens
  • The Atlantic Group
  • Thorium Power (Lightbridge)
  • Toshiba America Nuclear Energy

The authors are particularly jazzed by the potential of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which are inherently safer than previous designs. They have smaller land footprints, they don’t require water cooling (which eliminates the potential for leaks of radioactive water), and they have passive safety systems that require no emergency backup power.

Underground SMRs placed in key locations at key government facilities, underground and immune from electromagnetic pulse attacks of power grid sabotage make total sense. … From Tidewater, to Washington, to secure classified facilities in our rural countryside, SMRs dedicated to providing emergency power or continuous power off grid could pave the way for an entire new generation of safe smaller nuclear facilities in key locations across Virginia.

Virginia is poised to capture a major portion of the global nuclear technology market, recently estimated by the U.S. Department of Commerce to approach $750 billion over the next ten years. If we were able to capture 25% of that amount in the U.S., over 185,000 high-paying jobs would be created and sustained.

Bacon’s bottom line:  To my mind, Hoffman and Hartwell make a strong case for nuclear power, but I’m acutely aware that they present only one side of the story. Questions I have:

  • To what degree does nuclear power in the U.S. benefit from federal government subsidies and tax breaks, and how does that compare to incentives for fossil fuels and renewables? Can we really make intelligent judgments about which fuel is the most economical?
  • What kind of technology does Dominion propose to use for its proposed North Anna Three plant? Is it safer than previous technologies? How do the economics compare? Has Dominion explored Small Modular Reactors?
  • How do the economics of nuclear power compare to those of renewable energy, the preferred alternative of many Virginia environmentalists? How do environmentalists view SMRs?

I’m sure many more questions will arise, but those should get us started.

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7 responses to “What Role for Nuclear Power in Virginia’s Energy Future?

  1. Of course we’re still waiting for a solution on storage of nuclear waste. Keeping the spent fuel rods under water in a glorified swimming pool for thousands of years is not going to cut it. Now that Harry Reid is retiring, maybe DOE will revive Yucca Mountain.
    It will also be enlightening to see a utility go through a decommissioning process for an older plant. I wonder if those costs were built into the 5 cent per kWh estimate.

  2. Suspicious, as always, of anything that comes out of the Thomas Jefferson Institute, I note that the authors of this industry-happy report are members of an “authority” made up only of nuclear industry proponents and was created by disgraced former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who had a penchant for creating one-sided commissions.

    A few points:

    (1) “No radiation has ever leaked in the U.S. Yes, it did at Three Mile Island, apparently in a small amount, but the monitors did not report emissions accurately.

    (2) Radiation sure as hell leaked at Chernobyl. The plume traveled all the way to Sweden. At Fukushima, radiation was enough to kill someone in a few hours. A protective no man’s land was set up 25 miles or more from the Japanese reactor. FYI, I covered the Chernobyl aftermath when I was a U.S. correspondent in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. I also went near Fukushima for book research in the fall of 2011, about six months after the accident. The local newspapers were reporting how the government would price hundreds of homes for compensation since they were in the unlivable radiation zone.

    (3) Talk about minimizing North Anna! Vepco, Dominion’s predecessor, was fined for lying about putting he power plant on a fault line. The 2011 earthquake shook the reactor far past its design specs. It shut down for three months and the NRC studied it for national Repairs. Jim Bacon and the report he quotes minimize the incident. It was very serious.

    (4) True nukes don’t emit the CO2 that fossil fuel plants do. But how about the cost of a third nuke at North Anna? Is $15 billion too low? Dominion won’t discuss. Don’t get started about subsidizes.

    (5) Lastly, Jim keeps bugling the industry line that the EPA and Obama are shutting down coal plants. A high court just ruled that the government can’t be sued over the Clean Power Plan. Why? It’s only a proposal. You can’t sue a proposal. And Bacon, et.al. totally omit any reference to natural gas’s lower prices killing coal plants.

    Jim, why not shut off your speed dial to the Thomas Jefferson Institute! You get nowhere with them.

    .

    • Two points: First, I’m not advocating the Hartwell and Hoffman position, just reporting it. I state clearly that “they present only one side of the story.” But it’s an important side of the story because it likely foreshadows the pro-nuclear position in the looming debate over North Anna Three.

      Second, yes, Obama and the EPA are shutting down coal-fired plants. The EPA sets CO2 emissions goals that Virginia can achieve in no other way but shutting down coal-fired capacity. Literally no other way.

      As for “natural gas’s lower prices killing coal plants,” that’s true for new generating capacity, but it is demonstrably untrue for the coal-fired plants that electric utilities in Virginia just spent hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps billions, I’m not sure of the exact numbers) to bring into compliance with EPA’s toxic release standards.

      I was tempted to close with a snarky, “Peter, why not shut off your speed dial to the Sierra Club!” But in my better moments, I try to refrain from gratuitous ad hominem attacks. So, I won’t. At least I concede that the Sierra Club has a point of view worth taking seriously. You seem to write off the pro-nuclear point of view as illegitimate from the get-go.

  3. “demonstrably untrue for the coal-fired plants that electric utilities …”

    Huh?

    SHould I turn off my speed dial to you?

  4. Very soon we will hear EPA’s final CPP rules. But basically the EPA proposal mandates a large portion of carbon-free energy generation in Virginia, like we have now ~45-50% carbon-free (mostly nuclear). Increasing nuclear also conceivably allows Va. to keep a certain number of coal-fired power plant running. The proposed law also gives states “flexibility” (but tight deadlines) to develop their own custom compliance plans. I have to anticipate that we will see huge lobbying for nuclear over the next several years in states willing to consider that option.

  5. re: ” I have to anticipate that we will see huge lobbying for nuclear over the next several years in states willing to consider that option.”

    I don’t think 20th century Nukes are going to find acceptance in a post 911, 21 century world myself. We need Nukes that are not vulnerable to terrorists and that won’t melt down – in addition to not needing subsidies.

    these issues are going to come back hard at any advocacy that makes it into the public realm.

    All that could change if we see a more modern, less vulnerable design but few people are going to support these obsolete whales that cost like the dickens , are vulnerable to man made and natural threats and can essentially render uninhabitable regions like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

    I’d actually like nothing better than a modern, safer, most cost-effective nuke but these things that now sit at North Anna are little more than potentially-toxic dinosaurs… and I not be surprised to see overwhelming opposition to any proposal for a 3rd..

    You’d think that islands in the world – many with significant populations would find Nukes cheaper than paying 50 cents a KWH for diesel-generated electricity. The fact that they are virtually non–existent says something about their feasibility.

    In Virginia, you’d be seeing a proposal for a 3rd subsidized nuke from the company that demonizes the EPA, seeks to penalize those who would install solar…is perceived as bullying property owners over pipelines and gives the finger to folks on the James, it won’t go well.. if they’re expecting a supportive public for their plans.

    I think they do have a bit of an image issue.. that needs tending to if they expect the public to be more receptive because as this point – at least some of the public feels that Dominion is basically telling them what they are going to do – rather than proposing plans, explaining and justifying those plans and receiving input.

  6. Nuclear power has the best safety record by far of any major industry in the United States history. Not one death or injury in the US by radiation leakage has ever been recorded or documented by any reliable source to my knowledge.

    Meanwhile, the venetian blind industry causes many deaths and injury to humans (mostly children) annually, for example.

    This does not obviate the residual risk of nuclear attack on nuclear power plants nor the risk of onsite shallow water storage. The fail safe solution to the latter is readily available and mostly paid for at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. That solution has been stonewalled by Harry Reid for decades.

    The transport of nuclear waste to Yucca had also been demonstrated to extremely safe given the US Navy’s extensive transport of nuclear material to its various nuclear ships in ports around the nation since the 1950’s all without any harm to, much less death, to Americans. Yucca storage is even more safe.

    Chernobyl was the result of the total incompetence of, and deeply flawed reactor of, a corrupt and dying corner of the Soviet Union.

    The residual risk of nuclear attack needs to be better explained to the American people and put into proper perspective. The very significant advances and benefits that derive from new technology reactors also need to be better explained. And government regulation needs to be adjusted accordingly. It is now being used as a tool to try to kill the industry.

    Nuclear power is by far our most reliable and environmentally neutral power source in the US, far more so that solar, wind, biodegradable power, all of which are highly expensive, highly unreliable, and impose high cost on the environment, both obvious and hidden. The wealth sucked out of this nation on these failed technologies for mass electric utility power over the past 45 years is mind boggling.

    In contrast, the delivery of baseline low cost nuclear power keeps our power grid going in many parts of the country. This nuclear power will be an ever more critical source for the nation’s power if the current “war on coal and gas” continues. New and highly practical technology advances in Nuclear are likely to continue. In any case it’s own best bridge to the future until we find the silver bullet that has been so illusive even as we waste vast sums on wind and solar dictated by government fiat so unsuccessfully over the past 45 years.

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