Virginia: A World-Class Player in Nuclear Power?

Virginia has the potential to become one of the largest energy-producing states/provinces in North America. Certainly not through the production of oil and gas, nor from mining dwindling reserves of coal in the Appalachian mountains, nor even from tapping the phenomenal potential of wind farms off the coast of Virginia Beach. No, the energy source where Virginia enjoys the strongest competitive advantages is nuclear power.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s recently published energy plan calls for a massive push to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, thought by many to be a cause of global warming. While wind, solar and biofuels have long-term potential, the only large-scale energy source able to substitute for fossil fuels in the intermediate term is nuclear power. And nukes need uranium.

It just so happens that Pittsylvania County sits atop the largest uranium deposit in North America. Thanks to the revival of the nuclear power industry, there is renewed interest in tapping this incredible energy reserve. Mining and processing the mineral could create a billion-dollar industry for Southside Virginia, which has fallen on hard times as its traditional mill economy — textiles, apparel, furniture — was devastated by globalization.

Sad to say, I’m so old, I can remember the controversy 25 years ago surrounding a proposal to mine the Pittsylvania uranium. I was a reporter then with the Martinsville Bulletin, one county over. That wasn’t long after Three Mile Island, when the anti-nuclear power sentiment was running strong. Concerned that uranium processing would release radioactivity into the surrounding air, water and land, environmentalists were able to persuade the state to order a moratorium on any uranium mining.

But a lot has changed in 25 years. Global warming has replaced nuclear melt-downs as environmentalists’ leading fear. Nuclear power in the United States is on the rebound now, not in a state of decline; indeed Dominion could receive permits by 2010 to add new nuclear units at its North Anna facility. And Southside Virginia’s economy has been hollowed out, leaving local leaders more receptive than ever to a new industry.

As it happens, Lynchburg, about an hour’s drive north of Danville, is home to BWX Technologies and Areva NP, major providers of engineering, design and maintenance services to the nuclear power industry. Over in Hampton Roads, the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Hampton Roads builds nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.

Between Dominion’s power plants, Pittsylvania’s uranium mines, Lynchburg’s nuclear manufacturing/service companies and Northrop Grumman’s shipyard, Virginia has the potential to assemble a world-class nuclear power cluster — not just mining, but designing, manufacturing, installation and servicing. With all those capabilities concentrated in a small geographic area, who knows what synergies might develop?

Supporting the growth of the nuclear-power cluster is a stated goal of Kaine’s energy plan, although the document takes a cautious attitude towards uranium mining: “Virginia should assess the potential value of and regulatory needs for uranium production in Pittsylvania County.”

Basic scientific questions remain unanswered. Unlike other uranium deposits, the uranium in Pittsylvania does not physically migrate into the water system, reports the Danville Register and Bee. The geology needs to be better understood, and Virginians need to know that mining and processing can proceed safely. We need to begin laying the groundwork now. Meanwhile, someone in the Commonwealth — perhaps Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra — should organize a nuclear industry working group to explore avenues for building the industry cluster.

(Photo credit: dkimages.)

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6 responses to “Virginia: A World-Class Player in Nuclear Power?”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    While there’s no denying that commercial nuclear power in the U.S. has vastly improved since the Three Mile Islands days in terms of safety, I’m not sure I’d start strip mioning Pittsylvania for uranium.
    Is there a shortage of uranium right now? Kinda doubt it. About half of the fissile fuel at nuclear reactors in the U.S. comes from reprocessed material in warheads from obsolete Soviet ICBM and tac nuke missiles. There’s plenty more where that came from and it’s a lot safer to reprocess Soviet material than mine Southside. Makes the entire globe a safer place.

    Secondly, there is ample evidence that uranium mining is environmentally hazardous. Ask the Australians. I wouldn’t trust what the Danville paper says as it is just another crappy Media General rag that parrots whatever private industry and its advertisers tell it.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Anonymous 12:37 is an idiot. Or, rather, since I am Anonymous 12:37, I am an idiot. Turns out there is a uranium shortage which is why they get the stuff from Soviet nuke weapons.


  3. Short term – conservation.

    Mid term – conservation and nuke.

    Long term – conservation and alternative fuels.

    Good for Kaine.

    I also wonder about Virginia and hydroelectric. Big, big data center companies are increasingly building their data centers near hydro power to get clean, cheap electricity. Good to generate clean power. Good to get jobs in big data centers.

    Dam Great Falls. We need the juice.

  4. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    What about harnassing the energy in ocean waves? Anyone who has ever tried to stand up straight and not move in the ocean ought to appreciate the tremendous power of our oceans? Why can’t it make electricity?

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I actually have the same question.

    twice a day – significant power is expended pushing waves up on the beach.

    It’s almost free, non-polluting energy.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    There are several designs to harness wave energy. One uses long rafts that are joined by hinges. As they flex they drive pistons back and forth that heat hydraulic fluid or compress air.

    Another uses a long vertical tube in a manner similar to a whistle buoy.

    Wave energy is not unlimited, because waves drive currents and currents control the climate.

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