How Virginia Is Working to Build a Nuclear-Powered Future

A consortium of experts has the mandate to leverage the state's existing assets. It's a model that would work for other states.
August 10, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Donald R. Hoffman  |  Contributor
Past president of the American Nuclear Society and co-chair of its Special Committee on Nuclear in the States

Virginia is leading the way in the United States toward energy independence through a unique, state-sponsored consortium of nuclear-energy experts. It's demonstrating how to use its existing tools and assets to develop resources to expand clean, reliable and affordable energy generation while also driving economic growth and improved infrastructure, and it's a model other states could follow.

Virginia imports more than 50 percent of its power, placing it behind only California in the U.S. in reliance on out-of-state electricity. And by 2021 the state will need over 4,000 megawatts of additional power just to meet demands. Solar and wind simply cannot provide baseload power -- the electricity needed to keep hospitals and other vital operations up and running -- during periods when the wind and the sun don't cooperate.

At the same time, while there is a continuing debate about nuclear power chiefly focusing on safety and waste disposal, there is no debate that nuclear power is the least-carbon-emitting source of electricity among those that realistically could supply Virginia's baseload needs. And nuclear is the least expensive large-scale source of energy in the state: an estimated .6 cents per generated kilowatt-hour, compared to 3.5 cents for coal and 4.5 cents for natural gas.

Virginia is home to dozens of nuclear-related assets, ranging from labs and other research facilities to universities, military installations, and sources of engineering and scientific expertise. Legislative leaders recognized that creating a group of the state's most knowledgeable leaders in nuclear energy could help guide an effort to tap into the state's assets to improve the state's energy picture and its economic outlook as well.

In 2013, the General Assembly created the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority to position the state as a national and global leader in nuclear energy, science and technology and to serve as an interdisciplinary study, research and information resource. Its 20 members come from universities, government labs, and engineering, construction and utility firms. The consortium's mandate is to produce an inventory of nuclear education and industry assets to help the sector drive Virginia's economy with skilled jobs, research and technology development, and to generate revenue at both the state and local levels.

The potential in Virginia is significant. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the global nuclear-technology market is set to approach $750 billion over the next 10 years. If Virginia could capture even 5 percent of that amount, more than 25,000 high-paying jobs would be created and sustained in Virginia alone.

Energy generation is also the key to economic development, and it's no mystery why developing countries are placing their future in nuclear energy. In the United States, where nuclear energy was fostered, we have better access to infrastructure, human capital and natural resources, but we have failed to act on these competitive advantages. During the last 30 years, our international competitors have thrived: China, France, Russia and South Korea are exporting nuclear power and expertise while we sit on the sidelines.

Other states with resources comparable to those of Virginia could benefit from the same approach. Georgia, New Mexico, South Carolina and Tennessee, for example, have comparable nuclear assets. Instead of a disparate approach, driven at least in part by profit motives, a consensus-building program that incorporates all of a state's nuclear science and technology assets could produce a more comprehensive and beneficial energy policy that would create reliable sources of energy and good jobs.

For Virginia, the value proposition is clear. If other states were to follow Virginia's lead and establish similar programs enacted in consultation with academia, industry, labor and government, we would go a long way toward creating millions of new clean-energy jobs while achieving energy independence, the protection of a secure power grid and a plentiful supply of reliable, clean and affordable energy for the future.