Scrambling to shrink their carbon footprints, federal agencies in Hampton Roads and beyond are eyeing a proven yet controversial source of energy: nuclear power.
But they’re not pursuing large-scale power plants that tend to evoke the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Japan. Instead, the agencies are considering small reactors — like those found on aircraft carriers — that would be assembled in factories and, in some cases, made to look like unassuming industrial sites.
“It’s hard, at this stage, not to think of it as an option,” said Roy Whitney, an administrator at Jefferson Lab, a nuclear physics facility in Newport News run by the Energy Department.
The lab and every other federal agency is under White House orders to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2020. They are doing everything from lowering office thermostats to running Navy boats on algae-based fuel, but Whitney and others argue that the nation needs to overhaul its energy portfolio to meet the goal.
According to the Energy Department, 83 percent of the energy Americans consume comes from fossil fuels. Burning petroleum, natural gas and coal produces greenhouse gases, which the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say is the main cause of global warming.
To counter the trend, federal officials are turning to renewable energy, such as wind and solar power; they’re also investing in biomass, the burning of living or recently living organisms, and biofuels.
In many places, Virginia included, the advent of large-scale renewable energy is years away. And there are few options for facilities such as Jefferson Lab, whose carbon footprint is based largely upon electricity use, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The scenario has prompted interest in nuclear power, which, aside from the process of obtaining nuclear fuel, produces no emissions.
The Obama administration supports expanding conventional nuclear power plants, but industry officials say they’re hampered by onerous federal regulations and limited government loans. Several projects have stalled, including Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to add a third reactor at North Anna Power Station.
Industry officials say small modular reactors, which produce far less power than conventional reactors, will not replace their larger counterparts. They could, however, fill a niche market of hard-to-reach places, military bases and other customers.
“There’s absolutely no reason why the technology won’t work,” said Paul Genoa, director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for the nuclear power industry.
Among the supporters of small reactors is the Energy Department, which inked a deal with Babcock & Wilcox Co. subsidiary mPower to install up to six near its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The project is pending approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is also reviewing designs from Toshiba Corp., General Electric, Westinghouse and others.
Proponents say small reactors present many advantages. Among them: they are less expensive than conventional reactors, which cost billions of dollars to build. Because they would arrive on site manufactured, the buyer could promptly start operations and, the theory goes, recoup expenses sooner than they would with a conventional reactor.
The situation will enable buyers to add subsequent reactors if desired, said Jeff Halfinger, vice president of technology development at Babcock & Wilcox’s Lynchburg office. Conceptual drawings of the mPower reactor show something akin to a small industrial park, not the steam-spewing towers often associated with nuclear power.
Also, small reactor technology is newer than conventional reactors, many of which date to the 1970s. Because they are smaller and more automated, they could potentially operate with fewer employees and less regulations, Genoa said.
That worries the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based environmental watchdog group. Companies developing small reactors are overstating their benefits and minimizing potential downsides, Edwin Lyman, a scientist with the union’s Global Security Program, told a Senate subcommittee in July.
Small reactors “could pose comparable or even greater safety, security and proliferation risks than large reactors,” Lyman said.
Any buy-in will likely require the cooperation of utility companies, which control electric transmission lines. A spokesman for Dominion, Virginia’s dominant energy provider, said the Richmond-based utility has no plans for small reactors.
“We’re not pursuing them,” Rick Zuercher said.
Smaller outfits, such as Glen Allen-based Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, appear more interested. It is helping fund several studies about their potential use, spokesman C. David Hudgins said.
Newport News Shipbuilding, which builds and maintains nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy, is also gauging whether to jump into the business. President Matt Mulherin told the Daily Press in a September email that the company could play a role maintaining small reactors.
The company has partnered with French nuclear giant Areva, which is developing a gas-cooled small reactor, to build a factory next to the shipyard to make parts for nuclear plants. Areva spokesman Jarret Adams said Areva does not plan to build reactors in Newport News but the plant could “manufacture any type of nuclear component.” That project is on hold at the moment because of the recession.
The buildup of commercial nuclear power is likely to meet resistance from environmental groups. J.R. Tolbert, assistant director for legislation and development in the Sierra Club’s Richmond office, said the nation should be focusing on energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Whitney, the Jefferson Lab administrator, doesn’t disagree. Yet with the lab undergoing an expansion that will double its power consumption in a few years, he feels his hands are tied.
“We’re not the power company — we do quarks and gluons,” he said.
He is talking with other federal agencies, specifically the Defense Department, about joining forces to lobby for small reactors. He has the backing of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, which promotes the region’s federal assets.
The interest has small reactor builders excited, but they’re not ready to say it’s the answer to the nation’s energy crisis.
“There’s some people talking about putting one of these in every backyard,” Babcock & Wilcox’s Halfinger said. “I don’t see that happening.”
Daily Press reporter Peter Frost contributed to this report.