Dominion Virginia Power is moving forward with plans for a third reactor at the North Anna plant. Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

While cost overruns at two Southeast nuclear projects have brought the contractor building them to bankruptcy, a Virginia utility is forging ahead with plans for a new reactor provided by a different company.

Federal regulators signaled Dominion Virginia Power is on track to receive its long-sought license to build and operate its fifth reactor in the state once requisite structural modifications are certified to deal with earthquake risks.

The feedback came Thursday when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) completed a mandatory hearing addressing a wide range of environmental and safety issues, including changes to the proposed reactor technology Dominion has selected, which has yet to be deployed in the U.S.

“With the structural design changes,” the NRC stated, the proposed Economically Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) design meets “acceptance limits” needed to secure a Combined Construction and Operating License (COL).

Dominion’s vice president of generation construction, Mark Mitchell, hailed the hearing as a “major milestone” for nuclear power in Virginia.

The structural changes required stem from an August 23, 2011 earthquake that shook much of the East Coast. That earthquake shut down both of the existing reactors at Dominion’s North Anna plant, as they were designed to do, causing no “functional damage,” according to Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher.

The NRC authorized Dominion to restart both reactors three months later.

While a federal license for a third reactor at the North Anna plant may be widely expected, perhaps by early summer, it didn’t stop opponents from challenging the very need for Dominion to build it and the rate increases to pay for it. That is where the State Corporation Commission (SCC) is supposed to weigh in.

“There is no economic case for nuclear today, given the steep cost declines for competing technologies,” said Ivy Main, of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “These include solar and wind energy, which are already cost-competitive and will continue to get cheaper, while nuclear costs show no sign of stopping their climb.”

Design untested in the U.S.

The technology that Dominion selected for North Anna 3, as it’s known, was designed by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy based in Wilmington, North Carolina and is rated at about 1,500 megawatts. It is touted as a simpler and safer way of splitting atoms to generate the steam that turns the turbines which generate electricity.

GE-Hitachi is quick to spotlight what it claims is a much faster and safer way to shut down operations in the event of earthquake or some other emergency.

While the 2011 earthquake, which measured 5.8 on the Earthquake Magnitude Scale (often referred to as the Richter scale), was the first ever recorded of a significant magnitude in the eastern U.S., Central Virginia has experienced minor earthquakes ranging between 2.2 and 2.6  over the past three months; one as recently as last Wednesday, according to David Spears, the state geologist. Spears said he felt it in his home in Buckingham County about 70 miles southwest of the North Anna plant.

Spears said updated analyses of the Central Virginia seismic zone point to more temblors but cautioned they will likely register low on the magnitude scale. He wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another major quake.

The recent quakes were not addressed at last week’s hearing. Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher said to his knowledge the recent earthquakes were not felt at the North Anna plant.

A ‘nightmare’ for customers?

Tokyo-based Toshiba, whose Westinghouse subsidiary is building a two reactors in South Carolina and Georgia, has said it is exiting the nuclear construction business. Both construction projects have experienced significant delays and cost overruns and ratepayers are picking up part of the tab even before either reactor begins generating electricity.

“You only need to look at the nuclear reactors under construction in South Carolina to understand what a nightmare nuclear plants are for customers,” said Main. “Those plants are two years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, while already pushing up electricity rates in South Carolina to fund construction.”

Ratepayers in Georgia are suffering similar consequences of delays and cost overruns for two new reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle.

Main said Dominion is bold enough and has forged enough ties with lawmakers through its campaign donations to seek a law enabling it to proceed with construction, bypassing state regulatory approval.

“So far the General Assembly has gone along with whatever Dominion wants,” Main said. “But Dominion will be taking a huge risk if it tries to get around the SCC by getting legislators to pass a bill forcing North Anna 3 down the throats of ratepayers. The Attorney General’s office calculates that North Anna 3 would raise rates by 25% in its first year in operation. What legislator can justify that to constituents?”

“We are poised to obtain a license for the new unit. We have not decided to build the new unit, and won’t do so until after we obtain the COL,” said Mitchell.

“The energy markets change,” Zuercher added. “What might have made sense at one time, might not make sense now but may make sense again. It’s all a timing issue.”

Jim Pierobon, a policy, marketing and social media strategist, was a founding contributor to Southeast Energy News. He passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer in 2018.