On the Precipice of Virginia's Nuclear Future

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 3, 2007

There's an empty pit about a hundred miles southwest of Washington where two nuclear power plants were planned but never built. The pit became a symbol of the success of the antinuclear movement, the activists who a quarter-century ago forced utilities to scrap plans for dozens of reactors across the country.

But today, the hill above that pit at Dominion Virginia Power's North Anna station offers a great view of Virginia's nuclear future. Here, you can see the two (out of four originally planned) reactors that were built in the 1970s, and you can see the spot where Dominion wants to build the first new reactor in the country in 30 years.

This time, power companies are positioning nuclear power as a boon to the environment, a clean alternative to the carbon-emitting power plants that contribute so mightily to global warming. The green movement that coalesced in the battle against nukes in the 1970s and '80s is not exactly embracing nuclear this time but is very much split on the question. Although Mr. Global Warming himself, Al Gore, has not warmed to nuclear, other politicians who once recoiled at the idea of more nukes -- such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ("I have a different view on nuclear than I did 20 years ago. . . . It has to be on the table") -- are pronouncing themselves open to the concept.

"The problem of global warming is so serious that we must thoroughly consider every low-carbon option for generating power," says a statement from Environmental Defense, a green group that remains concerned about the security of nuclear plants but calls the industry's safety record "impressive."

"The potential for disaster scares the pants off me," says Scott Howson, chairman of the Rappahannock Group of the Sierra Club, whose national organization still strongly opposes building nuclear plants. "But speaking just for myself, I see a solution ultimately in nuclear energy. It's non-polluting, and that's what we're all looking for."

Virginia gets more of its energy from nuclear power than almost any other state -- about 35 percent, almost twice the national average. But Dominion engineers warn that the state's existing nuclear generating capacity is woefully insufficient.

About 70 percent of U.S. energy sources -- oil, natural gas and coal plants -- burn carbon. To merely maintain a 30 percent level of sources that do not emit carbon, and even assuming a big increase in the use of wind and solar power, the country would need to build more than 40 nuclear plants by 2020, says Dominion's vice president for nuclear support services, Gene Grecheck.

He's the first to say that's not going to happen. But the rest of the world is leaping into nuclear expansion, with 30 reactors planned in China alone. And the U.S. government has made it easier for utilities to seek new plants, compressing the permitting timetable, providing tax credits for companies that apply for a license by the end of next year and insuring utilities against delays caused by lawsuits. Still, opening a new reactor remains a decade-long process.

Dominion started moving back toward nuclear in 2002. The company picked North Anna because the site was originally designed for four reactors. This spring, federal regulators held a public hearing on the proposal, which drew surprisingly little opposition. The feds are expected to issue a final decision on a new reactor this year. A new plant could be built by 2015.

Dug in the 1970s out of thousands of acres of farmland to provide the water needed to cool the nuclear plant, Lake Anna, a 45-minute drive from Fredericksburg, has blossomed into a retirement and vacation community where some waterfront lots sell for a half-million dollars. Houses top $1 million, even on the warmer side of the lake, where water that has churned through the power plant is discharged into lagoons, raising the water temperature in some areas to 100 degrees in summer.

After some Lake Anna residents bristled at a possible increase in the lake's temperature, Dominion redesigned the new facility to pump hot water into $200 million, 150-foot-high cooling towers before the water is returned to the lake.

"The nuclear issue has hardly even come up" in the local debate over expanding North Anna, says the Dominion executive who runs the plant, Dan Stoddard. "The only real issue was the impact on the lake. People who live here often say, 'We're not opposed to the plant as long as we can't see it, hear it or smell it.' "

There is still great concern about the nation's failure to figure out what to do with the spent fuel rods that emerge from nuclear plants. But the path toward the new reactors seems relatively smooth. For now, all of the spent fuel ever produced at Lake Anna sits in rows of 14-foot-high concrete and steel canisters on an open-air concrete pad behind a barbed-wire fence near the power plant.

That's just too obvious an environmental problem -- and too easy a terrorism target -- for many people. But as I walk through the North Anna facility with Dominion executives, watched constantly by black-clad men toting machine guns, I hear something the nuclear power industry has been short on for decades: confidence.

"If you're going to do something about CO2," Grecheck says, "and it's pretty clear that the politics of the situation are heading in that direction, you're going to have to look at nuclear."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company