In Search of Energy, A Virginia Town Ponders a Third Nuclear Plant

The Lake Anna facility could be the first new U.S. plant approved for construction in three decades.

The two nuclear reactors at the North Anna power plant.

The two nuclear reactors at the North Anna power plant.

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MINERAL, VA.—The area around Lake Anna is pastoral, but it has never been a typical resort community. After all, the lake was built to help cool two commercial nuclear reactors. Residents who live along the lake blithely talk about its "hot side" and "cold side," depending on proximity to the power plant, while nearby, the owners of the award-winning Lake Anna Winery joke affectionately about their wine "glowing after dark."

For a community that's lived for the past 30 years with reactors in its midst, getting a third one might not seem like a big deal. That's what Dominion, the utility company that operates the existing two units, is hoping as it lays plans to build another one here. At the moment, Dominion is one of the leading applicants in a growing wave of companies hoping to revive America's long-stalled nuclear industry.

Comeback. If Dominion's proposed Virginia plant clears the remaining state and federal regulatory hurdles, it could become the first nuclear plant approved for construction in three decades in the United States. Dominion has even picked out the spot—a large plot situated between the two reactors on one side and transmission lines on the other.

The only thing that's gone in the ground so far, however, is a set of sticks: wooden stakes marking an intention. With today's high energy prices—and mounting concern about climate change—there are plenty of reasons why nuclear power seems poised for a comeback. And yet, as Eugene Grechek, Dominion's vice president of nuclear development, said on a recent afternoon as he stood looking across the site, "There's no guarantee that this reactor will get built." The earliest that official approval could come is 2011, which means the plant couldn't start operating until 2016 at the earliest.

Nuclear veterans like Grechek tend to speak cautiously when they talk about a nuclear revival, and it's not hard to see why. They all remember what happened after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa., when a reactor suffered a partial meltdown. In the years that followed, dozens of nuclear projects were abandoned, bogged down by costly safety requirements, as well as lawsuits that delayed regulatory approval and drove costs even higher. In the meantime, the reactors still operating in this country (104 at last count) have continued to chug along, producing nearly 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Yet given the dramatic rise in electricity use that's projected over the next 20 years, experts say it will take at least 35 to 40 new reactors just to keep that figure from dropping.

Getting one reactor approved and built will be challenge enough—even with recent federal efforts to streamline regulatory approval and the support that exists in this small pocket of central northern Virginia. If most people see nuclear power as a prominent national issue, it remains, at its core, an intensely local one. Aside from the area right around the lake, Louisa County is relatively poor and rural. Rush-hour traffic is six or seven cars at a stop sign. Tractors putter down the road regularly, and agriculture—corn and hay farming, mainly—is still the main occupation.

Officials here are well aware of the money that the two existing reactors, built in the late 1970s, have pumped into the region. Last year, they generated roughly $11 million in local tax revenues, which goes toward schools and road maintenance. More than 900 people are employed in high-paying jobs at the plant. A third reactor would create about 3,000 temporary jobs during the five years it would take to build it and some 750 permanent jobs to operate it. It should come as no surprise, then, that officials here enthusiastically support the project.

Most Louisa County residents, however, profess not to care much one way or the other if the third reactor gets built. Safety concerns barely rate a mention. As Patty Chandler, a cashier at Dickinson's convenience store a few miles down the road from the power plant, says: "We already have two reactors. If one of them goes, we're in bad shape anyway. So what's the big deal about a third one?"