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Surry Power Station license renewed

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved Dominion Energy’s request to continue operating its Surry power plant into the 2050s.

The plant is located near the southern bank of the James River in Surry County, about 7 miles outside the town of Surry and 12 miles from Smithfield. Its two nuclear reactors, which first went online in December 1972 and May 1973, produce about 15% of the electricity Dominion’s customers in Virginia and North Carolina receive.

Like all U.S. nuclear plants, the Surry one was originally licensed to operate for 40 years. In 2003, the federal commission’s safety regulators signed off on reactor No. 1 continuing to operate through 2032, and No. 2, through 2033. The 2021 license renewal will allow No. 1 to continue operating through 2052 and No. 2, through 2053, at which point the plant will have been operating for double its originally permitted lifespan.

That said, several major components have been replaced and upgraded over the years, including the reactor vessel head, heat exchangers, transformers and the steam generators. The plant is also regularly inspected for deficiencies and declining performance so repairs or replacements can be scheduled, said Dominion spokesman Kenneth Holt. Some of that work can be done while the plant is operating; what can’t gets scheduled for a refueling outage when one or the other of the reactors is shut down.

“Extending Surry’s operations is critical to Dominion Energy meeting the Virginia Clean Economy Act’s requirements for zero-carbon electricity by 2045,” said Dan Stoddard, Dominion’s chief nuclear officer.

The 2020 state law requires nearly all coal-fired power plants to close by the end of 2024 and for Dominion to be carbon-free by 2045, and sets a goal of 100% of Virginia’s electricity eventually coming from renewable sources such as solar and wind power. Energy companies must pay penalties for not meeting their targets, with a portion of that revenue funding job training and renewable energy programs in historically disadvantaged communities.

The Surry power plant employs about 900 people, and the resulting public service corporation taxes Dominion pays account for more than 50% of the Surry County government’s annual income.

“It is good to hear that Dominion will continue to be a corporate citizen in Surry County for decades to come,” said County Administrator Melissa Rollins. “The contribution to the tax base and jobs continue to be valuable as the county continues to work towards diversification of the tax base in other ways to further advance the county economically.”

But not everyone is celebrating news of the plant’s lease being extended.

“The nuclear power plants in Virginia were originally designed to operate for 40 years,” said John Cruickshank, a member of the executive committee of Virginia’s Sierra Club chapter. “Many people who are familiar with nuclear power do not believe that they can safely generate electricity for twice as long. The reactor core and other equipment weaken over time and there is an increased chance of serious malfunctions. This is particularly a concern at the North Anna Power Station, which experienced a significant earthquake in 2011.”

That plant also dates to the 1970s and is operated by Dominion. It is located in Louisa County, roughly 30 miles outside the Richmond metro area.

“Another major concern is the long-term storage of nuclear waste,” Cruickshank said. “It is currently stored on site and there are no plans to find a safe, permanent storage facility in the United States.”

According to Holt, spent fuel at the Surry plant is stored safely in pools of water on site, and eventually moved into enclosed steel and concrete containers that are fortified to withstand extreme events like earthquakes, fires and hurricanes.