The Indiana General Assembly has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow electric utilities to build small modular reactors, a move that could pave the way for commercial nuclear power in the state for the first time.
The House voted 70-22 on Tuesday to pass the bill that would permit utilities to build small, prefabricated plants that are a fraction of the size of a traditional nuclear power plant. The Indiana Senate passed an identical bill 39-9 earlier this month. Both votes were largely along party lines, with support from Indiana Republicans.
The bill goes to Gov. Eric Holcomb for consideration. He has not yet taken a public stand, although he has previously said he is open to all sources of energy. A Holcomb spokeswoman declined to say Wednesday what action the governor would take.
It would be a major shift for Indiana, which has long relied on coal—and more recently natural gas and renewables—to power the state’s factories, shops and houses. Supporters of nuclear energy said the reactors would provide reliable power to replace traditional coal-fired units now being retired by utilities.
The bill would allow utilities to build modules, sometimes called “baby nukes,” of up to 350 megawatts, or enough electricity to power a small city. The reactors are designed to be manufactured in factories and assembled on-site.
Rep. Ed Soliday, Republican from Valparaiso, chair of the House Utilities Committee, said the reactors use the same kind of technology found on nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.
“These kinds of devices have been around for over 50 years,” he said during House debate on Tuesday.
But Rep. Matt Pierce, Democrat of Bloomington, said the bill is too generous to utilities, because it would classify the reactors as clean energy. Under Indiana law, that would allow the utilities to bill customers for the cost of construction, perhaps for years, before any of the plants went online.
He added that since no small modular reactors have yet been built, no one knows the true cost, or if the technology actually works.
“Let these people prove their stuff really works before we make ratepayers pay for what might up being a giant white elephant,” Pierce said.
Rep. Carey Hamilton, Democrat of Indianapolis, said she supports innovation and diversification of the energy grid. “But I don’t want my constituents to be guinea pigs,” she said. “Give it a few years, see how it evolves in other states.”
But Rep. Alan Morrison, a Republican from Brazil, said Indiana needs to push hard to find other sources of energy as utilities step up plans to retire old coal-fired units.
“We have to produce enough for the baseload in this state,” he said. “The baseload cannot be supported with renewables alone.”
The state has never built a nuclear power plant, and its only attempt at constructing one, the Marble Hill Nuclear Power Station, went wildly over budget in the 1980s. The utility, known as Public Service Indiana, pulled the plug on the half-built plant and later dismantled it and sold it for parts. The utility nearly went bankrupt in the process.
No Indiana utility has yet announced plans yet to build a small modular reactor. The small reactors are still in the design and testing phase, and only one company, Oregon-based NuScale Power, has received design approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The parent company of Duke Energy Indiana, the largest electric utility in the state, told Bloomberg News last week it is strongly considering investments in small modular reactors, possibly in 2030s.
“We think it would be quite complementary, not only to the skills that Duke has, but to our aspirations around climate,” said Lynn Good, CEO of North Carolina-based Duke Energy Corp.
The nuclear industry has long touted its power as “clean energy,” meaning it produces energy by splitting uranium atoms, but does not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, as traditional coal-fired power plants do.
However, nuclear plants use large amounts of water for steam production and for cooling. They also generate spent uranium fuel, which is stored in pools or steel-lined concrete vaults for decades.
The legislation, known as Senate Bill 271, would create rules for state regulators to consider in allowing a utility to build a plant.
The bill was supported by nuclear advocates, the utility industry and the Indiana Chamber. It was opposed by the Hoosier Environmental Council, Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana and the NAACP.