An Indiana Senate panel approved a bill on Thursday that would allow electric utilities to build small modular nuclear reactors that could generate up to 350 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a small city.
It’s a major shift for Indiana, which has never had commercial nuclear power, and has long relied on coal—and more recently, natural gas, wind and solar energy—to power homes and factories.
The Senate Utilities Committee voted 8-2 to advance a bill that would permit utilities to build small, prefabricated plants, which would be a fraction of the size of a traditional nuclear power plant.
No Indiana utility has announced plans to build a small modular reactor, and none have been built yet in the United States. The small reactors are still in the design and testing phase.
“This bill will create a framework for Indiana, if it so decides, to move into the world of small nuclear modular reactors,” said committee chair Sen. Eric Koch, a Republican from Bedford, the bill’s author
Around the U.S., several commercial vendors are pushing states to repeal moratoriums on nuclear power and support the permitting and licensing of reactors. They say their modular reactors are compact and flexible, and can quickly adjust output to match demand. A majority of states, in pursuit of cleaner energy sources, are considering nuclear power.
NuScale Power, based in Portland, Oregon, told the committee its reactors are about 75 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter, the reactors could be used in combinations, with a single site containing modules of up to 12 reactors. A site–typically a shuttered coal-fired plant–could employ about 270 people and provide more than 1,000 temporary construction jobs.
The company did not say how much it would cost to build a modular nuclear reactor here, but several studies have estimated the costs in the billions of dollars.
Utilities would be permitted to ask Indiana regulators for permission to pass along the cost of construction to customers before the plant goes online. The bill adds small modular reactors to the definition of clean energy technologies that are eligible for financial incentives, including recovering construction costs before the plants even go online, through monthly trackers added onto utility bills.
Supporters of the bill said Indiana needs to consider alternatives to coal and natural gas, along with wind and solar farms, and other renewable energy sources. They said adding nuclear power could attract more power-intensive business to the state, such as electric vehicles, data centers and manufacturing.
“The one way to get rid of industry in Indiana is to have someone like … Subaru or Toyota have to shut down because there’s not enough power,” said Republican Sen. Blake Doriot of Goshen.
In an unusually long hearing, the committee listened to testimony for more than three hours from supporters and opponents.
The bill was supported by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Energy Association and other nuclear power advocates. It was opposed by the NAACP and Citizen Action Coalition of Indiana.
The nuclear industry touts its power as a “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 Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association, told the committee that modular reactors could be built on the site of retired coal-burning plants, and said the technology was similar.
“The only difference is that instead of burning coal, you’re splitting an atom,” said Marcus Nichol, the institute’s senior director of new reactors.
The Biden administration has touted nuclear power as a source of clean, reliable power, and supports small modular reactors as flexible to match output with demand.
“Nuclear energy is a key element of the President’s plan to put the United States on a path to net-zero carbon future by 2050,” said Alice Caponiti, deputy assistant secretary for reactor fleet and advanced reactor deployment at U.S. Department of Energy.
Several students of Purdue University’s nuclear engineering program appeared before the committee to urge lawmakers to pave the way for construction of nuclear reactors in Indiana. They said the technology was safe, and that having nuclear reactors here would allow them to stay in Indiana rather than work in another state.
The last time an Indiana utility considered nuclear power was more than three decades ago. A predecessor to Duke Energy, then known as Public Service Indiana, nearly went bankrupt in 1984 when construction costs soared to $2.5 billion at its Marble Hill Nuclear Power Station in southern Indiana. It pulled the plug on the project, and the half-built plant was later dismantled and sold for parts.
Some consumer and environmental groups warned the committee that building nuclear reactors is hugely expensive, and the cost should not be shifted onto ratepayers.
Citizen Action Coalition pointed out that NuScale’s only project to date, a 700-megawatt modular reactor planned within the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, has jumped in cost from an initial estimate of $2.7 billion to a recent estimate of $6.2 billion. Construction has yet to begin.
Kerwin Olson, the coalition’s executive director, said that was twice the cost of Duke Energy’s 600 megawatt Edwardsport power plant in Knox County, built about a decade ago, which was the second-most expensive capital project in Indiana history at the time.
“I urge this committee to protect the ratepayers of the state of Indiana, who already struggle with increasing energy costs,” he said.
The Hoosier Environmental Council said nuclear power ranks as one of the most expensive sources of electricity. It said a new nuclear plant generates electricity at a cost four times as high as a wind farm or solar farm.
“Nuclear power cost overruns are not a perception. They are a reality,” said Tim Maloney, the council’s senior policy director.
The bill would require the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to adopt rules by July 1, 2023, on granting certificates of need for construction, purchase or lease of small modular nuclear reactors.
The bill goes to the full Senate for consideration.