Nuclear energy, largely limited in the United States to large complex and aging factories built 1970sis suddenly back in favor as an alternative to high-priced carbon-based fuels and weather- and battery-dependent power.
The new Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law on Tuesday, includes tax credits for a new generation of small, “safe, clean and affordable” uranium power plants.
Kris Singh, founder of Holtec International Inc., seizes the moment. The company provides parts and maintenance for nuclear power plants and more than a decade ago offered a smaller type of nuclear reactor – the SMR-160 – which continues to work its way through regulatory channels.
Singh says the company plans to expand its Camden plant, which employs 480 people, and is looking for a place to build a much larger “giga manufacturing plant” and four initial nuclear units, for a total of $7.4 billion , with the help of government loans. The idea is to mass-produce these simpler nuclear power plants for an energy-hungry world.
New Jersey lawmakers from both parties are now scrambling to find financial incentives to encourage these “advanced” reactors in New Jersey. They are eager to see thousands of jobs and new carbon-free electricity supplies.
“Giga” stands for “billions,” a term that has been picked up by Tesla and other major equipment makers. Elon Musk called his Austin, Texas factory a “giga-factory” when he started it in 2014. That factory now covers 14 million square feet, more than triple the size of Amazon’s largest warehouse in Wilmington.
The “giga” plant proposed by Holtec would be 1.6 million square feet. That’s just over four times the size of its existing heavy manufacturing plant in Camden, built in 2017 with $260 million in state tax breaks, paid over 10 years, granted under Governor Chris’s administration. Christy. This funding has withstood criticism from inducements, including current state governor Phil Murphy, and a lawsuit Holtec won late last year against State Economic Development Authority. The state appealed.
The Camden plant, along with Holtec’s plant near Pittsburgh, together produce nearly 1,000 pieces of power plant equipment a year, according to the company. Holtec employs a total of 1,750 people, including plants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as in Ohio and India, and a small waterfront office in low-tax Florida, the company’s headquarters.
Holtec’s SMR-160 proposal, initially launched in 2010is still awaiting both technical approvals from the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and loans from the US Department of Energy.
There has been progress: the Ministry of Energy approved the first stage of Holtec’s loan application in March and is currently considering a more detailed application. Costs would come down, developers say, as more are built.
“Climate change is the biggest driver of nuclear power: at 2 a.m. on a cold winter night, the solar panels are covered, the wind stops and you don’t want to burn anything, all that’s left is nuclear weapons,” Richard said. Michelfelder, a clinical associate professor of finance at Camden’s Rutgers School of Business and a former Atlantic Energy executive who advises power companies. Government aid should accelerate the development of small nuclear, as it has done for renewables, he added.
Nuclear energy already benefits from significant subsidies. And last year, the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense published an 18-page report complaining that the “government’s dream of rolling mini-reactors off the assembly line to compete in energy markets defies reality”.
The group called the hypothesis that mass production will reduce the cost of small reactors “unproven”, warned that public aid could make it “a drain on taxpayers’ money”, and noted the unresolved problem of where to store spent uranium fuel, which may remain hazardous for thousands of years.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in March recommended approving an environmental license for Holtec’s proposed nuclear waste management facility in New Mexico. The site would store up to 10,000 tonnes of uranium for 40 years. Holtec plans to expand it to 200,000 tons. The NRC always conducts a security review.
Longer-term storage plans for US nuclear waste, once concentrated at a proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, have stalled.
Holtec works with units of US power plant builder Kiewit Corp., Japan-based Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and Hyundai based in South Korea to accelerate the development of small reactors.
Even if the current enthusiasm of governments for a new generation of reactors does not wane and utilities adopt it, there is no guarantee that Holtec SMR-160 Proposal will be the industry standard. At least two other nuclear suppliers have offered small reactors to the NRC.
As Holtec awaits design approval, the NRC said last month it would certify a 50 megawatt per hour system small reactor plan from Oregon-based NuScale Powerbacked by power plant maker Fluor Corp. One megawatt hour can power hundreds of homes.
The model name SMR-160 from Holtec means small modular reactor, producing 160 megawatts. By comparison, each of the two nuclear power stations in Limerick, Montgomery County, started in 1974, produces about 1,150 megawatts.
Citing industry data, Rutgers’ Michelfelder says small reactors have an expected construction cost of about $3,800 per kilowatt-hour, in the range of conventional and renewable energy, but only a quarter of what cost large nuclear power plants. Such estimates will be more credible once a sample small plant is built and running, he added.
If Holtec’s own design is not accepted, Singh says the company is preparing to build small reactor equipment for other designers.
Holtec’s schedule calls for the plant to open by 2030, according to Joseph Delmar, the company’s senior director of government affairs.
“We’re getting closer to where we want to be,” Delmar said.
New Jersey State Energy “master plan” calls for the state to be “carbon free by 2050,” Delmar notes. “We see this as an opportunity to create clean energy in the United States.” He said the spike in oil and gas prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has bolstered the pro-nuclear case: ” There is no perfect energy source. We need energy diversity.
Holtec does not limit its possibilities to New Jersey. In its federal loan application, Holtec says it will likely build a new plant near the first utility that agrees to put the units into active service and obtains regulatory approvals.
That could be, the company notes, in Louisiana, Arkansas or Mississippi, where New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. operates aging nuclear power plants. Last month, Entergy said it was reviewing Holtec’s plans and was impressed with the proposed design’s safety, simplicity and use of “proven” technologies.
In New Jersey, Holtec is preparing to build a prototype at the former Exelon Oyster Creek nuclear power plant, one of the older nuclear sites that Holtec is decommissioning. This too could become a functioning small reactor center and site for the new plant.
New York and Massachusetts, both of which have traditions of anti-nuclear policies, have blocked Holtec from building new nuclear facilities at the plants it is dismantling. But Michigan officials are interested in adding small Holtec reactors to a nuclear plant site there, Delmar said.
“All of these states have energy master plans” that call for less carbon burning, he added. “It’s a viable option where the local community and local government want it, as an opportunity to create clean energy — and as an economic driver: we’re creating American manufacturing jobs everywhere we go.”