Indiana lawmakers pass ‘baby nukes’ bill, send to governor

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Indiana’s General Assembly 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 to 22 on Tuesday to pass the bill that would allow utilities to build small, pre-engineered plants that would be a fraction of the size of a traditional nuclear plant. The Indiana Senate passed an identical 39-9 bill earlier this month. Both votes were largely along party lines, with support from Indiana Republicans.

The bill is submitted to Governor Eric Holcomb for consideration. He has not yet taken a public position, although he has previously said he is open to all energy sources. A spokeswoman for Holcomb declined to say Wednesday what action the governor would take.

That would be a major shift for Indiana, which has long relied on coal — and more recently natural gas and renewables — to power factories, stores and homes across the state. But proponents of nuclear power said the reactors would provide reliable power to replace electricity generated by traditional coal-fired units currently being retired by utilities.

The bill would allow utilities to build reactors, sometimes called “baby nukes,” of up to 350 megawatts, enough electricity to power a small town. The reactors are designed to be manufactured in factories and assembled on site, taking up a fraction of the land of a full-size traditional nuclear power plant.

Rep. Ed Soliday, Republican for Valparaiso, chairman of the House Utilities Committee, said the reactors use the same type of technology found on nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

“These types of devices have been around for over 50 years,” he said during the House debate on Tuesday.

But Rep. Matt Pierce, Democrat of Bloomington, said the bill was too generous for utilities because it would classify reactors as clean energy. Under Indiana law, this would allow utilities to charge customers the cost of building, possibly for years, before any of the plants come online.

He added that since no small modular reactors have yet been built, no one knows the true cost, or whether the technology would actually work.

“Let these people prove that their stuff really works before we charge taxpayers for what could be a giant white elephant,” Pierce said.

Rep. Carey Hamilton, Democrat of Indianapolis, said she supports innovation and diversification in the energy grid. “But I don’t want my constituents to be guinea pigs,” she said. “Give it a few years, see how it plays out in other states.”

But Rep. Alan Morrison, a Republican from Brazil, said Indiana needs to push hard to find alternative power sources as utilities step up plans to retire old coal units.

“We need to produce enough for base load in this state,” he said. “Baseload cannot be supported by renewables alone.”

The state has never built a nuclear power plant, and its only attempt to build one, the Marble Hill Nuclear Power Plant, went well over budget in the 1980s. The utility, known as the Public Service Indiana, unplugged the half-built plant, then dismantled it and sold it for parts. The utility nearly went bankrupt in the process.

No Indiana utility has yet announced plans to build a small modular reactor, and none have yet been built in the United States. Small reactors are still in the design and testing phase.

But the parent company of Duke Energy Indiana, the state’s largest electric utility, told Bloomberg News last week that the company is strongly considering investing in small modular reactors, possibly within years. 2030.

“We think it would be quite complementary, not only to Duke’s skillset, but also to our climate aspirations,” said Lynn Good, CEO of North Carolina-based Duke Energy Corp.

The nuclear industry has long marketed its power as “clean energy”, which means it produces energy by splitting uranium atoms, but does not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or of nitrogen oxides, as traditional coal-fired power plants do.

However, nuclear power plants use large amounts of water for steam generation and 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 that state regulators would have to consider when authorizing a utility to build a plant.

The bill was supported by nuclear advocates, the utility industry and the Indiana House. The Hoosier Environmental Council, Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana and the NAACP opposed it.

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