The Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.
The Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Credit: tpsdave / Creative Commons

Indiana clean energy advocates are concerned about a state task force’s recent focus on small nuclear reactors as a solution for the state’s energy future.

The 21st Century Energy Task Force was initially created by the legislature in 2019 to make policy recommendations related to the state’s future electric grid. The group submitted its first report last year. This year legislation restarted the task force with specific priorities and another report due in two years. At a recent meeting, the focus was on small modular reactors, or SMRs.

SMRs have been touted as a safe and economical replacement for fossil fuel power plants, but the earliest test projects aren’t expected to come online until the end of the decade, and critics see plenty of risk with them, including the need to indefinitely store spent radioactive fuel. The focus on a promising but unproven technology also distracts from existing options that are ready to be deployed today, they say.

“Not only is all this R&D money being sunk into SMRs hurting renewables, it gives them an excuse to not make investments today they should be making,” said Citizens Action Coalition Executive Director Kerwin Olson. “We have clean, available, cheap, off-the-shelf technology today with solar and wind and demand response — that’s where our investments today should be going.”

As coal plants increasingly close in historically coal-heavy Indiana, the debate has intensified over how to replace the power from those plants, and what to do with the sites.

The company Indiana Michigan Power (I&M) reached a settlement in September with environmental and citizen groups and municipalities agreeing to close its Rockport coal plant in Indiana by 2028, and to transition the plant to a merchant generator by 2024, rather than recouping costs from ratepayers.

It’s not clear what might happen to the Rockport coal plant site after the plant closes, but some form of generation is likely. At the task force’s Oct. 12 meeting, the chief nuclear officer for I&M Power’s parent company discussed the potential for SMRs such as those under development by Portland, Oregon-based NuScale.

“The NuScale design is very far advanced and ready to be built somewhere,” said Joel Gebbie, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of I&M’s parent American Electric Power, noting that other companies also have SMRs in development.

Gebbie said that increasing distributed energy resources like solar “significantly complicates” the job of utilities serving their customers. He and NuScale representatives described the modular reactors as a way to add reliability and baseload power at the same time that more renewables are built.    

“If you’ve got say a four pack or eight pack or 12 pack [of SMRs], you can have some supplying the grid and some not,” Gebbie said. “For that future where diverse energy resources are required, they fit very well.”

Nuclear on old coal sites

NuScale officials during their presentation to the task force described SMRs as a good option for former coal plant sites. They said coal plant workers could be retained for similar positions at an SMR plant, while also preserving the area’s tax base.

“It is a great solution for the 21st century when shuttering coal plants,” Suzanne Jaworowski, an energy consultant working for NuScale, told the task force.

She added that since Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently signed a memorandum of understanding with neighboring states about electric vehicles, people will want those vehicles to be powered by zero-emissions electricity generation.

NuScale’s 77-megawatt SMR units will be able to be combined to create a power plant of up to almost a gigawatt on 30 acres, it said. A report the company submitted to the task force explained how it is building a plant on the site of a former coal plant in Idaho in conjunction with a local public power consortium.

The small nuclear reactors will generate electricity by creating steam that turns a turbine, similar to the process used in coal plants. The steam could also be used to create hydrogen for fuel cells for vehicles, and for desalination or for extracting natural gas and oil, NuScale sales director Dom Claudio told the task force.

Claudio explained detailed schematics for a potential SMR plant in Indiana, noting that the “small footprint” would fit well on an existing coal plant site. Claudio added that a small modular reactor “integrates very well with renewable resources, particularly wind and solar. It has a responsiveness to it that will level out the generation” fluctuations with renewables. “You can actually increase the wind and solar that you use by utilizing this.”

Claudio said an SMR plant would create 270 operating jobs over its 60-year lifespan, as well as 1,200 construction jobs for three years. He said that since operating the reactors is similar to operating a coal plant, retraining workers is straightforward. In response to questions from legislators, Claudio said that spent fuel from SMRs must be stored just like nuclear waste from larger reactors; the U.S. has not settled on a long-term plan for such waste storage.

Olson noted that it would likely be years before SMRs could be built in Indiana, noting that the pilot project in Idaho is not scheduled for completion until 2029.  Years ago SMRs were also discussed for the site of the State Line coal plant in Northwest Indiana that closed in 2012, just across the border from Chicago. A data center was ultimately built on that site.

Coal to gas

While legislators and utilities may be considering SMRs for the future, utilities have prioritized natural gas plants more recently.  

A two-year-old 671-megawatt combined cycle gas turbine plant called Eagle Valley has been offline since April because of technical issues, and ratepayers have been billed for over $1 million spent on replacement power bought on the market, according to recent testimony and filings with the state regulatory commission.

Olson, whose organization stridently opposed that plant’s construction, says the temporary shutdown is an example of why the plant was an ill-advised investment of ratepayer funds.

“We opposed it basically citing opportunities for wind and solar and increased efficiency” instead, Olson said. “The discussion at the statehouse was all about reliability and baseload, that was the first new baseload plant built in a long time, and it didn’t run the entire summer. So the reliability argument doesn’t really sell.”

During testimony, John Bigalbal, chief operating officer of the company that services plant owner Indianapolis Power & Light, said that the gas plant provided reliable “low cost” baseload power during its first two years online. Bigalbal said the plant will be offline into November. The problems were caused by a disconnected wire that prevented the plant from synchronizing with the grid, sparking further problems that cost $3.6 million to address.

The Citizens Action Coalition is also opposing a proposal for new gas peaker plants to be built on the site of CenterPoint Energy’s A.B. Brown coal plant, scheduled to close by 2023. According to the company’s filings, the plants would only run about 5% of the time, to meet peak demand, and could cost average ratepayers an additional $23 a month. Such peak demand could better be met or reduced by energy efficiency and demand response, the coalition says.

That project received a setback with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling on Oct. 7 that an environmental impact statement must be done regarding the proposed gas pipeline, built by a Texas company, that would supply the gas plant.The pipeline needs FERC approval, and based in part on the study, FERC will determine whether the project is in the “public convenience and necessity.” The study will likely look at the pipeline’s impact on wetlands, streams, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality. Public comments are being accepted through Nov. 8 on what the environmental impact study should examine.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.