Purdue, Duke Energy to study powering campus with nuclear reactor

May 3, 2022

After years of choosing fossil fuels for energy, one of the state’s leading research universities is looking into powering its campus with a nuclear reactor.

Purdue University is partnering with Duke Energy Corp. to study the feasibility of using a small modular nuclear reactor, which is significantly smaller than traditional nuclear reactors, as a campus power source.

Both parties will hold a series of meetings and joint studies in coming weeks to explore whether the reactor would be practical, affordable and meet the school’s long-term needs.

Experts from Purdue’s College of Engineering and the School of Nuclear Engineering, as well as nuclear experts from Duke Energy, will be part of the feasibility study.

“Nuclear provides reliable energy and can complement other carbon-free energy sources, such as solar and wind,” said Duke Energy Indiana president Stan Pinegar. “As the largest regulated nuclear plant operator in the nation, we have more than 50 years of experience with safe, reliable operations. We can share that experience with one of America’s premier engineering schools to see what this technology could do for its campus as well as the state.”

Duke Energy operates 11 nuclear units at six sites in North Carolina and South Carolina, but the company does not currently own or operate any small modular nuclear reactors. Only one SMR reactor project is scheduled for construction, the six-SMR Carbon Free Power Project at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.

The Purdue/Duke Energy study could result in one of the first SMRs built in the U.S.

“No other option holds as much potential to provide reliable, adequate electric power with zero carbon emissions,” said Purdue president Mitch Daniels in a press release. “Innovation and new ideas are at the core of what we do at Purdue, and that includes searching for ways to minimize the use of fossil fuels while still providing carbon-free, reliable and affordable energy. We see enough promise in these new technologies to undertake an exploration of their practicality, and few places are better positioned to do it.”

The university currently produces a significant amount of the energy it uses at its Wade Utility Plant, which is fueled by coal and natural gas. Purdue purchases about 50% of its energy needs from Duke Energy.

The plant is a heavy emitter of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and change the earth’s climate. Emissions from the Wade Utility Plant account for almost all of the city of West Lafayette’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions, according to a greenhouse gas emissions inventory completed by the city.

The school also recently leased land at its West Lafayette campus to Duke Energy for its natural-gas powered Combined Heat and Power Plant. The plant was built, owned and operated by Duke Energy, but the school will use steam produced by the plant for energy.

Purdue is looking to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as its sustainability master plan calls for a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by the 2025 fiscal year.

A law passed this year by the Indiana General Assembly could help Purdue reach that goal.

The Indiana General Assembly passed a law this year allowing the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which oversees utilities in the state, to approve construction, purchase or lease of a small modular nuclear reactor capable of producing up to 350 megawatts of electricity in the state as long as the company attempting to do so planned to apply for federal nuclear permits.

The law also allows utility companies that take on nuclear energy projects to become eligible for financial clean energy incentives, including the recovery of costs through rate increases for utility customers.

Consumer and environmental groups criticized the bill as it made its way through the Indiana Legislature, saying the incentivization would essentially allow the companies to gamble on an unproven technology with ratepayer money.

It’s unclear how the law will affect the price of electricity for the university or Duke Energy’s other ratepayers. The university told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that it was too soon in the process to know what the costs of the reactor would be and how it would be funded.

The IURC said the company will have to make a specific cost recovery request that will be open for comment and intervention, like other docketed case processes.

Daniels, who has historically been friendly to fossil fuels, has a long history with Duke Energy and “unproven” technologies that dates back to his tenure as the 49th governor of Indiana.

The partnership resulted in an ethics scandal that resulted in the removal and criminal indictment of the IURC chair.

During his governorship, Daniels supported and helped garner support for Duke Energy’s Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle Generating Facility, a “clean coal” power plant that turns coal into synthetic form of natural gas.

The plant was projected to cost $1.985 billion and was approved by the IURC. About two months after construction began in 2008, Duke Energy said the cost of the plant would rise by about $400 million.

Over the next three years, the company changed the cost estimates several times, which the IURC approved. The plant eventually cost $3.5 billion to construct, $2.975 billion of which would be charged to ratepayers through higher monthly electric bills.

Over time, it was discovered that IURC officials, including the IURC chairman, executive director and the chief administrative judge overseeing the case, had had improper contact with Duke Energy, including accepting offers to take positions in the company, while they were deciding the rate case.

Duke Energy hired IURC executive director W. Michael Reed as president of Duke Energy Indiana and IURC chief administrative judge Scott Storms as senior council during negotiations for a cap on how much Duke would be allowed to charge customers for the plant.

Daniels fired IURC chairman David Lott Hardy after it was revealed that Hardy knew of the potentially unethical interactions. Hardy was later indicted by a Marion County grand jury on four counts of official misconduct. The charges were later dismissed.

Duke Energy eventually fired Reed and Storms. Storms was reprimanded by the Indiana Disciplinary Commission.

Consumer advocate groups were able to return some of the money to ratepayers after a lengthy legal battle, but Duke Energy customers still pay about $14 more on their monthly electric bill to pay for the Edwardsport plant.

If Duke Energy undertakes an SMR project, costs would most likely be passed on to the company’s ratepayers. In April, Duke Energy submitted a petition to the IURC to raise ratepayers’ monthly bills by 16% to pay for increased fuel prices for its fossil fuel-powered generation.

Purdue, Duke Energy to study powering campus with nuclear reactor