Small modular reactors (SMRs) are widely considered the best technology to increase the use of nuclear power worldwide, with advocates touting their zero-emission production of electricity, smaller land footprint, and scalability. SMRs also offer a cost savings over construction of new utility-scale nuclear reactors.
Powering a college campus with nuclear energy has increasingly been a topic of discussion in recent years, as universities try to reduce their carbon footprint and many seek to upgrade older, fossil fuel-powered central utility plants. Purdue University and Duke Energy on April 27 announced that officials will jointly look at the feasibility of using nuclear power to meet the school’s energy needs.
“No other option holds as much potential to provide reliable, adequate electric power with zero carbon emissions,” said Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president since 2013 after serving two terms as Indiana’s governor. “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.”
“Small modular nuclear reactors are one of a number of new technologies we’re exploring,” said Chris Nolan, vice president of Nuclear Regulatory Affairs and Policy for Duke Energy. Nolan told POWER, “Nationwide, Duke Energy is leading the industry’s largest clean energy transformation, and exploring technologies such as this is important work to get us there and complement other carbon-free energy sources such as solar and wind. Purdue is home to one of the nation’s top engineering programs, and Duke Energy operates the largest regulated nuclear fleet in the nation. We are putting our collective minds to the task of evaluating its possibilities for both Purdue and Indiana.”
Nuclear Engineering Background
Purdue, located in West Lafayette, Indiana, is known for its engineering program, with a focus on energy innovation that is scalable and sustainable. Duke Energy is Indiana’s largest electric utility. Nuclear engineering students at Purdue are able to learn from and conduct research using PUR-1, the first and only nuclear reactor in the state, and the first and only U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission facility to be licensed for a fully digital instrument and control system.
Reactors on college campuses are not unprecedented, though powering an entire campus with an SMR would likely be a first. University research reactors have operated at various times in the U.S. over the past 30-plus years; in 1990, there were 35 reactors at 33 sites in 24 states. The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) database lists 25 schools with reactors.
Research reactors also have operated at university sites worldwide for many years; for example, five are currently operating in Argentina, with another handful in Canada, according to government data. Eight are currently operational in France, not surprising since that country receives more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy. University reactors used for teaching and research, though, are generally too small to power a campus community.
Much of the SMR research and development in the U.S. has been led by NuScale Power, an Oregon-headquartered company founded in 2007. The company this week announced a plan with South Korea’s Doosan to support commercial deployment of an SMR in Idaho.
CHP System in Place
Purdue is currently powered through the Wade Utility Plant. The Wade facility is a combined heat and power (CHP) system that uses steam to provide heat, electricity, and chilled water that is used to cool facilities. A new 16-MW Duke Energy CHP plant on campus, inaugurated earlier this month, provides thermal energy in the form of steam to Purdue, and also provides electricity for Duke Energy’s Indiana customers.
Purdue purchases about 50% of its campus electricity from Duke Energy.
Stan Pinegar, president of Duke Energy Indiana, said, “Duke Energy is leading the industry’s biggest clean energy transformation nationwide, and exploring technologies such as this is important work to help get us there. Nuclear provides reliable energy and can complement other carbon-free energy sources, such as solar and wind. 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 premiere engineering schools to see what this technology could do for its campus as well as the state.”
Officials have said an SMR at Purdue could power not only the campus but also provide electricity to Indiana’s power grid, which as recently as 2020 received more than half its energy from coal-fired generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA said Indiana ranked third among states—behind only Texas and Missouri—in consumption of coal in 2020.
Several coal-fired plants have closed in the state in recent years, with more scheduled to be shuttered in the next few years, despite efforts by state lawmakers to prop up the coal industry. Lawmakers earlier this year, though, supported a measure to adopt rules around the use of SMRs.
‘Practical and Affordable’
Michael B. Cline, Purdue’s senior vice president for administrative operations, said, “This effort provides a timely opportunity for Purdue to work with our partners to explore whether nuclear energy can be a practical and affordable option to meet our long-term needs.”
Purdue already is considered a leader in developing SMR technology, including the prefabrication of modules. Purdue researchers have pioneered, developed, and verified the steel-plate composite construction used in SMRs at the on-campus Bowen Laboratory through the Center for Structural Engineering and Nuclear Power Plants.
Amit Varma, Purdue’s Karl H. Kettelhut professor of Civil Engineering and director of the Bowen Laboratory of Large-Scale CE Research, said, “Steel-plate composite technology is fundamental to successfully deploying SMRs within budget and on schedule. We have the world’s pre-eminent team and facilities to conduct the testing, analysis, design, and construction demonstration to actualize the potential of this technology.”
Officials on Wednesday said a series of meetings and joint studies about the SMR project will begin in the next few weeks, as part of the school’s sustainability plan.
Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, operates the largest regulated nuclear fleet in the U.S., with 11 reactors at six plant sites in North Carolina and South Carolina. The utility’s nuclear plants have total power generation capacity of about 11 GW.
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).