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Purdue asks: Is nuclear power next for campus?
President Mitch Daniels says the nuclear study with Duke Energy is just a question at this point – but an ‘unprecedented’ one for a university campus.
Thanks to the Lafayette Master Chorale for sponsoring today’s edition of the Based in Lafayette reporting project. The Lafayette Master Chorale will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Long Center for the Performing Arts with a show Saturday. For more information and how to get tickets, scroll through today’s edition.
PURDUE, DUKE LOOK TO NUCLEAR STUDY TO POSSIBLY POWER CAMPUS
Could a smaller, more portable version of a nuclear energy plant be the answer to Purdue’s power needs in the future?
The university and Duke Energy plan to study the idea, the two announced Wednesday.
Purdue was touting the move as potentially “unprecedented” among U.S. college campuses in a bid to lower the university’s carbon emissions.
But Purdue President Mitch Daniels was already tapping the brakes Wednesday, even as he assembled a team of the university’s top engineering minds on campus for the project to find out what a nuclear power option would cost and whether it would be practical.
“First of all, all we’re doing is asking a question,” Daniels said. “And we’re taking advantage of some of the best experts anywhere who you could ask such a question, between our folks and the people Duke has. It’s simply a matter where we think about the long term and be open to possibly unconventional or novel ideas.”
The plan is to look at something called small modular reactors – dubbed SMRs – that have the potential to provide nuclear-generated power up to 300 megawatts in more compact and portable ways than traditional, more powerful nuclear plants.
The university said discussions will start in a matter of weeks, with Purdue bringing a team that includes Mung Chiang, engineering dean and executive vice president for strategic initiatives; Seungjin Kim, head of the School of Nuclear Engineering; and Arden Bement, a distinguished professor of nuclear engineering and electroceramics and former director of the National Science Foundation.
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What’s the timetable? Daniels wasn’t ready to commit to that.
“We’d love an answer in a fairly short timeframe, because if we embarked on this, it would be a matter of many years to make happen,” Daniels said. “We’re not going to put any pressure on this group. This is a very complex series of questions we’re asking here. There are technological questions. There are financial questions and economic issues.
“It’d be hard, anywhere on the planet, to assemble a stronger group of people,” Daniels said. “If there’s an issue we need to consider, they’ll tell us.”
Purdue now uses the Wade Utility Plant, which the university says is a combined heat and power system that uses steam to provide heat, electricity and chilled water that is used to cool buildings. Purdue and Duke Energy worked together to open a six-megawatt natural gas power plant this month that provides thermal energy in the form of steam to the university. That plant also supplies electricity to other Duke Energy customers.
Purdue already has a small nuclear footprint, operating PUR-1, a nuclear reactor in the basement of the Electrical Engineering Building. First commissioned in 1962 and used for research and teaching, it’s not designed to power a university.
Mike Cline, senior vice president for administrative operations, said the study was about getting as much factual information on the table as possible and then deciding whether the SMR approach made sense. He said he didn’t have a timetable for the results.
“We have a lot of long-term needs,” Cline said. “Purdue University’s been in business a long time, and we're going to plan to be in business for a long time. So, nuclear energy and some of the newer applications of the technology have that kind of window – they’re 50- to 60-year solutions.”
Duke Energy has nuclear power in its portfolio. Stan Pinegar, Duke Energy Indiana president, touts Duke as the largest regulated nuclear plant operation in the country. The company operates 11 nuclear units at six plants in North Carolina and South Carolina, producing 11,000 megawatts of electricity – or about half of what’s used by customers in those two states – according to Duke’s figures.
Angeline Protogere, a Duke spokesperson, said that nationally Duke Energy is working with industry groups and reactor technology companies studying how to deploy advanced nuclear technology. And Duke has been involved with the TerrePower and GE Hitachi Natrium advanced reactor project, one of two demonstration projects funded by the Department of Energy as part of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, started in 2019, to deploy an advanced reactor by 2028.
“The collaboration with Purdue is unique in that it is the first time we are working with an institution like a university that is interested in deploying the technology for its own use as well as Indiana,” Protogere said.
Small modular reactors generate a maximum of about 30 percent as much power as traditional nuclear plants and can be assembled in a factory before being delivered to a site. Purdue reports it’s developing steel-plate composite construction used in SMRs in the campus’ Bowen Laboratories through the Center for Structural Engineering and Nuclear Power Plants.
SMRs have been considered a possible future for nuclear energy because they have been touted as potentially less expensive, scalable and safer.
Kim told WBAA reporter Ben Thorp on Wednesday that SMRs are still about a decade away from being deployed in the U.S. He said that now was a good time for Purdue to begin exploring the technology.
Jeff Dukes, an environmental sustainability professor and director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, called the announcement a good public relations move by Purdue and Duke, in the short term, as the campus faces calls to reduce emissions. In the long term, Dukes said, it had the potential to be good for the environment and the campus’ power needs, too.
Dukes said that would depend on how the university and Duke figure a way around the high cost and the safety concerns of nuclear energy by developing safer reactors that are small, and in many cases, portable and prefabricated, ready to tie into the grid in different locations.
“It’s a technology that’s still being developed, so there are a lot of caveats,” Dukes said. “If this is a joint venture that develops that technology and pushes it forward faster, and if the technology turns out to be safe and practical and cheap, then that's all good, because it's not going to emit carbon dioxide. So, it's climate friendly energy compared to burning natural gas, as we're doing now.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, has been skeptical.
In a 2013 report – shared again Wednesday by the group – Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program, warned about safety concerns, about rushing SMRs into the market before they are ready and about questionable claims about cost-effectiveness.
“Reactor owners can be tempted to lower costs by cutting corners,” Lyman wrote. “The challenge is to reduce cost without compromising safety and security.”
Daniels said he was convinced nuclear power was “a lot safer than many people have given it credit for.”
“If people have that question, they're likely to learn some things – namely, the dramatic safety profile of some of these new approaches,” Daniels said. “I think people who might understandably ask that question could come away reassured. I honestly think that it's just as likely that the big problems would be simply financial as that they wouldn't be anything regarding public safety.”
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FAIRFIELD TOWNSHIP TRUSTEE AND HER RECORDS: Less than a week before a contested primary election for Fairfield Township trustee, a lawsuit pressed by the Journal & Courier, trying to pry receipts and other records about Fairfield Township spending from Trustee Taletha Coles, took a few turns.
The J&C’s case basically asks what assorted media and even the Fairfield Township Board have asked for more than a year. Coles – who has been reluctant to share with anyone, saying it’s no one’s business how she runs her office – has had some cover, thanks to an ongoing State Board of Accounts audit. The state agency had her files, so she couldn’t turn them over, she claimed.
After her attorney made that same argument in a response filed in Tippecanoe Circuit Court, Judge Sean Persin, according to court documents, ordered the SBOA to turn over the Fairfield Township documents to Coles’ attorney.
In documents filed Friday, Christopher Jeter, Coles’ attorney, reported that “the SBOA dropped off seven bankers’ boxes full of documents” last week. Jeter wrote that “the trustee has indicated that all documents in her possession or control and which are responsive to Plaintiffs’ request are contained in said boxes.”
“The trustee’s counsel and his staff have been making efforts to review, scan and sort the documents, but these efforts are taking time,” Jeter wrote, asking the judge for an extension from an initial deadline of Tuesday to turn over the documents. Jeter asked for a deadline to turn over the documents no earlier than 3 p.m. Friday, April 29.
(There was no word in the court documents about whether Coles planned to turn over documents to township officials who have filed similar public records requests with the trustee.)
Coles is due back in court Friday morning.
Coles faces a challenge from a pair of Fairfield Township Board members – Monica Casanova and Rocky Hession – in the May 3 Democratic primary for trustee. The winner of that primary will face Republican April O’Brien.
For more on that race and Q&As with the candidates, go to www.vote411.org.
WHILE WE’RE TALKING ELECTIONS …: Early voting continues this week ahead of the May 3 primary day:
At the election office: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays at the Tippecanoe County Board of Elections, on the first floor of the County Office Building, 20 N. Third St. in Lafayette. There will be 9 a.m.-4 p.m. hours on Saturday in the elections office. The final day of early voting will be 8 a.m.-noon Monday, May 2.
Noon-6 p.m. April 28-30: Eastside Assembly of God, 6121 E. County Road 50 South; Faith West Community Center, 1920 Northwestern Ave.; Northend Community Center, 2000 Elmwood Ave.; Wea Ridge Baptist Church, 1051 E. County Road 430 South.
Polling place maps and wait times: The Tippecanoe County clerk and assessor’s office have developed an app that lets you know how many people have voted at a particular site and how long you can expect to wait. Here's the link: Early vote sites wait times.
On ballots: To see which races will be on your ballot, go to www.indianavoters.com.
For more about candidates and their stances: The League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette compiled a series of Q&As and video interviews with candidates, assembled at www.Vote411.org. Key in your address, pick your party ballot and scan the candidate bios and responses.
AND FINALLY, A SCENE FROM THIS WEEK …
Thanks again to the Lafayette Master Chorale for sponsoring today’s edition. The Long Center for the Performing Arts is turning 100, and the Lafayette Master Chorale is throwing the party with a show from conductor Eric Van Cleave, with special guest Lafayette Jefferson High School alumna and Broadway star Cortney Wolfson. For tickets and more, click the link below.
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