COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday that South Carolina will fight for federal grants that could make the state a hub for the next-generation nuclear technology and eventually employ thousands of people.
The Republican governor, along with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, stood with leaders of the nuclear industry to promote South Carolina as the ideal place for designing and building small modular reactors.
“D.C. needs to see we stand arm in arm. We want the projects,” Haley said. “It means heavy investment and tons of jobs. ... This is something South Carolina wants and will fight for.”
New Jersey-based Holtec International has applied for one of two $225 million grants to be awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The grants, subject to congressional approval, would be awarded over five years to support the design and licensing of two reactors to be built by 2022. Awards require a 50 percent match from private industry. Applications were due May 21, and selections will be announced in September. They’re meant to help give America a competitive edge in the global clean energy race, according to a DOE spokeswoman.
Holtec wants to build a 160-megawatt underground reactor on five acres – about two football fields – at the Savannah River Site near Aiken. Construction alone should cost about $300 million. The hope is that it will become the showcase for a factory employing 5,000 people, built with an additional $400 million investment, said CEO Kris Singh.
Singh said he envisions South Carolina making the compact reactors, sold at $800 million each, and shipping them worldwide from Charleston. The 160 daily megawatts of electricity each generates could power roughly 100,000 homes in the U.S. and 300,000 in developing nations, according to a company brochure.
“Getting a project like this will change the face of South Carolina,” Haley said.
Singh said three other companies are applying. The DOE would not comment on the application process.
Singh said the expertise at SRS National Laboratory contributed to his company’s decision to locate the project in South Carolina, along with the state’s pro-active recruiting efforts. If Holtec wins a grant, it would seek incentives from the state, he said.
Haley and other officials noted South Carolina’s strong ties to the nuclear industry.
The 310-square-mile SRS was built in the 1950s to produce plutonium and tritium for atomic bombs. Work there is now focused mostly on research, cleaning up areas and sealing off former reactor sites with concrete.
The state is also home to seven reactors at four nuclear power plants, ranking third nationwide in net generation, behind Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Supporters contend the small modular reactors are earthquake, hurricane and tsunami proof because the reactors are gravity driven –with no pumps or motors.
“You cannot make this reactor go haywire. It will shut itself down,” Singh said.
Nuclear opponent Tom Clements said he fears South Carolina will become a dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel and notes that small modular reactors are not reality –they exist only on paper.
Singh said that under his company’s design, spent reactor fuel would be stored underground in stainless steel canisters within the five-acre site. Spent fuel from 100 years of operation could be contained in a space 30 feet wide by 60 feet long, he said.
Clements, nonproliferation director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, also said Haley should be careful about backing Obama administration grants that represent large government subsidies. Haley has been highly critical of President Barack Obama and federal stimulus programs.
But Haley said she wants South Carolina to be at the forefront of energy independence.
“There is a role for the federal government at times, when it comes to becoming energy independent so we don’t have other countries dictating what we do,” she said. “I think we have an opportunity to allow us to not only help our state but our country.”
The chairman of an economic development group for the counties surrounding SRS said the area is uniquely qualified to advance the next-generation, low-risk nuclear plants.
“We’re a nuclear community,” said John Williamson, chairman of SouthernCarolina Alliance. “This is all pluses.”