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Support for mini-nuclear reactors gaining steam in S.C.

State and regional officials on Tuesday continued their push to build support both here and in the nation’s capital to build the first small, modular nuclear reactors at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County.

The U.S. Department of Energy has given the green light for three companies to partner with SRS to potentially develop the nation’s first mini-reactors there. The three companies are competing with other plant design companies across the nation – and each other – for federal matching grants totaling up to $452 million to support engineering, certification and licensing for up to two mini-reactor designs. Winners are expected to be announced later this summer.

The mini-reactors, which could be a small as a double-wide trailer and power factories, small cities or remote areas, have been called the nuclear technology of the future. They can be built at a fraction of the cost of large reactors at a central location and transported to wherever they are needed.

Gov. Nikki Haley said during a mid-day press conference on the west side of the State House grounds the state would like to land both grants.

“This means jobs,” said Haley, flanked by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and representatives of companies that hope to build, fuel and operate the mini-reactors. “Washington D.C. needs to see that we stand arm-in-arm.”

Boosters say the reactors could crack the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, gobble up nuclear waste and create thousands of manufacturing jobs in nuclear-friendly South Carolina – with just one of the grants spurring $600 million in private investment and 2,000 jobs in the next few years. Landing the grant for South Carolina would be the leading edge of a new $100 billion industry, they said.

“We believe in the power of nuclear to power the world,” said Kris Singh of Holtec International, one of the companies vying for the grants. “ Our mission is to erase the fear.”

The other two companies are NuScale and Gen4 Energy, formerly Hyperion.

But critics say the technology is still in its infancy and could be dangerous. They say test projects are years away from being licensed by the government. They also say mini-nuclear plants will create substantial amounts of deadly nuclear waste, just like large reactors.

And if the technology is licensed by the NRC and the mini- reactors use spent nuclear rods from power plants as a source for fuel, then waste could be shipped into the state from other areas, they said.

“South Carolina would become the nuclear waste dump for the nation,” said Tom Clements, Columbia-based nonproliferation policy director for the national Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.

But critics in nuclear-friendly South Carolina – where two of the first four new large-scale nuclear reactors built in the nation in the past 30 years are under construction -- are few and far between. The technology has bipartisan backing, including Republicans Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Democrats Benjamin and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.

“There is great support from the federal level, from the state level and the local level,” Benjamin said. “That is rare.”

Once the grants are awarded, the designs would then have to be approved by another agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, before they could be built, a process that could stretch over a decade.

The Midlands is a leading contender as the site of the first mini- reactor, boosters say. The region boasts the research and development strengths of SRS – including 95 percent of the nation’s non-weapons plutonium – in addition to the deep political support for nuclear power and proactive public and private efforts to land the emerging industry.

The region’s proximity to the Port of Charleston also is an advantage because many of the customers for the reactors would be overseas – in remote areas where power generation now is a problem.

But Steve Byrne, chief operating officer for S.C. Electric & Gas, which is building the large scale reactors, said the mini-reactors could have uses closer to home. The company is presently phasing out some its older, smaller coal plants “and SMRs would fit well in those footprints,” he said.