K.P. “Kris” Singh, founder, president and chief executive officer of nuclear industry engineering and waste storage company Holtec International, seems like the type of CEO who might roll up his sleeves and jump into the trenches to help his blue-collar workers hoist an iron bar or two.
While he was working toward a master’s in applied mathematics (1969) and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering (1972), both obtained at the University of Pennsylvania, he wasn’t short on cash like some of the other graduate students.
That was because he was already working part-time as a consultant in the nascent nuclear power industry.
“I had training in engineering (at Ranchi University) that was more practically oriented,” Singh told India-West in an exclusive interview.
“They (the nuclear industry companies) wanted someone who could solve practical problems. I got a clientele. It was very good for me. It allowed me to talk to other experts.”
Singh is now forging ahead with another challenge. He wants to lead the nuclear industry into building small, modular nuclear reactors underground, which are cheaper to build and safer for the industry and the public.
Holtec, through its subsidiary, SMR L.L.C., is one of four finalists in the running for a $452 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The plan is for the U.S. to fund two small modular nuclear reactor designs that will become available for licensing and production by 2022.
The award, expected in the next few weeks, will likely be split between two winning bidders, who must then pledge to invest an equal amount in their projects.
Holtec would build an underground reactor at the Savannah River site near Aiken, South Carolina. The company said in a recent press release that like other small modular reactors, its reactor would be “shop manufactured” and capable of having components delivered by conventional surface transportation. It would also develop its own supply chain of components to build the new reactor.
“The country needs this done below the ground,” the Indian American executive told India-West. We have developed 30 plus patents on this technology,” he added. “We can do it and do it well. It can be much more safe and robust and it doesn’t have to cost so much.”
“We are in an industry that if it doesn’t look to improve itself, it will not gain back the trust of the public,” he emphasized.
Singh said Holtec estimates it can build its new plant for about $800 million, compared to $2.5 billion and upwards of $6 billion or more to build conventional nuclear plants.
The company’s more likely future market is probably outside the U.S. “Our plant will need to sell 1,000” of the small nuclear reactors to make it a financial winner, he said.
The Indian American entrepreneur asserted that he is so serious about his company’s commitment to building small reactors underground that he told one U.S. Energy Department official that if Holtec gets the grant and doesn’t finish the reactor, “I would give them the money back.”
He said he gets a little bit of a “perverse pleasure” in knowing that the government wouldn’t know “what to do with the money” if he returned it.
Government debacles like Solyndra, where the solar panel company in Fremont, Calif., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after getting over $500 million in loan guarantees from the federal government, are “scandalous,” Singh said. “That kind of irresponsible-contract behavior is not good. It is corrosive for society.”
The 64-year-old Holtec chief executive was “born in the northeast cow belt” of India in Bihar and attended U. Penn on a fellowship with just a few dollars in his pocket.
After working for a small manufacturing firm in the nuclear industry, Singh had the temerity to launch Holtec in 1986, seven short years after the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown in 1979 sent shock waves through the nuclear power industry.
“I couldn’t raise money to go public, but I saw a niche that people weren’t filling,” he told India-West.
His innovation was in “wet storage,” storage pools for spent fuel from nuclear reactors. “I saw I could increase storage by a factor of three or four,” he explained.
Holtec, which has its corporate technology center in Marlton, N.J., and it headquarters in Jupiter, Fla., occupies a dominant share of the wet storage market. “We have done 90+ of the 104 (U.S. nuclear plants). It is our main business.”
Holtec has also made huge inroads in the “dry storage” market, storing nuclear waste underground in helium environments in casks at more than 50 nuclear plants, he added.
Eduardo D. Glandt, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s engineering school, told one Philadelphia newspaper recently that Singh “created technology, and then went out and built a company around the technology he created. To me, that’s doubly meritorious.”
Singh said his management style is to meet management problems directly, to “train people in a way that’s motivational for them” and to sequester himself in his Florida offices to work on his designs and ideas when he needs quiet time away from the day-to-day grind.
Holtec set up a “business presence” in Pune because of its “significant manufacturing” facilities about three years ago,” and in July began “negotiating with a businessman” for an outsourcing site in Kolkata, Singh revealed to India-West.
A registered Republican, Singh has donated to both parties, but said he votes for the person and the issues, not the party.
Through his family foundation, he gave $20 million to U. Penn for construction of the Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology, a $91 million project that is currently under construction. “My personal vision is that nanotechnology is going to be a game changer in the future,” Singh said.
Singh’s wife, Martha, runs a real estate holding company with properties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida. They have two children, Amy, 36, and Kris, 33.
His recent investment as part of an investor group that bought the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Web site philly.com (I-W, April 13) was his son’s idea, he said. “It keeps him off the streets,” Singh joked.
“The whole world needs nuclear energy,” the Indian American nuclear engineer said. “We (the nuclear industry) have to live up to our promises. So far, we haven’t lived up to them.”