On a flower-decked table in Mumbai, India, last week, a Holtec International delegation led by Krishna P. Singh, the India native and triple-degree Penn grad, joined with a group headed by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, of Maharashtra, India's second-most populous state, to sign a memo of understanding allowing Holtec to build a factory the company says will "give India autonomous capability" to make systems and parts for "the country's planned expansion of nuclear generation."
Besides "complex" nuclear plant equipment, the Holtec Heavy Manufacturing Division plant could also weld heavy equipment for India-based oil and gas, chemical, and aerospace industries, Holtec said in a statement.
The company didn't provide a proposed timetable or the cost of the plan. The Indian Express newspaper said Holtec "is keen to invest $680 million," or 48 billion India rupees. "The objective is to build a facility on the lines of the capacity and capability of Holtec's plant in the U.S.," the Express added. Holtec has two newly-constructed factories on the Camden waterfront, and a former Westinghouse plant near Pittsburgh, among other U.S. facilities.
The agreement sounds "consistent with the US-India nuclear relationship in general," said Michael Horowitz, political science professor at Penn. "The US-India civil nuclear agreement, signed in 2005, removed constraints on nuclear trade between the US and India" and encouraged people in both countries who hoped to build and supply nuclear power stations.
"That was an extraordinarily consequential agreement for U.S.-India relations," said Ben Schwartz, the Main Line native who heads the Defense and Aerospace Program at the U.S.-India Business Council, and wrote the book Right of Boom, about nuclear terrorism. India and the U.S. agreed that country's civilian nuclear authorities would oversee nuclear-power cooperation, without involving the military. "To India's credit, it has since then become much more involved in the international non-proliferation regime," Schwartz added. "They have added import and export procedures that have bolstered their reputation as a trusty steward" of civilian technologies. As a result, India was recently granted special status allowing import of U.S. industrial materials, including nuclear materials, without special licensing.
Singh has worked for years to win nuclear power contracts in India, a fast-growing nation with twice the population of Europe, which also maintains an arsenal of nuclear weapons. In 2014, Singh praised the election results that brought Narendra Modi to power as India's prime minister, predicting Modi would stimulate India's industrial growth.
U.S.-India relations have improved in recent years. Before his election, Modi had been barred from visiting the United States because of State Department questions on Modi's role in Hindu-nationalist riots in the early 2000s in Gujarat, where both Singh's and Modi's families originate. After Modi's victory, then-President Obama visited Modi in India and called for closer ties. Under the Trump administration, the granting of U.S. visas to Indian citizens rose last year over 2016 levels.
After Modi became prime minister, Singh cheered what he called "a seismic shift in the Indian democracy with significant consequences to the rest of the world" and a victory for capitalism against "filthy" government bribe demands, ineffective socialism, and China-style one-party rule. Singh noted at that time that Holtec was then close to finishing a small plant in Dahej, a port in Gujarat, and that Modi's state government had cleared the way for its construction.
Singh said then that he hoped to install, in the Philadelphia area, "large capital equipment" to be used "for building nuclear plants in India to meet that nation's exploding need for clean energy." Singh is now prepared to go further, building heavy equipment in an India factory.
At the Nov. 21 meeting, Maharastra minister Fadnavis said Holtec's factory plan fits with Modi's "Make in India" campaign. Singh echoed the praise for Modi and "Make in India" and added that his planned "state-of-art plant, infused with Holtec's know-how and expertise," will make India "a global provider of sophisticated capital equipment."
He also said "the plant will help realize our goal to bring United States and India into a cooperative compact" to build Holtec's vision of a new generation of turnkey small nuclear power plants.
But Holtec executives are also among the Philadelphia-area employers who have complained that it's tough to find reliable skilled workers near their plants. The company resisted Sheet Metal Workers Union attempts to organize new staff; workers at its Pittsburgh-area plant, a former Westinghouse facility, are members of the United Steelworkers.
Singh, whose principal residence is in Hobe Sound, Fla., works with politicians in the United States as well as India. George Norcross, the insurance broker, Cooper Health chairman, and South Jersey Democratic leader, sits on Holtec's board. And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican who recently announced that she was stepping down as ambassador to the United Nations, was a special guest at the 2014 dedication of the Singh Nanotechnology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. At that event, Haley told me that her family and Singh's were friends, both tracing their roots to Gujarat.
Singh, a former co-owner with Norcross of The Inquirer, had previously given $50,000 to the Movement Fund, a group backing Haley's political campaigns. Other donors included Trump, who gave $5,000, and Foster Friess, a former Chadds Ford resident and founder of the Brandywine growth-stock mutual funds, who gave $250,000. Friess was defeated in the Republican primary for governor of his adopted state of Wyoming in August.
Holtec has in the past gotten so close to government that the company got hurt. In 2010 the U.S. government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority assessed Holtec a $2 million "administrative fee" after a TVA employee pleaded guilty to failing to report $54,000 that he had collected from a Holtec subsidiary at the company's direction, the industry publication Platt's Nuclear Fuel reported at the time.
TVA also temporarily barred Holtec from competing for federal contracts, the first time the agency did that to a contractor since its founding in the 1930s. But two years later the authority awarded Holtec a 10-year, $298 million contract to continue supplying the agency with uranium-fuel casks, after the company agreed to implement a new ethics program. (Project price and third-party comments added Nov. 27, 2018)