Louisville piping company ISCO is providing fire suppression and cooling infrastructure for the Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates. | Photo courtesy of L.Potterton of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Louisville piping company ISCO is providing fire suppression and cooling infrastructure for the $25 billion Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates. | Photo courtesy of L.Potterton of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A Louisville company has produced critical materials for the construction of a $25 billion nuclear power plant in the Persian Gulf.

ISCO, which this year moved into the Presbyterian Center on Witherspoon Street, is providing the fire suppression and cooling infrastructure for the four initial reactors of the Barakah nuclear plant near Ruwais, Abu Dhabi. When the plant comes online next year, it will generate 5,700 megawatts of power, which will make it one of the largest power stations in the world.

The project stands in stark contrast to ISCO’s humble beginnings in the 1960s, when Jim Kirchdorfer Sr. launched the business in his father’s hardware store in the Highlands to focus on irrigating golf courses. The company’s involvement in the Barakah plant also exemplifies how a relatively small Louisville business has evolved into a major global player by focusing on innovation and diversification of product and geography.

ISCO President Vince Tyra told IL this week that some of ISCO’s employees have lived in the United Arab Emirates within the last two years as the Barakah power plant is being built. The project is nearing completion, but a little more work is planned for this fall before the plant goes online next year.

The contract generated about $40 million in revenues for the Louisville company — a big deal for a company with annual revenues of about $500 million — but the exposure to potential new customers in the power generation industry could prove even more valuable. It was the first time that the company’s flagship product, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a thermoplastic made from petroleum, was used in a new power plant.

“We had the eyes of the nuclear world watching us,” Tyra said.

The foray into the nuclear power industry marks the latest step in the company’s drive to get its products into a greater variety of markets, both to foster growth and to isolate itself from economic downturns in any one industry.

The company’s products deliver municipal gas and water, capture methane generated in landfills and deliver water to drought-stricken crops in Australia and New Zealand. ISCO entered the mining industry about a decade ago, the geothermal industry about five years ago, and the oil and gas industry about three years ago. Its HDPE products also carry beer in breweries, support a mine in Mongolia, and serve as flotation devices to protect U.S. Navy Ships.

ISCO’s Chief Sales Officer, Tom O’Neill, said the company has done a lot of work on product acceptance, convincing customers that HDPE piping provides a safe alternative to traditional materials and comes with a lower cost of ownership.

Once ISCO’s products go into the ground, they can stay there for decades with very little service, O’Neill said. That kind of reliability is critical for companies that invest billions of dollars in power generation or resource extraction. They don’t want to shut down their costly operations because the fire suppression system is malfunctioning or needs to be serviced, O’Neill said.

ISCO recently moved into sleek new offices on Witherspoon Street. | Photo courtesy of ISCO.
ISCO recently moved into sleek new offices on Witherspoon Street. | Photo courtesy of ISCO.

As HDPE has become more accepted and customers see how well it works in various applications, Tyra said, ISCO has been able to offer its products in new markets.

The growth has prompted the company to open about 40 locations across the U.S. and another 10 across the globe, including Canada, Chile and China.

Employment, which stands at 500, has grown by about 25 percent in the last three years. That global growth also has benefitted the Louisville operations, which provide support for the increasingly complex projects the company is tackling. ISCO likes to focus on what Tyra calls “ISCOvation,” which means finding solutions to industry challenges that competitors have ignored or cannot solve because they lack expertise. Tyra said that while ISCO employs more than 20 engineers, most of the company’s competitors employ one at the most.

The company really has evolved from a piping distributor into a piping solutions company, Tyra said.

ISCO recently moved its global HQ into the Presbyterian Center because its prior location, on Baxter Avenue, was too small and fragmented and hindered efficient cooperation among employees. The new and modern 38,000-square-foot space, with sleek furniture, bright colors and high-tech gadgetry, serves as a better platform from which to engage customers who spend billions of dollars on a power plant, an oil rig or a diamond mine. In total, the company expects to invest about $5 million on the move. ISCO also runs a 11.2-acre production and storage facility about 20 miles southwest of downtown Louisville, on Freeport Court.

ISCO fabricator Jeff Parker, uses a machine at the company’s Freeport Court facility to generate heat and pressure to join two two sections of high-density polyethylene pipe to form a curved piece. The piece was to be used as part of a high-pressure piping system. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Revenues have grown an average 15 percent in the last five years, and Tyra said he expects that growth to continue for the foreseeable future because of more international opportunities and the larger scale of the new projects that the company is supporting.

Thanks to its involvement in the Barakah plant, for example, ISCO has landed a restoration project for the Edwin Irby Hatch Nuclear Power Plant near Baxter, Ga. Many nuclear plants were built in the 1980s and are nearing the point where they need to be re-certified by federal regulators, which typically means some of the systems need to be repaired and upgraded.

Tyra said he hopes ISCO’s experience with Barakah and its nuclear certification will allow the company to get some of those contracts. Gaining the certification took about six years of hard work, Tyra said, and has elevated the company’s reputation.

“It was not an easy process,” he said. “It’s something that we’re very proud of.”

The certification and exposure from prominent projects also can help convince potential customers in other industries of ISCO’s capabilities. After all, if you can handle the critical cooling infrastructure at one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants, you’ll probably be able to handle about every other type of project.

ISCO is looking at supporting more large projects than ever before, Tyra said.

“We still have our sights on becoming a billion dollar company.”

Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.