The Value of Nuclear - 2019 ANS Annual Meeting Opening Plenary

June 11, 2019, 1:15AMANS Nuclear Cafe

American Nuclear Society's 2019 Annual Meeting kicked off today in Minneapolis. President John Kelly opened in the theme of this year's meeting, The Value of Nuclear. The meeting's host, Xcel Energy, committed to end the use of coal by 2030. Kelly pointed out, "that would be impossible without its reliable, well-run nuclear plants* right here in Minnesota."  He added that nuclear power is America's largest source of carbon-free energy and that nuclear energy is critical to any future reductions in the use of fossil fuels or lowering of emissions.

Kelly followed up with, "nuclear" isn't just electric power; it's cancer detection, food preservation, space exploration and, very likely in the future, it'll be synthetic fuel production as well.  "In fact," he said, "nuclear energy enables the practical deployment of a wide array of other technologies - and that's the real value of nuclear."

"But nuclear is facing some strong headwinds in the U.S.," Kelly noted, describing the nuclear plants shut down over the last several years and specifically noting Pilgrim which just shut down at the end of May.  "A dozen more face this same fate," he added.  He also remarked that only two plants are under construction right now and observed "it will be difficult to attract young engineers to nuclear energy if we are not building new plants to keep the industry healthy."

Kelly told the packed room that "one of our main challenges is that too few know about nuclear's incredible capabilities," adding that because of nuclear technologies' complexities it's up to us - the ANS members - to help explain all of what nuclear technology does, and can do, to the greater public.

In fact, Kelly challenged the ANS membership to go forth from this week's Annual Meeting and share something learned at this meeting "with someone who might not know the value of nuclear."

Kelly proceeded with his remarks, including the comment familiar to ANS members that "nuclear waste is really a political problem, not a technical one" and described some of ANS's new Task Force on Nuclear Waste Policy's activities.  He also described ANS's involvement at the recent ICAPP conference in France where he and ANS Past President Donald Hoffman signed the Declaration of Clean Energy, joining 42 other nuclear associations or societies which among other things called for a doubling of the public expenditure on nuclear research and development.

Kelly described other ANS initiatives (some of which you'll read more about later in other articles on this blog site) and closed by saying he knew that we'd all learn something that we'd want to share with friends and family upon returning home from this technical session-packed meeting.

NRC Commissioner Speaks

The Honorable Annie Caputo took the stage to a lengthy applause.  She told the enthusiastic room that she was excited to be speaking to ANS but, of course, reminded everyone that she was speaking for herself and not the NRC.

Caputo's talk was entitled "Preserving Principles Amid Change," a descriptor of the environment in which the regulatory body now finds itself.  And Caputo herself began her nuclear journey amid change, she told the room; her dream had been to return from college to beautiful New England, most likely by working at the Maine Yankee plant.  However just as she approached graduation the plant was shut down, and her hopes were dashed.  At the time, she said, "the job market was lousy and most people told me to prepare for a job in the decommissioning field."  Commonwealth Edison was her salvation - just at the time when it was performing a turn-around on the operation of its nuclear plants.

"Suddenly, at that time," she said, "with some legislative action and fourteen-dollar natural gas there were applications for 31 new nuclear units."  Although all of those except two are either cancelled or relatively likely to be unbuilt, she added that right now, today, the nuclear industry sees itself perched at the cusp of another radical change.

Caputo explained the fact that industry is working in a broad, collaborative way (labs, private concerns, government) to advance new and innovative designs and after describing some challenges faced in this sector observed that the regulator cannot continue operations as it did in years past if it is to remain serviceable.  Labeling the NRC as "independent from but not isolated from" industry she described initiatives to streamline licensing (hopefully, advanced reactors could be licensed in 42 months, she noted) to bring NRC up to the speed needed to meet important climate and industry priorities.

In closing, Caputo remarked that the nuclear fleet in the U.S. has over 4500 reactor years of safe operations under its belt which is the result of many varied successes along the way - including regulatory.  Now, with the new environment and new designs to be evaluated "the NRC is facing many challenges but must remain on a solid safety footing, and must remain independent but not isolated."  She said that the NRC must accomplish its mission continuously - regardless of rapid and vast changes in the industry.

Panelists' Short Remarks

Chris Clark, President of Xcel Energy said that he was "excited about what's happening in nuclear," observing that his company's ambitious goals to reach an 80 percent carbon reduction (in electric generation) by 2030 and to be fully carbon free by 2050 couldn't possibly happen without nuclear power.  He noted that the guidelines for this plan are "Safe, clean, reliable, affordable."  Clark said that he sees natural gas as a bridge fuel between the present grid and a high renewables grid with nuclear base load units.  Their nuclear units, he said, are about 25 percent of the regional generation capacity and are crucial to the new low carbon goals.  Clark also noted that for such plans to work, which may include future small and advanced nuclear plants, there must be public buy-in and policy support.  "Thus, engaging with the public is critical to this process."

Michael Noble, Executive Director of Fresh Energy described himself as the one outlier on the group, having spent decades promoting solar and wind power.  However, Noble observed that while he had been anti-nuclear in the past he has now swung around to realizing that nuclear has an important place in a grid that could get up to 70 to 80 percent renewable energy.  He speculated that 85 percent renewables was possible although he did say that he "had never seen a credible or reliable study that attempted to prove that 100 percent renewable energy on a grid can work."  Noble stated that the environmental advocacy field has begun to swing around to supporting nuclear, unlike in the past, because of its low carbon nature.  Noble's main messages were that operable plants should not be closed, no matter what, even if they are as much as ten dollars above the marginal price and that nuclear and renewables must work together to drive fossil fuel off the grid.

David Howell, President of Westinghouse North America, said that nuclear energy provides over 55 percent of the United States' carbon-free generating capacity and that it "takes out 528 million metric tons of CO2 per year here."  He also observed the monetary side of nuclear - it adds an impressive 60 billion dollars to the nation's GDP.  He pointed out that Germany's attempted shift to low carbon energy at the expense of nuclear has been bungled, "with their emissions going up dramatically" while the closure of San Onofre nuclear station in California "upped that state's emissions by 35 percent."  Further, "650,000 tons of carbon per year were added to the environment after Vermont Yankee closed."  He observed that for advanced nuclear to have a future, we must be building plants now as well as preserving the ones we have - and we have to make new nuclear economically competitive with other clean sources.

Suzanne Jaworowski, Senior Advisor, Policy and Communications, U.S. Department of Energy opened by complimenting the American Nuclear Society for being a "fantastic partner" to the Office of Nuclear Energy, and told the still-packed room how proud she was of the new Navigating Nuclear program to educate high school students (the middle school program being already in place.)  She said that "the vision of a carbon free future is a great opportunity to bring nuclear back to the forefront," and added that the present administration "is extremely supportive of nuclear power."  In fact, she said, "nuclear is getting broad bipartisan support these days both for keeping existing plants running and for new and advanced nuclear concepts."  After promoting educational outreach to the broad public as well as policy makers, she closed by saying that "Now is the time for atoms for peace and prosperity."

A lively question and answer session closed this important official launch of today's Opening Plenary, and attendees left with the idea in mind to make sure to learn something to take home and share so that everyone, everywhere can begin to realize the value of nuclear - before it's too late.

*These plants are Monticello and Prairie Island.