Five former assistant secretaries of energy for the Office of Nuclear Energy—a position given the designation “NE-1”—gathered for a virtual panel discussion hosted by the American Nuclear Society on March 26. Rita Baranwal, John Kotek, Peter Lyons, William D. Magwood, and Warren “Pete” Miller each participated in the free event that was moderated by Benjamin Reinke, the former executive director in the secretary of energy’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy.
The panelists touched upon topics such as the promise advanced reactors hold for the future of nuclear energy and high-level waste management, but the bulk of the discussion was dedicated to some surprises each of the NE-1s experienced and to offering advice to the next NE-1 (the Biden administration has yet to announce a nominee for this position).
Surprises: The panelists each mentioned some of the unique experiences they faced upon taking the role of NE-1, but one unexpected thing was universal: the amount of red tape and government bureaucracy they encountered. “No matter how powerful you think you are in this position, there could be a GS-12 (a civilian government employee) somewhere with just the right job responsibility who could stop your progress and you have to find a way to work through it,” Magwood said.
Advice: Each panelist offered guidance for the incoming NE-1, but Baranwal summarized hers with one word: hustle. “We don’t have a lot of time to execute on the things we started to lay out,” she said, echoing the comments of the other panelists. Magwood said the idea of even a five-year plan doesn’t exist in the role because moving quickly on plans is so essential.
Common characteristics: Lyons noted that the five panelists had very few similarities in their professional backgrounds, which led him to conclude that there isn’t only one background that is ideally suited for the job of NE-1. But he did notice one trait they all had in common. “Each person had a very strong interest in the future of nuclear energy and its role with the country,” he said.
Sitting at the table: Kotec pointed out the necessity for getting an NE-1 in place as soon as possible. “There are a lot of things going on in the early days of the Biden administration as it pertains to climate change, where if there isn’t a strong voice for nuclear energy at the table, nuclear might not get the recognition it deserves within those policies,” he said.
Background: The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy plays a primary role in supporting and executing nuclear energy–related research, development, and deployment for the United States government. Established by President Jimmy Carter, the DOE-NE has been privileged to be led and supported by individuals passionate about the nuclear technologies and with unique and novel perspectives on the future of nuclear energy.