Even before the 2021 Utility Working Conference got fully underway on Monday morning, it was already a noteworthy event. The hybrid in-person/virtual meeting based at the JW Marriott in Marco Island, Fla., marks the first time that ANS has held an in-person event since the Winter Meeting in November 2019.
Each of the three introductory speakers at the opening plenary session—general chair John Elnitsky, ANS CEO/executive director Craig Piercy, and ANS President Steven Nesbit—expressed their excitement about returning to face-to-face meetings, even as COVID remains an ongoing concern.
Opening remarks: Elnitsky made a point to thank the workers who kept the nuclear plants operating throughout the pandemic. “The men and women of our nuclear plants have been in the field, operating their businesses, and operating our plants, and literally, in a lot of cases, in harm's way to make that happen,” said Elnitsky, senior vice president of engineering and technical services for Entergy. “And they've done that safely, securely, and reliably, and they deserve a lot of thanks and praise.”
Piercy said he had worried that the recent outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID in Florida would lead to fewer physical attendees. But of the 510 registered attendees, more than 85 percent chose to attend in person. “We didn't see a drop off, and I think that is because there is definitely a desire to be among your friends and colleagues and to have that personal contact,” he said. “Fortune favors the bold.”
Nesbit concluded the introductory portion by thanking the nuclear professionals for the work they do, work that he is familiar, with having spent the bulk of his career working for utilities that operated nuclear power plants. He also drew attention to an unpleasant subject—nuclear plants closing before their time. “Our plants are incredible machines that employ hundreds of people while running reliably around the clock and around the calendar producing a useful essential product—electricity at a low and predictable cost and with minimal impacts on the environment,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is not always enough in some instances. External factors such as flawed markets and political considerations play an outsized role in decisions on how our country will make electricity.”
Featured speakers: The opening remarks were followed by the first of two featured speakers, David Wright, a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The session concluded with a presentation by Gleb Tsipursky, chief executive officer of Disaster Avoidance Experts.
Wright: “Not only is today's topic of great importance and interest to me, but after more than a year and a half of virtual meetings, it's just refreshing to be here in person and see smiling faces out there and people we can reach out and touch,” Wright said. “I'm a handshaker, so please feel free to reach out and shake my hand, too.”
Turning to the real reason he was there, Wright segued into talking about the increasing interest in initiatives to expedite advanced reactor technologies and the role the NRC plays. “We have to be responsive to where the industry can go and the challenges it faces,” he said. “That’s really the heart of the NRC, being a modern risk-informed regulator.”
Wright also discussed the NRC’s role in reactor oversight and its willingness to make changes and updates to the Reactor Oversight Process, which the NRC instituted in 1998 to improve its regulatory effectiveness. “The ROP is a more risk-informed process that focuses both the agency and the licensees’ efforts on issues of greatest safety significance,” he said. “And the ROP is not now and never has been static. It was designed to, and continues to, evolve to account for new risk, insights, information, data, and operating experience.”
Wright admitted that this process is sometimes met with skepticism and criticism, which happened most recently when a staff proposal paper for enhancing the ROP was withdrawn from the NRC’s consideration. “There's some thought out there that any changes to the ROP are efforts to reduce requirements, to reduce safety, and to weaken oversight,” he said. “This in turn raises concerns with the American public and with some at the agency about our oversight committees. But I do not view passed or proposed changes to the ROP as efforts to reduce safety or weaken oversight. To the contrary, I see them as efforts to fine-tune or recalibrate our efforts based on data, experience, and inspection insights.”
Tsipursky: “Nuclear plants are closing all over the country,” Tsipursky said. “This is sad. This is tragic. This is happening in the United States, the home of nuclear power.”
On that dour note, Tsipursky started his otherwise positive presentation about the ways he believes the U.S. nuclear industry can combat poor public perceptions, antinuclear environmentalists, and unfair market conditions, among other things. Much of his solutions strategy is to reframe the narrative around nuclear the way it is being done in France, where environmentalists actually picketed a Greenpeace office in defense of the nation’s nuclear reactor fleet. “Reframing is a key strategy that you can use to seize control of public opinion,” he said. “We are very much influenced by how issues are framed. You can reframe nuclear as everyday, casual, and safe, as they do in France. We have a clear example of a winning strategy.”
Tsipursky proposed a three-pronged strategy to help nuclear earn its rightful place as an important source of carbon-free energy in the United States. The first is to protect the existing plants from further closings, which includes fighting for license extensions, working with federal, state, and local governments, and pushing for fair market conditions. The second strategy is to ensure the long-term future of nuclear energy with advanced small modular reactors. “Existing plants are your reality,” he said. “SMRs are your future.” The third strategy is to invest in nuclear startups. Tsipursky urged the audience to avoid the complacency of the auto industry in the face of the challenge from Tesla, which he said is worth three times the value of all three major U.S. auto companies—Ford, GM, and Chrysler. “If you avoid the complacency of big auto, your future is strong and bright,” he said. “Avoid that complacency and seize your destiny.”