ANS Winter Meeting: What it will take to “Fuel our Nuclear Future"
The 2021 ANS Winter Meeting and Technology Expo began this morning with a Opening Plenary Session chaired by Winter Meeting general chair Amir Vexler, president and chief executive officer of Orano USA. It was an opportunity to both celebrate achievements that are already building a “Nuclear Future” and to identify needs and challenges ahead.
Influential speakers from the U.S. Congress, the Department of Energy, and the Nuclear Energy Institute joined ANS president Steven Nesbit and ANS CEO/executive director Craig Piercy to explore key issues associated with the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including supply and demand for high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU). They didn’t stop there, however. They took questions from an in-person and virtual audience that probed other requirements of a sustainable nuclear future, including fueling a human resources pipeline.
Nesbit: Nesbit launched the opening plenary session—the first ANS national face-to-face meeting since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic—by saying: “Let me observe that despite the global pandemic, our nuclear world did not stand still since our last in-person national meeting two years ago.”
The intervening months, as Nesbit noted, included progress in the development and licensing of advanced reactors; a new acknowledgment of the low-carbon benefits of nuclear energy; progress in the deployment of new reactors around the world, as well as continued construction of AP1000 reactors in the United States; and advancements in medical and space applications of nuclear technology.
Nesbit was quick to observe that one thing did stay the same: “With capacity factors in excess of 92 percent, America's nuclear power plants continued their role as the foundation of our secure, reliable electrical grid, and they remain the country's largest source of carbon free electricity.”
Piercy: Piercy welcomed attendees to the Winter Meeting while acknowledging the challenges posed around the world by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As an organization, ANS emerges from COVID stronger than when we went in,” Piercy said. “I'm equally proud of the work that ANS is has contributed to the larger public conversation in the last two years: fostering a more rational discourse on low-dose radiation; stressing the need for a strong portfolio of federal investments in advanced nuclear R&D; stressing the need for keeping our Nuclear Regulatory Commission at full strength; and finally and perhaps most impactful, our expanded work on K–12 nuclear STEM education, where our programs have engaged more than 1.6 million students and counting.”
For nuclear to be successful, it “has to be more than just an option,” Piercy said. “To succeed, we as a nation have to commit to nuclear. When you commit, that means doing the hard things. It means building irradiation research capabilities we need not now, but 10 years from now. It means investing in people and supply chains now for product and labor demand that doesn't yet exist.”
Before turning meeting over to Vexler to begin the featured panel discussion, Piercy and Honors and Awards chair Hash Hashemian acknowledged the recipients of prestigious ANS honors, including new ANS Fellows and recipients of ANS national awards, and together honored the recipients of ANS’s new Social Responsibility in the Nuclear Community Award, the Tennessee-85.
Vexler: Vexler said he had jumped at the chance to organize an opening plenary session on fueling the nuclear future. “I believe that this topic for this discussion today fueling our future is probably more relevant to the growth of our industry than it's ever been during my lifetime,” he said, adding that he anticipated a discussion of “what needs to be done in order to enable the next stage of our industry's development into the small modular reactors and advanced reactors."
Vexler continued, "Luckily for us today, there are many significant shifts that are taking place to preserve the U.S. generation fleet as we seek to deploy advanced nuclear technology. Today we will focus on optimistic problems and challenges that we face to deliver a new advanced nuclear reactor technology more specifically. . . . Supply chain is a major enabler for the next phase, but supply chain unfortunately also seems to be one of the biggest concerns going forward as well.”
Vexler introduced five speakers, which included brief remarks by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, before moderating a panel discussion.
Sen. Joe Manchin: Manchin (D., W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, made an appearance by pre-recorded video.
“I recognize the importance of high-assay, low-enriched uranium, and the need to make significant public private investments,” Manchin said. “That is why I will continue pushing for the inclusion of funding for the Advanced Nuclear Fuel Availability Program authorized in the Energy Act. As you know, proper funding of this program will ensure a domestic supply of high-assay, low-enriched uranium, eliminating reliance on Russia or other foreign suppliers. The U.S. must maintain our nuclear supply chain, creating high paying manufacturing jobs and reassert U.S. leadership.”
Sen. John Barrasso: Barrasso (R., Wyo.) delivered his remarks in person.
“I'm so delighted, as all of the people of Wyoming are, that we are going to have TerraPower’s first new small modular advanced nuclear reactor coming to Kemmerer, Wyoming,” Barrasso said. The plant, sited to replace a retiring coal-fired power plant, “is a model for the future,” he added.
“The reality is that you cannot power the world with solar panels and wind turbines alone. . . . We want to make sure that we have the material for our nuclear power plants,” Barrasso said, noting that “When I think about the high-assay, low-enriched uranium which is needed for the advanced reactors, we need to make sure that we're producing that in the United States. Right now it comes from the Department of Energy or from Russia. We cannot rely upon Russia for anything, so we're going to continue to work in Congress.”
Kathryn Huff: “The Biden administration clearly has a record of support for nuclear power, as we've just seen with the bipartisan infrastructure law that has just been passed,” said Kathryn “Katy” Huff, principal deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary in the U.S. DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, in her prepared remarks.
That law “contains billions of dollars credits for existing nuclear facilities that will need economic support to keep operating in competitive environments,” Huff said. “This credit is going to be really instrumental in ensuring that my first priority in this office is achieved, which is to keep existing nuclear plants running."
Huff continued, “There's a great quote from Victor Hugo that ‘there's one thing more powerful than all of the armies in the world. And it is an idea whose time has come.’" Using nuclear power to replace coal is the idea whose time has come, according to Huff, as she referenced the Natrium plant planned for Wyoming and the NuScale reactors recently announced for construction at a retiring coal site in Poland.
Huff addressed the DOE’s request for information about consent-based siting of spent nuclear fuel, announced yesterday. “We've learned a lot about how to approach spent nuclear fuel management communication with communities, and not all of it has been through success in those communications and discussions and processes,” she acknowledged. “But I think wisdom comes from experience and . . . we have found our way to a place where we can move forward in a consent-based siting approach.”
Huff closed with a nod to her previous role as a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by saying, “I think of fueling this future as incorporating more than just the uranium, and not just the front and the back end of the fuel cycle, but the people that work in it.” Fueling the nuclear future “depends on our educational and workforce programs that are going to have to lead the production of diverse engineers and other professionals who are going to be greatly needed as the use of nuclear energy expands,” Huff said.
Monica Regalbuto: Regalbuto is the lead for Idaho National Laboratory’s Fuel Cycle Strategy and as such is responsible for ensuring an adequate supply of advanced reactor fuel. As she made clear in her remarks, uncertain demand makes defining that adequate supply a difficult task.
“The fastest projected growth for HALEU comes from industry needs, but demand is speculative as the market is not mature. On the other hand . . . government-driven commitments for HALEU are relatively small, but very highly predictable,” Regalbuto said.
When it comes to establishing demand from a commercial market, “It is important to recognize that commercializing one or two units is insufficient to reach a sustainable market,” Regalbuto said. “The HALEU market will evolve toward sustainability when a large customer base allows for securing long-term purchase agreements. . . . As mentioned by Senator Barrasso, to accelerate the deployment of a sustainable HALEU supply capability an initial public-private partnership could quickly be established, which the private sector could incrementally expand in a modular fashion as a sustainable market develops.”
Achieving enrichments above 10 percent uranium-235 in a dedicated facility, while performing most of the separative work required to enrich natural uranium in existing facilities, could help provide HALEU supply while keeping costs as low as possible, and collocating enrichment and deconversion services would also decrease the costs of transportation and security, Regalbuto said.
John Kotek: Kotek is the Nuclear Energy Institute’s senior vice president of Policy Development and Public Affairs, and he spoke about the NEI’s efforts, starting in 2018, to ensure that HALEU policies meet the needs of reactor developers and plant operators.
“We advanced the idea that we could further spur the development of HALEU infrastructure through multi-year purchase agreements of HALEU from commercial enrichers. . . . to help figure out how the government and the industry can work together to meet this to meet this demand in the absence of really firm demand,” Kotek said, noting that the NEI was pleased to see the inclusion of $500 million for HALEU development in the House version of the Build Back Better Bill. While he acknowledged that the bill “still has to work its way to the Senate, it shows that there's recognition on both sides of the aisle in Congress, of the importance of nuclear.”
Kotek spoke to the increasing global recognition of the role that nuclear energy must play to successfully meet decarbonization goals of governments and utilities.
“As people in this room know, innovators and investors have recognized the opportunity for new nuclear in a developing a wide range of next generation nuclear energy systems to serve both domestic and export markets,” he said.
You heard it here—look to 2028: When Hashemian asked, from the audience, when small modular reactors would be deployed and operating in the United States, Kotek was first to reply, and he said the first SMRs would be operating in 2028. “I think that the developers have been very mindful of the need to deliver on cost and on schedule and are gearing up to do that,” he said.
Kotek then made it personal by proposing that he would meet up with Hashemian at the 2028 ANS Winter Meeting and buy the drinks if, in fact, that date wasn’t achieved, to general applause from his audience.
Huff then added, "I'll agree with John. I think 2028 is our target date for those SMR deployments here in the U.S. And I will split the bill if necessary!"
She went on to say, "This is such a critical time, and an opportunity that is ours to lose. I think if we're successful in the next five years, we'll see gigawatts of existing nuclear power plants that are currently economically at risk, saved by programs like production tax credits and civil nuclear credits, as well as advanced uses of their electricity and energy, like hydrogen production on site . . . I'm very ambitious that gigawatts of new advanced nuclear could be started and their construction process and licensing processes could be moving toward multiple deployments by five years from now."
International efforts: Questions from the audience steered the panelists to a discussion of U.S. participation in international deployments of nuclear technology, both in established markets and in developing nations.
Huff said that the DOE is "working hard" with "countries who are excited to become emerging nuclear nations, and they need to put in force 123 Agreements in order for us to engage with them appropriately to enable that kind of trade.
"It is absolutely essential that while we may want to lower the barrier for participation and cooperation with other nations, we can't lower our standards," Huff added. "It's incredibly important for national and nuclear security that those standards remain where they are because they weren't decided arbitrarily. However, it's certainly a topic of interagency conversation about how we can expedite things like the 123 Agreement process."
Kotek pointed to specific measures that could be taken. “It's important to remember that countries are typically used to dealing with other governments when it comes to civil nuclear exports. So it's important to have a strong show of U.S. government support,” Kotek said. "One of the things that I think was particularly powerful during the Obama administration, was the establishment of a person in the White House with responsibility for orchestrating the 'Team USA' the U.S. government. And it's something that we've advocated bringing back to the current administration."
Kotek added that moving ahead with full funding of the Versatile Test Reactor could also help build interest in U.S. civil nuclear technology. "VTR, I think frankly would be a big help in building excitement," he said, suggesting that nations developing a new nuclear energy infrastructure might say, “Let's go partner with the United States because it's not just about buying this machine, it's also about building out the human resource capability."