The “The State of Nuclear” panel discussion on June 13 at the 2023 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting focused on how geopolitical issues are affecting federal, state, and international laws, regulations, and funding regarding nuclear technology. The discussion was chaired by ANS Executive Director/CEO Craig Piercy.
Five panelists involved in different aspects of policymaking joined the discussion: Todd Abrajano, president and CEO of the United States Nuclear Industry Council; John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute; Amy Roma, partner and global energy practice area leader at Hogan Lovells; Jackie Siebens, director of policy and external affairs at Oklo; and Brad Williams, Idaho National Laboratory detailee to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Where nuclear is today: Piercy kicked off the discussion about “where we see nuclear technology today in the broadest possible context” and asked the panelists for brief initial remarks on the current state of the industry.
Abrajano, a a presidential appointee in Department of Commerce and the U.S. Trade Development Agency during the Trump administration, said, “important for the U.S. government to really focus, really come together . . . to be able to provide the type of support for this industry that our competitors do.”
Kotek observed, “It’s amazing, the transformation over the last few years. . . . It’s a super exciting time to be in the industry.”
Roma, a nuclear regulatory lawyer, was similarly positive, saying, “I think we’re in a really exciting time, where people really understand [that] decarbonization, energy security, grid reliability, and affordability all need to be overlaid with each other, and nuclear is in a really sweet spot there.”
Siebens noted the “absolute surge in customer interest over the past couple of years,” adding, “I think we’re certainly in a much better place as an industry than we were even just a few years ago. . . . But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Where nuclear needs to be tomorrow: Among the topics discussed were regulatory reform, small modular reactors, spent fuel recycling, and the friction between the advanced fission and fusion communities. Most of the conversation revolved around the state of the industry—domestically and internationally—technological innovations, and government involvement.
Piercy asked the panelists to share their views on recent events that have shaped the nuclear industry’s outlook.
Roma pointed to the United Arab Emirates partnering with China to develop and commercialize high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. “That was a little bit disappointing to see,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean that the U.S. also doesn’t have the opportunity to do something similar with the UAE.”
On a positive note, Roma observed that many countries have expressed interest in doing business with U.S. companies, driven by the need for decarbonization and energy security, independence, and affordability. She also noted that a number of U.S. companies that previously had no interest in nuclear energy are now exploring nuclear options, and that the Advance Act, which recently was passed out of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, “has a number of provisions that would support the U.S. NRC and U.S. government working with countries abroad that are looking at developing and deploying new nuclear projects.”
Kotek also had a positive view: “You’re starting to see utilities include new nuclear in their integrated resource plans. . . . If you look back five years ago, utilities were making these decarbonization commitments without much meat on the bones, about how they were going to get there. But now the meat is starting to be put on the bones.”
Kotek also talked about a recent roundtable discussion held by the Senate Intelligence Committee where accelerating the pace of new technology deployment in the U.S. to improve the country’s competitive position was one of the topics covered. He said he advised the committee on what actions to take to help move new nuclear projects along faster.
Nuclear at home and abroad: Although some countries may want to see technology demonstrated in the United States first before committing to new nuclear projects from U.S. companies, other countries are ready to go forward now, according to Abrajano, who cited the examples of Poland and Romania. “China and Russia are ahead of us at this point. We don’t have an operational advanced nuclear reactor yet. Those countries either do or are very very close, much closer than we are. So, it’s important that our companies, U.S.-based companies, get out and start talking to these other countries that are interested. . . . If we do not start doing that right now, we are going to be behind the eight ball.”
Piercy noted that the United States is at a structural disadvantage, compared with nations with more centralized, integrated systems for approaching new nuclear projects. “Because of the way that we’re structured . . . we’re cat herding and they’re riding a horse,” he said.
Abrajano responded that recent policy efforts in both the federal legislative and executive branches have been aimed at improving interagency coordination to help the United States compete more effectively on the international stage. However, he said, the government has “to start talking about the industry, they have to start getting involved in the industry, even if they don’t have all the things they need. We have to look like . . . we’re doing everything that we can to benefit and promote this industry.” It’s time for all government nuclear-related agencies to “come together with a singular approach for how to be competitive. Until we do that, I think we’re still going to have problems,” He said.
Business and government: Siebens characterized problems surrounding the domestic production of and access to nuclear fuel and U.S. dependency on Russian supply as the “biggest risk” right now for U.S nuclear industry. The fundamental question regarding nuclear fuel, she said, is, “Why do we need big government money for this?” The answer to that question lies in understanding how the U.S. nuclear business model has always been structured, according to Siebens—with reactor developers who are not fuel customers. Moreover, only a few utilities have officially signed power purchase agreements to give the market signal that uranium enrichers need to build out the required infrastructure to be a supplier of high-enriched uranium. Consequently, the “perfect role for the federal government,” she said, would be to give confidence to uranium enrichers to build out the capacity for producing the needed fuel. Unfortunately, the Department of Energy’s recent draft request for proposals “doesn't come close to what is going to be required [in terms of funding] to do that.”
Siebens noted that some current legislation circulating through Congress would address these issues, so there are opportunities to fix these issues. Nevertheless, still not resonating with government officials is the fact that exports of reactors alone will not be sufficient for long-term growth of the nuclear industry—the United States is missing the fuel piece of the puzzle, she said. “We have an unbelievable moment in time of opportunity right now to actually take over the lion’s share of that [fuel] market from Russia. We really have that runway if we choose to go. And there’s lots of countries that are eager to have a different supplier when it comes to the entire fuel cycle. . . . But I’m growing increasingly frustrated, to be honest, watching that window close, and not, in my opinion, seeing our administration and our government be serious. There’s a lot of really good talking points, but the action that is needed to implement the things that we say matter isn’t happening.”
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