The plenary sessions held earlier this month in Florida at the 2023 ANS Utility Working Conference were focused on the concept of resilience, the meeting’s theme. The August 9 plenary, which was moderated by UWC general chair Matt Rasmussen, senior vice president of engineering and operations support for the Tennessee Valley Authority, included presentations by Chris Glover, president and chief executive officer of Volkswagen Chattanooga; Petro Kotin, president of Ukraine’s nuclear plant operator Energoatom; and Steve L. Robbins of S. L. Robbins and Associates. The session’s opening remarks were provided by Rep. Byron Donalds (R., Fla.).
Donalds: A staunch nuclear energy advocate and vice chair of the House’s Advanced Nuclear Caucus, Donalds was quick to declare his vision for the U.S. nuclear sector. “The overarching view in our office is that we were the innovators of nuclear technology in the world here in the United States but have fallen behind for dogmatic reasons or political reasons or whatever the case might be,” he said. “It is our responsibility, not just as the leader in this space originally but for the future of our country, to reassert our dominance in the nuclear space again.”
Pointing to the contrast between nations in reactor construction projects, Donalds said, “China is building 18 reactors this year. Russia is building four. I think India is building three or four. We’ve built one. Now, the Vogtle reactor coming on line is a tremendous thing, . . . but it’s just one reactor . . . in 43 years, 44 years? That’s not going to work for our country. We really have to get this thing up and running. A lot of the things we want to really do revolve around bringing about different reforms. And so, in my office, we’ve introduced 20 different bills to do that.” (Five of those measures were introduced just last month. Bills 16 through 19, H.R. 4674 through H.R. 4677, seek to facilitate the licensing and deployment of advanced reactors, reduce licensing costs, cut bureaucratic red tape, and establish regulatory clarity, respectively. Bill 20, H.R. 4678, would encourage airports to consider using microreactors for back-up power in the event of natural disasters.)
In addition to this legislation, Donalds also recently sponsored a nuclear-themed amendment that has been approved as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. “One key amendment that got into the NDAA was about actually being able to have the Department of Defense use microreactor technology in its forward-operating base plans,” he said. “That’s something that we fought for. It is there right now. Our hope is that through conferencing the NDAA with the Senate, we’re going to marry that language up and it’s going to expand microreactor capabilities for the DOD. That will be a big step forward for nuclear here in the United States.”
Another step forward, according to the Florida congressman, would be “some serious reforms” at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “I despise bureaucracies,” he said. “They originally served a purpose. One of the first purposes they serve is to just make sure that we’re all singing from the same sheet of music. OK, that’s cool. The downside of bureaucracies is that they just become this trap where all innovation goes to die. And if we’re going to be a true leader in the world—and I truly believe that we have that capability, we have the innovation, we have the science, we have the capital here in the United States—we can’t be bogged down by an agency whose purpose was to keep us singing on the same sheet of music and ended up becoming an albatross around everybody’s neck.”
Glover: The Volkswagen executive responsible for overseeing the launch of the ID.4 electric vehicle in 2022, Glover themed his talk “resilience in transformation.” Noting his company’s long history and current size—15 brands, 120 production plants in five regions, and 660,000 employees—he said, “You don't get to be this big without resilience. Eighty-eight years of history, through all the turmoil, through all the challenges that we’ve faced over that time period, one never would survive without a hell of a degree of resilience. To reflect on the nearly nine decades of challenges would be too time consuming for this presentation, but I can say that having witnessed four of them close at hand during my career with Volkswagen, the road has not always been that easy.”
Even narrowing down the time period to just the last 10 years provides more than sufficient evidence of Volkswagen’s corporate stamina, according to Glover. “Looking at the kinds of challenges that we’ve had to cover—the coronavirus, chip shortages, geopolitical impacts, Chinese competition, CO2 compliance, electrification—one can imagine the complexity of leading an automobile giant through such a diversity of trials and tribulations. Time and time again, we in the auto industry have had to revise, review, renew, reenergize, and reengineer our business to deal with these kinds of challenges.”
The challenge of electrification, Glover observed, has led to the biggest transformation in the automotive industry’s 145-year history. The industry “is in the early phases of a revolution,” he said. “There is already no secret that the age of electric mobility is upon us. All car manufacturers are scrambling to develop products that address the international focus on emission reduction and decarbonization. . . . Traditional automakers are challenged not only by the pace of change of electrification but also by the advent of a new breed of competition.”
As in the nuclear sector, that competition includes China. Said Glover, “China is not only building reactors, China has developed manufacturing and development capabilities through decades of joint ventures with great automobile companies from the Western world. And with international developments, subcontractors or suppliers are able to provide components and technologies to anybody with R&D funding. The Chinese are simply now on the forefront of the industry and readily poised to produce cars not only for China but also for the rest of the world.”
Volkswagen was the first major automobile manufacturer to have a joint venture together with the Chinese, starting in 1984, , Glover noted. “Just five years ago, while I was working in China, Volkswagen sold a total of 4 million cars per year in the Chinese marketplace with a market share of well over 20 percent,” he said. “As it stands right now, Volkswagen has a market share of 13 percent. The reason behind that is the Chinese have gotten really good at developing cars that look good and function well and suit the needs of the Chinese customer.”
Glover mentioned closer-to-home newcomers to the auto market as well, including Tesla, Lucid, and Rivian, adding, “Electrification no doubt is the path to the future of mobility, and anybody these days is eligible to play in that game. Traditional car makers need robust strategies to counteract the evolution of these new competitors in the marketplace.”
Another auto industry challenge identified by Glover is the ability to forecast the takeoff rate of electrified mobility. “Although government incentives significantly influence the offtake of electrified vehicles, at the end of the day, it's customer perception and the customer adoption rate which defines whether we will succeed or not in this transformation process,” he said. “And bearing in mind that it costs enormous amounts of money in our industry to develop a new vehicle, to develop a new product, or to transform a factory to produce electrified vehicles, market forecasting needs to be sharp. we need to be on top of our game to ensure that we have an accurate idea of what’s happening in the marketplace.”
Additional issues that Glover believes must be dealt with in the electrified automobile space include raw materials/supply chain and the availability of charging infrastructure. Lithium, nickel, and cobalt are all critical components in the manufacture of vehicle batteries, Glover pointed out, and most of them are in short supply. “The Chinese have strategically gained control over the supply chain in much of the world, specifically in Africa,” he said. “And automobile makers are challenged to find a continuity of these raw materials as we go forward. Lithium prices climbed last year by 500 percent in one year. One can imagine the difficulty we have in our industry to simply price a vehicle when one of the greatest components of the car, the battery, has a 500 percent increase in the raw materials price.”
Regarding charging infrastructure, Glover said, “This is an area in which [the automotive and nuclear] businesses interact quite well. We’re going to need a lot of nuclear power stations in the future to drive our business forward into the world of electrified mobility.”
Kotin: Delivering his comments live from Ukraine, Energoatom’s Kotin spoke on the challenges faced by his company amid the ongoing Russian invasion of the Eastern European state. He noted that many Ukrainians have stepped forward and joined Ukraine’s armed forces, including Energoatom employees, while other company personnel continue working to ensure safe operation of the country’s four nuclear power plants, including Zaporizhzhia (ZNPP)—Europe’s largest such facility, which has been under Russian military occupation since early March 2022. Kotin also expressed his gratitude for the global response to the invasion. “It would hardly be possible without international assistance from our international partners, many foreign government agencies, in particular the U.S. Department of Energy,” he said, adding, “We are receiving substantial support from our U.S. partners like Westinghouse and Holtec, and many others.”
Kotin informed the audience that as of August 9, Energoatom had nine power units in operation at three nuclear sites—Khmelnytskyi, Rivne, and South Ukraine—and that despite the war, those units were producing over 55 percent of the country’s electricity.
As for ZNPP—all units of which are in either hot or cold shutdown at this writing, Kotin’s words were not encouraging. “The situation at Zaporizhzhia today remains dangerous,” he said. “Apart from the [Russian] military, the site has also been occupied by Rosatom. Since the beginning of the occupation, the Russian operator of nuclear power plants has been trying to take full control of the ZNPP, replace its personnel, and force them to work for Russia. The Russians continue to terrorize and torture plant employees and block access to the licensed management and other staff to the site. The personnel are working under constant psychological and physical pressure. Because of that, their number is constantly decreasing. Even the presence of the IAEA mission at the ZNPP site does not stop occupiers from interference in plant design and decision-making.”
The Russian occupiers continue to violate all seven of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “pillars” of nuclear safety and security, according to Kotin. Due to Russia’s illegal presence and criminal actions, there is, he said, a constant degradation of plant systems and equipment. And while in his view there is no immediate threat to the plant from the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in early June, “the Russians are still at the power plant and can commit any other crime by their actions to significantly worsen the situation.”
The Energoatom president also stated that Russian forces continue to militarize the ZNPP site and the surrounding area by deploying military equipment and soldiers there and by storing heavy weapons, ammunition, and explosives directly in the turbine holds of Units 1,2, and 4. (At this writing, the IAEA has not discovered any explosives at the site.) “These circumstances clearly illustrate that the presence of the IAEA experts at the ZNPP, although important from communication, observation, and legal standpoints, has almost no stabilizing effect and won’t stop Russia from creating a potential nuclear accident,” he said.
Speaking of the future, Kotin noted that since much of the country’s nonnuclear power generation has been destroyed by Russian missile attacks—including 75 percent of solar power plants and 90 percent of wind power—at least some of which could be replaced with other generation technologies as part of a postwar recovery plan, such as advanced reactor technologies “like the AP1000 by Westinghouse and small modular reactors.”
Concluding his address on a somewhat hopeful note, Kotin said, “I would like to state that all our current expectation and hopes are directed at returning the Zaporizhzhia plant to the full control of Ukraine. The situation there is unacceptable and should be resolved immediately. The only solution is full demilitarization and deoccupation of the ZNPP and its adjacent territories. . . . We are confident that the armed forces of Ukraine will make every effort to liberate our peaceful cities. We also count on the world nuclear community to stand with us all the way and help us so that our staff and their families could return to Energodar [the town where much of the ZNPP staff live], could return to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.”
Robbins: A self-described psychosociologist, Robbins approached the subject of resiliency obliquely, initially delving into discussions of humankind’s survival instinct, its need to belong to a tribe and to be valued, the differences between the limbic system–ruled “ancient” brain and the more prefrontal cortex–influenced “modern” brain, and the importance of inclusion and diversity.
Turning to resiliency during the latter portion of his talk, Robbins said, “I asked ChatGPT to act like a psychologist and explain resiliency. And this is what it came up with: ‘Resilience refers to the ability of an individual to adapt and bounce back from challenges set back through difficult experiences. It’s like a psychological buffer that helps people cope with stress, adversity, and change. Resilient individuals tend to have strong coping skills, a positive outlook, and the capacity to maintain their emotional well-being even in the face of adversity. This doesn’t mean they avoid negative emotions, but rather they find healthy ways to process them and regain their balance.’”
“Building resilience,” Robbins continued, “often involves developing a supportive network, a supportive tribe. To be truly resilient and to enhance it, you want to be part of a tribe that’s supportive. You have to practice self-care, cultivating problem-solving skills and maintaining a flexible mindset. Don’t be rigid. Don’t be the closed mindset. For me that means open-mindedness. I think a lot of our issues around inclusion and diversity, a lot of our issues in our world today are due to close-mindedness.”
According to Robbins, “As a person becomes more certain about something, their curiosity goes down. . . . There’s an inverse relationship between the two. As certainty increases, curiosity generally decreases. Think of it this way: Certainty is the enemy of curiosity. Open-mindedness is its ally. . . . If you practice these things, I guarantee you, you will have this flexible mindset that ChatGPT talks about as a basis, one of the bases for being a more resilient person.