At the 2023 Utility Working Conference, held August 6–9 on Marco Island in Florida, the second day’s plenary opened with a panel session featuring five nuclear industry executives who discussed the future of nuclear energy and its resiliency in a low-carbon world. Speakers included Tim Rausch, executive vice president and chief nuclear officer with the Tennessee Valley Authority, Robert Schuetz, chief executive officer of Energy Northwest, Sean Sexstone, executive vice president of advanced nuclear at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, and Pierre Paul Oneid, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of Holtec International.
The panel focused on the expected increase in demand for electrical power in the coming years and how nuclear can fill that need. They also discussed challenges in meeting that demand, which includes hiring and training the workforce needed to build and operate future nuclear power plants.
The plenary also featured keynote presentations by Kenneth Kunkel, an atmospheric science professor at North Carolina State University and the lead scientist for assessments at the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies, and Scott Hunnewell, vice president of the New Nuclear Program at the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Kenneth Kunkel: Kunkel focused his address on extreme weather trends and what to expect in the warmer world of the future.
More and more, nuclear power is being recognized for its ability to reliably generate electricity without adding carbon dioxide to the environment. This is partially a result of the increasing number of extreme weather–related events in which global warming has been suggested to be a contributing factor. For nuclear power, resiliency is also closely tied to climate and weather impacts.
Kunkel highlighted some of the climate trends researchers are seeing and what we can expect to see in the coming years. There are varying levels of confidence in the number of extreme weather events where anthropogenic warming has played a contributing factor, he said, noting that the ones experts are most confident in are those events that are directly related to temperature and, in turn, to the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere.
“Atmospheric water vapor content is a strong function of temperature, and as the oceans warm up the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has been increasing, and that is expected to continue if the oceans continue to warm,” Kunkel said.
Looking at global temperatures over the past recorded 140 years, Kunkel drew attention to the “stair step” increase in global temperatures that began in the 1980s. That trend is continuing as we begin the current decade, he added.
As a result of this warming, Kunkel said, it is expected that there will be a decrease in the amount of snowfall in much of the United States; however, there may be an increase in snowfall in the northern areas of North America due to the increased moisture in the atmosphere.
It is also expected that extreme heat events during the summer months will become more frequent, particularly in the American Southwest. “The frequency and the intensity of the heat in the Southwest since the year 2000 is unprecedented,” Kunkel said.
Another trend Kunkel is seeing is an increase in extreme precipitation events, driven primarily by water vapor content in the atmosphere. “The impact on flooding is a little bit less certain, simply because drier soils are likely to become more common in the future, and that could mute the runoff from heavy precipitation,” he noted.
It is anticipated, he continued, that average wind speeds will decrease in a warmer world, but that more extreme (Category 3–4) hurricanes can still be expected, though the total number of hurricanes may not necessarily increase
Kunkel concluded his presentation with a word on droughts, saying that while they are a natural part of the world’s climate and every area can expect to see them come and go, droughts can be expected to be more severe as the world warms. “The reason is that with higher temperatures, soils will dry out more rapidly,” he explained.
Scott Hunnewell: Hunnewell, the plenary’s second featured speaker, provided an overview of TVA and the work the authority is doing at its Clinch River Nuclear Site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Hunnewell noted that for much of the past two decades, electric power demand has been dropping in the region served by the TVA (Tennessee, and areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia). That is now changing, however, with increased demand due to regional economic development. “We are going to look at increasing generation, and when you talk about increasing generation, what are the available options for us?” he said, adding that nuclear and gas are the two primary candidates for new power generation for TVA.
One option the authority is exploring is building a small modular reactor at the TVA-owned Clinch River Nuclear Site, which Hunnewell explained was originally chosen in the 1970s as the site of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project, which was terminated after Congress withdrew funding in the early 1980s. The only work completed on the project was the excavation of the reactor’s foundation.
In 2019, TVA received an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to potentially construct and operate an SMR at Clinch River. Hunnewell said TVA is currently evaluating GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 as a potential SMR for the site. One benefit of the BWRX-300 is that it is a 10th-generation boiling water reactor. “It has some innovative applications of technology, but it is familiar technology,” Hunnewell explained, adding that will help in the licensing, construction, and operation of the plant.
Other benefits of the BWRX-300, according to Hunnewell, include its use of existing American-supplied fuel, passive safety systems, and innovative modelling and construction techniques.
Hunnewell also shared that TVA is looking at other sites, including its former coal-fired power plants, as possible locations for building SMRs. As part of that process, once a location is selected as a possible SMR site, TVA intends to begin characterizing the site and complete its environmental reviews before submitting a construction application. “By doing this work ahead of time we can get that shovel in the ground within months of the decision to move forward with a nuclear plant,” he said.
Following his presentation, Hunnewell moderated the plenary’s final panel session, which focused on the future of SMRs. Panel members included Brian Boggs, sales director at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, M. Christopher Nolan, vice president of new nuclear generation strategy and regulatory engagement at Duke Energy, and Scott Morris, deputy executive director for operations at the NRC.
The SMR panel discussed the future of nuclear in the United States, the role SMRs will play in that future, and what it will take to make SMR development possible.