ANS Annual Conference opening plenary: Full speed ahead

June 18, 2024, 9:33AMNuclear News
From left to right, John Wagner, Secretary Granholm, Jeff Lyash, Chris Womack, have a discussion during the opening plenary of the ANS Annual Conference.

The 2024 American Nuclear Society Annual Conference opened with a bang yesterday as 1,200 attendees gathered in Las Vegas to network, collaborate, and socialize. Honors and awards were presented to several recipients, and ANS welcomed twelve new Fellows.

The plenary opened with an address from ANS Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer Craig Piercy that brought this year’s theme to the fore straight away: The time is now to deploy new nuclear projects—and not acting at this moment is simply not an option.

The first panel featured Michael Goff, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy; Peter Freed, formerly of Clean Energy Buyers Alliance and Meta; Adrian Anderson, general manager of energy and sustainability at Microsoft; Adam Stein, director of the Nuclear Energy Innovation Program at The Breakthrough Institute; and Briana Kobor, who works in global energy markets and policy at Google.

After the panel, a fireside chat concluded the plenary, featuring Southern Company chair, president, and CEO Chris Womack, Tennessee Valley Authority CEO and president Jeff Lyash, and the 16th secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm.

Cards are on the table: Not skimping on the poker references, Piercy remarked in his opening comments, “Nuclear has the hottest hand at the table right now. First, we have a historically good set of policies. At the federal level, the combined impact of BIL [the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law] and IRA [the Inflation Reduction Act] have saved the existing fleet and created a powerful new set of incentives for new nuclear deployment.”

From states lifting moratoria to data centers driving up demand for electricity, “those trends are real and they’re not going away. And they are going to fundamentally alter our energy landscape,” he continued.

“We have time. The race to net zero is a marathon, not a sprint,” Piercy said, recognizing that not everyone will agree with the lack of urgency. Even so, everyone has to be all in: “We may not be accelerating, but we’re still covering miles and we’re getting closer to our destination.”

More wins on the board: Progress in multiple areas is essential. An updated Environmental Protection Agency repository standard must be developed, and industry also must start making investments now to avoid the mistakes of the past. On the regulatory side, there is a need to fundamentally rethink the way reactors operate. “We should aim to build nuclear systems more like airplanes and less like airports,” Piercy said, before concluding, “It's time for us each to put nuclear on our backs and carry it to the finish line.”

All-of-the-above to deploy: The panel discussion focused on how to increase synergistic relationships between corporate customers and utilities to ramp up new nuclear deployment.

“It’s not one singular thing or one barrier that will change things for nuclear; it’s about changing the status quo,” said Adam Stein.

“We need greater resource diversity, we need to shift our focus from clean energy to clean capacity, and we need to shift our models—the existing models are poorly suited to accelerate new technologies,” added Briana Kobor, who explained Google’s clean transition tariff. “We look for resources that can complement the clean energy that utilities already have on the grid so we can unlock greater value for the customer,” she said.

There was general agreement that while front-end investment is part of the conversation, establishing utility-customer relationships is key to success.

“We are doing all of the above, through tariffs, partnerships, and there is a good amount of capital from customers looking for strong offtake,” said Adrian Anderson.

The path forward: Finally, the fireside chat focused on celebrating nuclear’s wins while seeing the challenges it clearly still faces.

“As we face the twin challenges of decarbonization and the extraordinary rise in the demand for electricity, nuclear stands out as a reliable source of energy,” said Chris Womack. “We have proven we can do hard things. Yes, we must continue to invest in innovation,” he continued. “The path forward for nuclear in the U.S. is clear. We must now overcome the challenges knowing that the reward—securing energy for generations to come—is well worth the effort.”

Eyes up: Jeff Lyash led with the catchphrase “eyes up,” meaning if we keep our eyes on the targets that seem distant now, “we’ll arrive at the right place.”

"We will double or triple our reliance on electricity by 2050, and it will be critical to our quality of life and national security. People will point to the fact that this is difficult, it is fraught with risk, it comes with impactful lessons learned. The road is long, and people will point to that and say we shouldn’t do it. I draw exactly the opposite conclusion: Because we must learn and share the risk, we must start now,” he said.

“Keys to our success are partnerships. This cannot be done alone . . . because of the scale,” Lyash continued. To get it done, we must “stay at this long enough to learn the lessons and move from first of a kind to nth of a kind.

The moment is now: Granholm, who spearheads DOE efforts to advance clean energy technology, said we are in an urgent moment that could pass if we fail to seize it now. We also must add 2,000 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity to the grid by 2050. The momentum has already started, she said, noting that the policy developments that came out of the last few years are “unprecedented.”

“We’re looking at a chance to build new nuclear at a scale not seen since the ’70s and ’80s,” Granholm said. “When I took office, I could not have imagined that the prospects for nuclear energy in less than four years would be what they are now.”

Some key items she mentioned include the Biden administration’s industrial strategy to make clean energy competitive again. The zero-emission nuclear production tax credit has helped to stave off the premature closure of nearly one-half the U.S. reactor fleet. The DOE’s Loans Programs Office has committed “hundreds of billions of dollars in loan guarantees” for nuclear projects. Additionally, the White House has allocated over $10 billion in direct funding for projects. Granholm also touched on the work being done to sever reliance on Russian enriched uranium fuel and shore up the domestic nuclear supply chain.

Nth of a kind: Granholm announced that the DOE is establishing a new program to support development of Gen III+ small modular reactors and “immediately set a path for nth of a kind.”

She pointed out that “the largest producer of energy in the U.S. is now a nuclear plant [Plant Vogtle],” but said the hard ask remains: “Who will build the next AP1000, or the first SMR?”

Lyash commented, “We should ask ourselves, as successful as they were, why didn’t we lay the groundwork to proceed directly from Vogtle units to build more? Every new nuclear technology can be built, it just takes the development to do it.”

The demand is clear: The need to firm up plans for the electricity demands of AI and data centers is also creating new interest in nuclear: “The message was loud and clear. They want new nuclear and they want it now,” said Granholm.

“Build the big things that nobody thought possible. That’s what you do, and that’s what we know you can do again. . . Incentives are unprecedented, the demand signal is there. It’s time to put indecision in the rear-view mirror—the choice is yours to make. Let’s shape this moment in history together."

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