The modern safety case for nuclear energy

May 5, 2023, 7:02AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

This month’s Nuclear News takes a look at nuclear’s reliability as an energy source, along with its contributions to the overall resiliency of our electricity grid. Capacity factors in the U.S. remain at an all-time high, and nuclear’s strength in maintaining a functional electricity distribution system in times of stress, whether by storm or war, is gaining public acceptance and appreciation.

Earlier this spring, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hosted its first in-person Regulatory Information Conference (RIC) since the onset of COVID. Though well organized and informative, it was easy to sense the frustration of attendees—over things like the stringency of the NRC’s proposed Part 53 regulatory framework for advanced reactors and the perceived lack of preparedness for the coming onslaught of license applications. There was a general sense, as one friend put it, that the commission is “wrapped around the axle of administrative procedures and precedents.”

Atoms for space

April 17, 2023, 12:01PMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

Dear member:

Hello from our temporary headquarters in Downers Grove, Ill. Yes, after two years of twists and turns, we have finally completed the sale of our legacy La Grange Park property and are in the process of building out our new space, which will be ready for occupancy later this year.

I know many of you have memories made in “the Schoolhouse,” which served as American Nuclear Society headquarters for nearly 50 years. At one time during the golden age of paper recordkeeping, it housed nearly 100 employees. As the business of running a professional society evolved with the information age, however, so too did our workforce and space needs. Stately though it was, 555 Kensington Avenue proved simply too expensive to heat, cool, mow, plow, and otherwise maintain to an acceptable standard.

A window opens for the U.S. in global nuclear markets

March 13, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

I have always enjoyed reading BP’s annual Energy Outlook. It’s usually the first major energy report of the new year, and while it is written by a fossil fuel company, it’s one with well-documented clean energy intentions. So, assuming you dial in the right “bias correction,” it’s a good hot take on macro energy trends.

The 2023 edition essentially confirms what we have all been thinking: The Russia-Ukraine war has caused “persistent effects” in the global energy landscape, which in turn have accelerated the shift to clean technologies.

Nuclear fares well. Its share of energy generation grows in all three of the report’s scenarios. In fact, only nuclear and renewables see growth as a percentage of total world primary energy between now and 2035.

Enriching nuclear’s human element

February 7, 2023, 7:02AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

This month’s Nuclear News focuses on the challenges of building and maintaining a strong, productive nuclear technology workforce. While my sense is that U.S. nuclear is in significant growth mode, I’ve made a habit of asking our Utility Working Conference and Winter Meeting exhibitors, “What is the most significant challenge you face today?” The answer is almost always some form of “finding good talent.” Conversely, ask any nuclear engineering student about their career prospects, and you will likely get a confident response, so it seems that multiple offers are becoming the norm in the nuclear tech employment market.

Of course, empirical data is harder to come by. A 2019 study by the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Energy Futures Initiative found 60,916 workers employed in U.S. nuclear power generation, with another 9,406 employed in the nuclear fuels sector. But we still lack good, publicly available numbers for national labs, universities, and suppliers, as well as any job focused on nonnuclear applications of nuclear technology.

Trustees of Nuclear

January 4, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

Long ago, there was a time when ANS was great. . . . Nope, not going to say it like that. Start over. There was a time when ANS was an elite organization.

By either annual revenue or employee headcount, we were the largest nuclear-related nongovernmental organization in the United States. The American Nuclear Society enjoyed the support of industry, but it also remained apart from it, with a democratically elected leadership committed to the larger societal good of nuclear technology—not just more plants or higher profits. Back then, ANS had sophisticated efforts to promote nuclear technology to the public.

Did you know ANS produced several public service announcements that aired on radio and TV in the 1970s? We have some on vinyl, and they sound cool. Unfortunately, no one thought to secure the rights or save the original film, so we can’t even post them on our website without paying a royalty to—I kid you not—Oddball Films.

What about the waste?

December 5, 2022, 7:01AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

It’s always the first question asked. So, what is your approach? You have options.

You could go the “Yucca Mountain is the law of the land” route. But you’ll soon run into an immutable political truth. Nevada’s early presidential caucuses make it highly unlikely that any candidate would ever take a favorable position on Yucca unless it enjoyed commensurate support in the state. Not convinced? Nevada Gov. Stephen Sisolak signed a bill in August that replaces their closed caucus system with a primary during the first week in February, thereby putting the state in competition with Iowa and New Hampshire to be the “first primary” of the 2024 election. Face it: While you weren’t looking, Nevada secured its consent rights over Yucca Mountain; it’s just written in a different part of the law.

You could also double down on reprocessing/recycling and argue that we need some sort of Manhattan Project. But that requires convincing Congress that it’s a good idea for the government to build large, first-of-a-kind, multibillion-dollar fuel cycle facilities, the economics of which will be based on the estimated price of uranium (or thorium?) some number of decades from now. Good luck with that. As much as a grand solution to the fuel cycle may appeal to our engineering instincts, the funding simply isn’t there—there are no checks left in Washington’s checkbook.

A view from across the pond

October 12, 2022, 7:00AMANS NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

The Cheshire countryside in late summer has a lot to offer an American visitor besides cool, insect-free air; bacon sandwiches; and warm ales. It also provides the perfect vantage point to consider the fundamental shifts in energy availability and security we have witnessed over the last 12 months.

Residential energy prices here in the United Kingdom have increased by roughly 80 percent over the last year, prompting the government to advise Britons to turn their water heaters off at night and boil their kettles with only as much water as needed to make their tea.

While I was here, outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson visited the Sizewell site to announce a £700 million investment in Sizewell C, two 1,600-MW EPR reactors soon to be under construction. His remarks had the wistful, poignant tone of a leader facing the end of his tenure in office:

“We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”

September 7, 2022, 7:01AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

Everyone knows the iconic scene in the classic 1975 movie Jaws when Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, is chumming the waters off the coast of Cape Cod and finds himself face-to-face with a 25-foot great white shark for the first time. As you will remember, the scene cuts to Brody shuffling into the boat’s cabin, turning to Quint—the salty captain played by Robert Shaw—and saying rather dryly, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

That image, of someone confronting the true scope of their challenge, is the thing that kept creeping into my mind as I walked the expo floor of the 2022 Utility Working Conference held on Marco Island, Fla., last month.

Yes, the excitement was palpable. The Inflation Reduction Act was cruising toward enactment with $30–40 billion in new nuclear-eligible clean energy tax incentives in its berth. Dow had just announced its intention to partner with X-energy to site a high-temperature gas reactor at one of its Gulf Coast manufacturing facilities.

Trust is the coin of the realm

August 16, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

It is often said that in Washington, “trust is the coin of the realm.” Of course, you can be forgiven for thinking these days that trust in politics is an outmoded concept—that the only coin of the realm today is, well, “coin.” But you would be wrong.

Behind the facade of political polarization and tribalism there still exists a genuine desire to make good policy. Of course, each side of the ideological spectrum will always have their preferred set of solutions, and those solutions will usually be “spiced” by the parties’ respective “bases.” But I never cease to be surprised by how much undetected common ground exists on practical matters.

During the last six months, in partnership with the bipartisan U.S. House Advanced Reactor Caucus, I have had the honor of moderating monthly Jeffersonian dinners on Capitol Hill with members of Congress and leaders from across the nuclear profession. If you are not familiar with the format, a Jeffersonian dinner requires that there be one single conversation at the table around a posed central question, such as, “Is nuclear energy overregulated?” or “Should the U.S. recycle its nuclear fuel?”

Defending the nuclear discipline

July 18, 2022, 9:32AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

If you keep tabs on nuclear in popular culture, you know that Netflix recently released a four-part series entitled Meltdown: Three Mile Island. Nominally listed as a “documentary,” the series starts out with a generally accurate chronology of the 1979 event. However, it soon veers off the rails into an uncorroborated conspiracy theory of how the cleanup team risked “wiping out the entire East Coast” in their haste to complete the job on time. Nuclear Newswire has done a fantastic job of unpacking the distortions and outright falsehoods in “Meltdown: Drama disguised as a documentary."

Netflix showrunners were clearly more interested in maximizing the number of eyeballs on their content than in the accuracy of the information they present. But should that make us angry? Netflix is not a news organization; they are a highly algorithm-driven purveyor of video entertainment. Their “recommendation engine” knows what we want, and we happily let them spoon-feed us our next binge watch.

“New Rules” for nuclear S&E students

June 16, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

In April, I had the honor of speaking at the “Networking Dinner” held during the 2022 ANS Student Conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There’s something uniquely wonderful about 450 nuclear science and engineering students assembled in one place, seeing each other in person after two years on Zoom, trying to figure out where they are going in life. However, combine that enthusiasm with a long, narrow, A/V-challenged ballroom, and what you get is a genuine acoustical nightmare.

In particular, many people in the room couldn’t hear my “New Rules” for nuclear S&E students, modeled after the segment on Real Time with Bill Maher, and they came up to me afterward asking for a written version of the “rules.” Well, here they are, reconstructed from my notes, slightly polished, and offered with no guarantee of accuracy. It helps to start each by saying “New Rule!”


Nuclear economics in a changed world

May 11, 2022, 9:30AMANS NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, said, “An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.” By that definition, I guess we are all economists now.

As I write this column, it’s still too early to know exactly how the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the world’s response to it, will shape the long-term economics of energy production, and specifically the economics of nuclear energy. But we can make a few logical guesses.

First, I think we will see a stronger security “overlay” to every energy policy decision we make in the next few years. Energy security is a potent motivator. France’s decision to go nuclear wasn’t a decarbonization play; it was a direct result of the Arab oil embargo of 1973, when most of its electricity was generated by oil-fired power plants.

The public face of nuclear

April 15, 2022, 9:30AMANS NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

This month’s issue of Nuclear News highlights the contributions of university-based programs in advancing nuclear science and technology and preparing the next-generation nuclear workforce.

In addition to the scholarly work they do, our university programs increasingly serve as an important public-facing component of the U.S. nuclear enterprise.

When you think about it, a lot of what goes on with nuclear happens within a security perimeter—“behind the fence,” if you will. Obviously, this is by necessity, as the technology involved is inherently sensitive. However, because the “magic” of nuclear remains out of view, something will always get lost in translation to the public. Yes, tours of commercial nuclear plants are still available to the interested and enterprising, but there is nothing quite like staring down into the core of a university TRIGA reactor and seeing the Cherenkov glow to stoke a person’s imagination.

Introducing the ANS STEM Academy

March 10, 2022, 7:00AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

The mission of ANS is to advance nuclear science and technology for the benefit of humanity. It is something we pursue every day through our meetings, our online events, our publications, and our member-driven professional development programs. However, while a robust technical dialogue and professional community are certainly cornerstones of nuclear advancement, ensuring that said advancement inures to the “benefit of humanity” also requires a certain level of public acceptance, or “social license,” something our chosen technology has not consistently enjoyed over time.

The nuclear community has approached the task of strengthening public acceptance as a classic “knowledge deficit” exercise. We know from polling that people’s support for nuclear technology generally increases with their level of knowledge. Ergo, if we simply give people enough unbiased technical information, they will develop rational, fact-based opinions, and good things will happen for nuclear.

Piercy's opening remarks at the ANS Winter Meeting

January 19, 2022, 7:04AMANS NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

ANS ended 2021 on a high note with our first post-pandemic national meeting, held in Washington, D.C. What follows is a lightly edited version of remarks, shorn of opening and closing pleasantries, that I gave to 500-plus attendees during the opening plenary session:

I think the big question everyone will be asking this week will be some form of “How did you spend the pandemic?” I can tell you how ANS spent the pandemic: on a strict quarantine diet and fitness program.

We’ve figured out how to maintain what we believe is a higher level of service on 20 percent fewer FTEs. We’ve rebuilt our digital infrastructure and have a firm path forward toward a modern data architecture. We are in the process of selling our headquarters building in La Grange Park, Ill., and moving to a smaller, more manageable footprint in suburban Chicago, with an outpost in Washington, D.C.

Are we good enough for nuclear?

November 30, 2021, 2:55PMANS NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

The November 2021 issue of Nuclear News is dedicated to the people who provide “end of life” care for our nuclear reactors and facilities. Yes, D&D work may not get the same headlines as the development of advanced reactor designs. But if you look closely, you will find yet another segment of the nuclear professional community quietly driving advancements in technology and practice that lower costs, speed up time frames, and improve overall results.

Many of our former nuclear plants are now essentially greenfield sites, with the on-site storage of spent fuel remaining as the only outward reminder of the land’s history. Clearly, our professionals have done their work well. Now, if only our elected leaders would do theirs.

Which brings me to a larger observation that has seeped into my thinking over the past few months. As a community, we spend a lot of time trying to convince people of the societal value of nuclear technology. In those discussions, we almost always start from a defensive position.

ANS urges COP26 to recognize nuclear energy’s climate role

November 2, 2021, 12:00PMANS NewsCraig Piercy

On behalf of over 10,000 nuclear engineers, scientists, and technologists, the American Nuclear Society urges COP 26 delegates to insist that any agreement arising from COP26 include a strong role for nuclear technology in achieving carbon reduction targets.

Deep decarbonization and electrification of the global economy will require the increased availability of firm, “dispatchable” zero-carbon energy technologies. Nuclear energy is the only energy source with a proven track record of producing firm, zero-carbon energy at the scale needed to meet global goals. Indeed, it’s increasingly clear that achieving net-zero worldwide carbon emissions is simply not feasible without a significant expansion of carbon-free nuclear energy worldwide.

Life in three dimensions

October 18, 2021, 9:01AMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

This month’s Nuclear News is dedicated to the people and technology that keep our nuclear energy facilities running. It’s one of the great untold stories of the modern industrial world: how a band of highly trained people have repeatedly and skillfully applied novel technology to keep decades-old nuclear plants running at peak performance. The feat itself can be hard for the uninitiated to fathom. It’s as if a 30-year-old pickup truck was still on the retail auto market and beating out brand-new models in Consumer Reports’ vehicle safety and reliability ratings.

Nuclear sustainability was the marquee topic at the 2021 ANS Utility Working Conference, held at Marco Island, Fla., in August. It was the first in-person meeting ANS has held since COVID emerged in early 2020. It was also my first UWC, so admittedly I have only a secondhand understanding of the “before” times.

On alpha, flak, and jack

September 7, 2021, 9:30AMANS NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

This month’s issue of Nuclear News focuses on the role of probabilistic methods in assessing and mitigating the risk of adverse events at nuclear plants and facilities. It’s a timely topic as we move to launch a new generation of nuclear technologies, but it is only half of a larger question that is universal to the human condition: Are the rewards of a particular thing worth its attendant risks?

Nuclear engineers use hard technical terms like “probabilistic risk assessment” and “core damage frequency,” but other industries have much more colorful ways of describing the holistic risk-reward construct in their world. In finance, it’s known simply as “alpha.” A zero alpha investment suggests that its returns are commensurate with the associated risks. Negative alphas get pushed to the curb, and “high alpha” deals get Wall Street hedge fund managers their house in the Hamptons.

Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places

August 2, 2021, 3:00PMNuclear NewsCraig Piercy

Craig Piercy

Per Nuclear News tradition, this month’s issue is dedicated to highlighting our nuclear technology supply chain. U.S. nuclear suppliers have certainly seen their share of challenges in the last decade or so. The widely anticipated “Nuclear Renaissance” of the early 2000s gave way to Fukushima, then a wavelet of plant closures that ANS President Steve Nesbit addresses in his column on page 15 of the August 2021 issue of Nuclear News.

However, the nuclear narrative has taken on a more positive tone of late. Significant federal investments in advanced nuclear energy systems, coupled with a broader recognition of the need to decarbonize, has stoked excitement for a new generation of U.S. technology on the verge of scaled commercial deployment by the end of the decade. Hopefully, in the words of Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez, whose team went from a 19–32 record to World Series champs in 2019, “Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places.”