Nuclear, Reactors

2015 Nuclear Executive Roundtable

Issue 11 and Volume 119.

By Sharryn Dotson, Associate Editor

Upgrade projects, like the one at the Callaway Energy Center, will become more prominent as reactors are pushed beyond the 40-year timeframe.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, market and electricity prices, and a lack of financial incentives are just some of the issues that many feel are working against the U.S. nuclear industry. There have been recent reports painting a negative picture of future operations of nuclear power plants like Entergy’s Indian Point in New York, and Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities in Illinois, and some lawmakers are also calling for the closure of these plants. Despite all the presumed doom and gloom, many others involved closely in the industry say that nuclear power will continue to be an important and necessary part of the U.S. electricity mix, especially if that includes an increased need for clean and reliable energy.

This year’s roundtable participants are: Terry Pickens, Director, Nuclear Regulatory Policy, Xcel Energy; Andy Klein, ANS Vice President and professor of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University; Walt Sanders, President of Day & Zimmermann NPS; and Simon Irish, CEO of Terrestrial Energy.

Walt Sanders, Day & Zimmermann
Simon Irish, Terrestrial Energy
Andy Klein, ANS
Terry Pickens, Xcel Energy

NPI: Do you think there is a chance for more new builds in the U.S. after the five under construction are completed? If not, what would have to change? If so, why do you feel that way?

Terry Pickens: I do think there is a chance for more new builds in the US after the five under construction. I think what’s going to drive that is the carbon reduction goals when folks looking at the age of the existing fleet, and as they start to look to retire them, I think they will start to recognize that the role of nuclear in keeping carbon emissions low is very important. While renewables are very valuable, I’m not sure that we’re going to find that they have the flexibility with the fact that they’re not 24-7, they are interrupted when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. With that, I think they’re going to find that we need a good source of strong baseload generation with the growing concerns over coal. Even natural gas, if you start to replace too much of the clean nuclear with natural gas, you’re going to find that your emissions are going to start going back up again. For that reason alone, as things settle out, we will see construction to replace the existing units as they get older.

Andy Klein: I agree 100 percent with Terry. There’s always a chance for new builds, but it may be a few years until the ones currently under construction come online and have a chance to prove themselves as efficient and reliable and effective in meeting global climate change and lead to greenhouse gas reduction. In my opinion, we can’t reach the targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions that have been set without nuclear. There’s absolutely no possibility of doing it in the long run or the short run. We will need to keep the nuclear plants currently running for the next 25 and at least to replace them or expand the total nuclear energy capacity.

Walt Sanders: I think it’s possible but as the other panelists have said it’s not going to happen anytime soon. There is obviously a lengthy process for permitting and licensing new nuclear generation facilities, and the regulatory climate can make building a new plant quite costly. As with most new construction, financing becomes a central issue to getting new plants built. I do think new construction could be spurred if we had a national energy policy that really supports a balanced portfolio including nuclear generation in a more direct way. So much of the current plans for the future seem focused on renewables, but nuclear generation is also a zero-emission energy source. I think its going to be important to shift some of the public policy and general conversation around nuclear before we see new construction take shape.

Simon Irish: Whether more light water reactors (LWR) are commissioned in future depends entirely on the economic considerations of doing so. Traditional nuclear plants have become enormously expensive to build and we do not expect the costs of building a traditional nuclear plant will decline. Whether more new builds are approved, therefore, will depend on whether there are other alternatives that are less costly.

We believe the next generation of nuclear, such as the Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) that we, at Terrestrial Energy, are proposing, will prove to be a much less costly alternative, and we are confident that it will be available next decade, i.e., within the planning horizon of utilities that might be considering whether it makes sense to build a new, traditional LWR.

NPI: We have seen an emergence of companies developing advanced reactor technologies, such as SMRs, Westinghouse’s AP1000, molten salt reactors and GE Power & Water’s PRISM. Is there enough support to encourage more innovation like this?

Walt: I think there is support from an intellectual perspective, but the real question is whether the R&D money is available and if there is enough financial backing for a “first of its kind” deployment of the technology. The investment community is going to evaluate the risks associated with investing in unproven technology. You know, the industry has implemented many smaller innovations over the years that already have a tangible impact. Although many of the nuclear plants are 40-years-old, there has been significant investment in new operating equipment and system modifications. I would like to see more of this innovation over time, but it really does come down to funding.

Simon: In a word, no. As it turns out, this situation may confer a special competitive advantage upon our company. In the main, however, this area of technological endeavor is not yet given its proper place either in the pantheon of base-load power solutions or as an engine for de-carbonization. Nuclear power is responsible for 60%-65% of America’s total carbon-free energy every single year, yet the innovation in commercial nuclear technology has moved at a glacial pace since the 1970s. This is purely a function of lack of investment, and a lack of vision. Government and industry in the West have tacitly overseen the decline of nuclear power while, in the non-OECD, nations like China, India and Russia have been aggressively investing in new technology and widespread deployment.

One conceivable issue is that people may not be thinking broadly enough about advanced nuclear. It is a far richer tapestry than is reflected in the current industry narrative. By way of example, even your question suggests lumping the whole universe of liquid-fueled reactor technologies into one collective noun: “molten salt reactor”. Within this group, however, there are many different systems, fast and thermal spectrum, different fuel cycles, different salt chemistries whether fluoride or chloride, different design configurations, different market objectives. Each is a unique technology and has its own commercial merits. Some designs are viable and some may not be, and some will come to market perhaps faster than people realize today. A broader and deeper understanding of the market opportunities within this rich tapestry of advanced nuclear has only just begun, but it is progressing very quickly and a number of the largest industrial concerns in the U.S. are now paying serious attention. This is not an area that anyone in the nuclear industry today should dismiss. Times are changing. Each week brings a new development and another data-point showing the fast broadening interest in advanced nuclear and molten salt technologies (plural) in particular.

Andy: As a researcher, there’s never enough support. The important part is that I think that there has been good support federally and from industry. The industry is very focused on operating plants safely and making sure that they can do those things that they need to do effectively to operate, and even construct new plants. The advanced reactor technologies such as small modular reactors, AP1000s, molten salt reactors, liquid metal reactors all came from large, federally-sponsored research and development programs. These are important to continue over the long run. NuScale’s small modular reactor grew out of a research program at Oregon State University that was federally funded. Those are important ideas to keep generating in the universities and the national labs. All of these concepts were federally funded, some of them were very long ago. The molten salt and liquid metal reactors grew out of federally sponsored research program from 30 or 40 years ago. These advanced reactor products grew out of important R&D programs that were aimed at successfully demonstrating these technologies. Taking those ideas to the marketplace has proven to be very challenging. The product life cycles of nuclear reactors are 60 to 80, up to 100 years long. It’s not like the product life cycles of electronic chips that have an 18-month lifecycle. Our innovation happens quickly, but the development and implementation to the marketplace tends to be very slow. Thus, federally-sponsored R&D is incredibly important.

Terry: I agree completely with what Andy’s saying. I have watched over the 39 years of my career. Just look at Xcel Energy, and one of its subsidiaries NSP-Minnesota. We used to have programs where utilities would work with the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) to develop new technologies. Then, when we got to the point of actually wanting to demonstrate these new technologies on a smaller commercial basis, we would form partnerships like the Pathfinder Plant that we did out in South Dakota, where we had an opportunity to build it, learn, see what works and doesn’t work. That piece, I think, is kind of missing today. Most utilities, because of the pressures of Wall Street and everything else, were very hesitant to get into things that are still not commercially demonstrated. There’s that interim step that, somehow, we have to fill the gap where we don’t put the financial responsibility on utilities. We have the utilities work with Department of Energy and partner and come up with something. I don’t know that we have a program like that today.

Andy: Not currently. The small modular reactor program in the Department of Energy is a step toward that direction to develop design certifications.

Terry: It’s hard for utilities to take that risk, that financial risk. It’s not possible in the present climate.

NPI: As the utility perspective on this call, would you say when you’re looking at these advanced technologies, you may have some interest in using them in the future. Would you say right now, it’s a wait and see if it gets developed, at what cost, and then decide if you want to use it? Or do you plan ahead, get things in place, then when it is licensed, go ahead and get this going?

Terry: It’s difficult to predict the future. One of the things we’re kind of hamstrung by is the fact that, for instance, in Minnesota, there’s a state law that prohibits the Public Utility Commission from issuing a certificate of need for a new nuclear power plant. So right now, we are not doing anything. We have no plans, other than continuing to operate our existing fleet for as long as it makes sense. So, if something came along, I’m not sure we would have the flexibility to jump into something like that right now, simply because of some of the impediments that have been put in place. Last time I looked, we’re one of 13 states that have a prohibition against new nuclear power. Our current view is, we would wait for things to be developed to the point of being commercially viable. It used to be when I first started, when I was at Commonwealth Edison at the time, we were much more willing to look at things, kind of straddling the line between research and commercial in terms of viability, and kind of push them over to the commercial side. I think folks were much more open to that back then. Today, I think utilities, not just Xcel Energy, we are waiting for things to be shown as commercially viable before we even consider it. There is just too much risk jumping in while it is still in the research stage.

NPI: Critics of the President’s Clean Power Plan have said it does not sufficiently address the benefits of nuclear, or that it does not include nuclear at all. What do you think the plan is missing in terms of nuclear power? Or do you believe the plan is good save for some necessary tweaks?

Terry: I know our company views that it’s a good thing that’s been put forward. That being said, does it do everything we wanted it to do in terms of recognizing nuclear power as a valuable resource? Probably not. It’s going to take some tweaking to see that it gets the proper incentives going forward.

Walt: I believe the intent of the CPP is to stimulate carbon-free forms of energy; but the way the plan is currently outlined, nuclear does not receive the same type of credits as renewable technologies. That needs to be addressed. Renewables alone cannot displace the need for base load generating capacity, without dramatic advances in energy storage. I’m sure that the plan will continue to evolve over time and I would hope there’s more of a place for nuclear as it is tweaked.

Simon: We have been encouraged by what we hear from the government – which has acknowledged that nuclear must play an important role in a carbon-free energy future; however, although it includes new nuclear power plants as part of the strategy, the CPP falls short of acknowledging the existing fleet. The CPP is not perfect in this regard, but it is a start in the right direction.

Andy: In the end what we really need is a plan that treats all clean power equally so that the playing field is level for all electricity production technologies. At some point, we will need to appropriately value the externalities of power generation and distribution.

Terry: When I looked at Minnesota where we operate, one of the reasons I think we’re OK with the Clean Power Plan is that we have done so much in terms of developing our renewable power resources in the state. Xcel is the number one wind energy provider in the U.S., and we also have our nuclear power plants. So when you look at a utility like us in the upper Midwest, 53 percent of the energy that we’re generating today is clean already. It puts us in a good position to meet the requirements of the Clean Power Rule. Of the half that comes from clean energy, over half of that is from nuclear generation. I think we’re in a good position today. When I look at things like life after 60, my understanding — and I’m not an expert on the Clean Power Rule — my understanding is, I’m not sure we will necessarily get any benefit or credit, if you will, from extending the lives of our existing nuclear fleet from the Clean Power Rule. There’s going to be a lot of nuclear power plants that will have to make the decision as to whether or not they operate beyond 60 out to 80 years, and somehow, if we’re not going to get the credit for that, that’s going to make that decision that much more difficult.

Andy: That’s one of those tweaks that needs to be taken a close look at.

Terry: Right, and I’m not sure anyone fully understands the Clean Power Rule.

NPI: At ANS’ annual meeting earlier this year, many experts talked about educating the public on how radiation is monitored and also how it is located everywhere. Do you feel the industry has done a good job in educating the public on nuclear and radiation, or does more need to be done?

Simon: We believe much more needs to be done. As a society we must make our energy choices based on a transparent and objective assessment of risks; no energy choice is without risk. At the moment nuclear power is a paradox. On the one hand nuclear has been the safest energy technology in the US for generations by a considerable margin. On the other it attracts the most fear. Why? The heart of this paradox is the “linear no threshold” assumption that has been the central tenet of radiation safety policy for 60+ years. Its continued use reinforces fear by promoting the view that any radiation is dangerous when after 50 years there is no epidemiological evidence to support a “no threshold” response theory for low doses – e.g., the population of Denver does not have health issues arising from its higher levels of background radiation. There are arguments put forward today by far more credible voices that say the use of the unsubstantiated “no threshold” model is, in fact, a far greater health risk – e.g., the forced evacuation of large populations based on this unsupported theory can lead to a very poor balance of risks. This issue of a “no threshold” response must be debated publicly and arguments communicated clearly and openly. Its resolution must be based on sound science and free from connivance by other constituencies who gain from promoting fear and from its continued central place in policy. Without this process, confidence will probably not be restored. We will not reach a consensus and we will make bad energy choices for future generations. Is this not the real risk we face? The nuclear industry, historically cowed into submission from past errors, must now grasp the “no threshold” nettle.

The industry can point to an encouraging note in this matter. This year the NRC published a policy paper suggesting that the “no threshold” theory is no longer the appropriate standard upon which to base public safety policy.

Andy: As a nuclear educator, this is a topic that has been difficult for us for quite a while. I think the industry has done a fairly good job of communicating about radiation, especially in the communities where they operate. That is a much easier task than getting the word out to everyone in the U.S. Achieving broad popular understanding is very difficult through a national education campaign. We haven’t seen much public education on radiation recently from the Department of Energy. There are conflicting messages about it in schools and the general media It is a really tough thing for the public to deal with when they see these conflicting messages. The industry needs to be consistent in the messaging around radiation. Due to the distributed nature of our educational systems it is challenging to reach schools with a technical discussion on radiation. It is even more difficult to reach the general adult population, but we still need to try on both fronts.

Terry: Andy, let me ask you a question at the same time I’m answering. I’m reading all the work, and I’m a mechanical engineer, I’m not a radiation protection specialist. I think part of it is it’s so easy for the folks who oppose us to use the inflammatory rhetoric and things like that, and people always hear there’s no safe level of radiation. I’ve been watching the recent discussion going on about the linear no-threshold model and it seems like that’s extremely important work that needs to progress because if we can get to the point where we have a well-discussed public debate, and we get away from there is “no safe level of radiation”, we correct linear no-threshold model that we’ve been working on for 40 years, I think that will go a long ways toward helping us in the education process, because those who oppose us will then have a more difficult time, if you will, of just tossing out there’s no safe level and some of the inflammatory rhetoric. Do you think that will be a help?

Andy: I’m not sure. The conversation and the research to understand that very low doses and long-term exposure to slightly above or around background levels of radiation are going to be very difficult and very expensive. And, I am not entirely convinced that it will be conclusive. It’s going to be very difficult to be conduct that research and is going to require researchers to look at large populations of people over quite a long period of time. The conversation is important to have, but I am just not sure that it will settle the argument once and for all. I think that it is a very tough issue because of the difficulty in dealing with a large population, very low doses over long periods of time.

Terry: And I think the answer to the question is, and I agree with you, I think we’ve done a fair job, but I think there’s always room for us to improve. Some of what we try to do is get more independent folks involved because somehow, DOE, government, NRC, utilities aren’t viewed as the most credible source. So we’re working with science teachers to try and educate them in the most basic settings of the classroom.

Andy: That’s absolutely critical to continuing the public’s understanding of radiation and nuclear activities. It is easiest to do locally, and that’s why I have observed that power plants have done a fairly good job of doing it locally. Power plants have been getting that broad public message out, but getting this information into textbooks and teachers nationwide makes it a very challenging educational problem.

Terry: Yeah, I agree.

Walt: I think the industry has done a decent job in this area, but there is always room for improvement. I would echo what Terry and Andy have said as it relates to local education. Individual plants do a really good job of getting information out in the community. I think nationally that’s a bigger challenge. Andy mentioned schools, and I believe engagement at that level is really important in changing the national conversation. Effort is required both federally and locally. Individual plants can reach out to their local school districts to open lines of communication. Maybe they encourage field trips to on-site learning centers or offer to speak to classes. We need students to have an outside-the-classroom perspective on nuclear energy. Service providers have a responsibility, too, since we need to keep the nuclear talent pipeline filled.