Moving nuclear energy discussions forward

On Wednesday, June 24 Bloomberg BNA (Bureau of National Affairs) conducted a morning meeting titled A Chain Reaction: The Role of Nuclear Energy in New England’s Energy Mix at the Westin Copley Place in Boston, MA. The timing was fortuitous for me, my wife and I were visiting family in Maine the weekend before the event, so we decided to make a little detour on the way home so we could attend.

The event was underwritten by Nuclear Matters, an advocacy organization founded with the initial mission of protecting the existing fleet of US nuclear reactors.

Before the meeting started, I chatted with Scott Mozarsky, President, Cross Platform Business, Bloomberg BNA. Mozarsky was the meeting host; he provided the introductory and closing remarks. He explained that the event was the second in a series of six planned discussions held about every two months for a year in selected cities including New York, Boston, Pittsburg, Houston, Miami and Detroit. Nuclear Matters provides the funding and makes some of its members available as speakers; Bloomberg BNA plans the event, invites the speakers, and selects the primary topics of discussion.

Mozarsky was careful to point out that Bloomberg BNA maintains its editorial integrity and would resist if Nuclear Matters attempted to control the events and to choose all of the speakers.

Before hearing about the event and talking with Mozarsky, I didn’t know much about Bloomberg BNA. I learned it is a part of the Bloomberg media enterprise that focuses on the nexus between policy and business. Energy is one of its primary interest areas; there are few industries that have more influence on creating government policies or are more influenced by government policy. As Mozarsky explained, participating in a series of events about the importance of nuclear energy in the nation’s energy portfolio was a good fit for his organization.

My discussion with Mozarsky answered one of my initial questions about the event; when I first received the announcement and saw the sponsorship and noted the agenda, I was a little surprised. The agenda devoted a substantial portion of the available time to research, development and commercial innovation. Those are not the topics that normally interest Nuclear Matters; it usually maintains a tight focus on highlighting the economic challenges faced by a select subset of the nuclear plants that were built decades ago.

It’s apparent that the public information partnership with Bloomberg BNA has resulted in Nuclear Matters recognizing that an effort to build support and understanding of the importance of nuclear energy will be more successful — and interesting — if it includes a vision for the future. Though existing plants are important investments that produce a large quantity of clean electricity, a rear guard effort to protect their profitability is not an action-motivating inspiration for people who care deeply about building a better future.

The Boston event began with a discussion between Chris Gadomski, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and John Kotek, currently serving as Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy.

Aside: An overheard conversation indicated that Kotek will be moving to a new position. Putting two and two together, I’m guessing that he will be the Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, replacing Pete Lyons, who recently announced his planned retirement. End Aside.

My main take away from the Gadomski/Kotek discussion was that the DOE nuclear energy program is primarily focused on blue sky research whose uncertain payoff may occur in the relatively distant future. Kotek also spent time explaining the way that the DOE program helps universities by providing approximately 20% of its budget to university research. That description did not match some of the conversations I had at the recent ANS meeting with friends who are nuclear-focused professors. They told me that DOE nuclear energy research funding was increasingly sparse and getting more difficult to obtain. Several indicated they were considering changing their focus to something like solar energy or wind because grants in those areas continue to grow.

During the next panel, former New Hampshire Senator and Governor Judd Gregg of Nuclear Matters joined William Mohl, President of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, and Daniel Weekly, VP, Corporate Affairs, Dominion Resources. Chris Gadomski again moderated the panel. This was the segment of the event most focused on protecting the existing fleet of nuclear reactors; Mohl and Weekly both represent companies that share the common experience of choosing to permanently destroy a well-maintained nuclear plant with many years remaining on its extended operating license.

They each insisted that the decision to shutdown the plant was strictly economic, but they both failed to mention the impact of a series of political decisions on both the cost of owning and operating the plant and on the revenues that could be earned by selling electricity in the markets that the plant was allowed to serve. I recommend against framing the shutdown decision as “economic” because that implies that nuclear energy is more expensive than its competitors. That may be true when high cost, reactionary requirements are imposed that are not based on actual safety or security vulnerabilities (9-11 and Fukushima both added huge and potentially growing costs), but it is not necessarily true.

The panel members also repeatedly stated that nuclear plants are not compensated in the market for certain attributes like reliability, cleanliness, and fuel diversity. They talked about the fact that as many as 20 more plants might face challenges similar to those that led to the early closure of Kewanee and Vermont Yankee. As soon as the Q&A period opened, my hand was in the air. I almost got a chance to ask my question, but time ran out after just two questions from the floor.

Fortunately, one of the Nuclear Matters support staff quietly offered me the opportunity to talk with the speakers in the hallway while the next session was getting set up.

My question for Senator Gregg and Daniel Weekley was as follows – “Since none of the plants with shaky economics is located in a rate regulated market with a monopoly provider that has an obligation to serve, isn’t it time to discuss the fact that the experiment in electricity deregulation has failed?” At first, both were a little defensive but continued discussion led them to grudgingly concede that the regulated utility model with a competent public utility commission and a competent utility provides a form of long term planning and compensation for features like fuel diversity, ultra low emissions, and reliability.

Neither one agreed that they would be willing to divert attention from their current issues by strongly advocating for re-regulation. Perhaps that is a job best suited for a independent observers and trained problem solvers.

There were questions for both John Kotek and Judd Gregg about the future of nuclear public information efforts. Kotek explained that his organization provides moderate support for teacher training and classroom tools, but doesn’t do much to add to the general public’s understanding of nuclear science and technology. Gregg indicated that he hoped that Nuclear Matters will be out of business in a couple of years because it will have achieved its mission of getting people to care enough about existing plants to provide them with better support.

The second major panel discussion included four people who are involved in innovative nuclear energy developments. Dr. Charles Forsberg from MIT discussed the hybrid nuclear and gas turbine power plant that MIT and UC Berkeley are designing with the goal of providing a highly efficient, responsive power plant that can supply a variable level of on demand power. Seth Grae, CEO of Lightbridge described the metal alloy fuel that his company has developed and is testing as a way to improve the performance of light water reactors. Simon Irish, CEO of Terrestrial Energy, talked about his company’s modular molten salt reactor development and Jay Surina, the CFO of NuScale, provided an overview of his company’d 50 MWE modular, natural circulation light water reactor.

Three out of four of the members of that panel agreed that the current structure and funding model for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes it virtually impossible to develop, license and build anything other than a large light water reactor in the United States. One problem is that the rules are directive and have been written with light water in mind. Simon Irish described how his company was planning to license its initial plants under the performance-based rules of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Another issue is the fact that the NRC funding model cannot let the agency be proactive in developing expertise before it has an application with a paying customer in hand.

At that point in the development cycle, the regulatory customer paying the fees has no revenue stream that enables it to wait for — and pay for — the NRC regulator learn how to regulate the safety of a non light water technology.

Seth Grae, whose company is developing and marketing a technology designed to improve the performance of existing light water reactors, defended the NRC and stated that his international experience tells him that all other countries still look to the NRC as the gold standard.

As I was departing the venue, I ran into Senator Gregg again and engaged him in a brief discussion. I told him that I support his desire for a near term change in public actions, but that it seemed evident that nuclear energy needs a consistent, well-supported effort to keep telling its story. We talked about the fact that such a task does not have an end date. For example, no matter how well the public understands burning fuels like oil, natural gas and coal, those industries still maintain extensive efforts aimed at continuing to explain their value and contributions to our general well being and future prosperity.

I hope the following will be taken as constructive criticism.

Bloomberg BNA and Nuclear Matters consider some minor adjustments to their current plan:

  • Invite a more diverse speaker line-up. With one exception, everyone on the agenda was a white male over the age of 45. The one exception was a 30 something white male. The five member panel at the first event in the series was similar.
  • Reconsider the model of holding the meetings in downtown hotels. Several people at this event were significantly delayed by traffic and missed a good portion of the morning discussions.
  • Add more events to the plan; six meetings in six “major league” cities is not enough to successfully increase the public’s recognition of the value of nuclear energy.

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