We believe nuclear power can and will actually save the world – Matt Bennett, Third Way

One of the most tweeted sessions at the 2016 Nuclear Energy Assembly consisted of a panel of people from outside the industry that told the crowd they were doing important, exciting, society-saving work. The panel moderator, Entergy’s Bill Mohl, was visibly surprised by the enthusiasm for nuclear technology shown by Rachel Pritzker, Ben Heard and Matt Bennett.

After the introductions and opening remarks from the moderator, Matt Bennett of Third Way quickly established the tone for the session.

As I’ve done with a couple of other panel discussions from NEA 2016, I’ve included an embed of the entire discussion and will follow with some highlights and color commentary.


Each of the panelists shared a conversion story about how they moved from being opposed to nuclear energy to being not only mild in favor of the technology, but aggressive, active supporters investing time, money and even their career progression into sharing what they have learned about the technology.

Rachel Pritzker was raised by “hippy environmentalists who met on a commune.” One of her first memories was grabbing the wrong leg wearing corduroy bell bottoms at an antinuclear rally because from her level as a small child, all of the legs looked the same.

As she looked at the scale of the challenge associated with addressing climate change along with providing the power that could lift people out of poverty, she realized that limiting the menu of options to the popular and acceptable ones of efficiency and renewable energy turned the problem from really hard to impossible.

Ben Heard’s awakening came while he was working as a sustainability consultant. He learned, through the experience of planning a carbon neutral “car park” how painfully difficult it was to implement a system that made a tiny difference in emissions. He recognized that the real mission needed to be replacing facilities like the Latrobe Valley lignite power station. That requires a technology that could produce power on the same scale and with the same predictability.

Matt’s journey to thinking differently about nuclear energy involved a trip to Chernobyl with Vice President Al Gore when he worked in the White House in the 1990s. He told the crowd that “going to Chernobyl made me profoundly pronuclear.” That story demonstrates that Bennet is a critical thinker who pays attention to what he sees and figures out more than what he hears from the people around him.

Aside: As much as I appreciate the amazing progress that Rachel, Ben and Matt have made in recent years, I remain a tiny bit jealous of nuclear advocates with a conversion story. I don’t have one. I’ve been a fan of nuclear technology since I was eight years old. Before that, I didn’t know what nuclear energy was and had no opinions on the topic. Oh well, it’s a cross I must bear.End Aside.

For people who are interested in nuclear advocacy, Rachel emphasized the importance of having something new to say, being able to engage in an issue whose benefits cut across both party and ideological barriers and being able to express a future vision of hope and improved prosperity.

Ben described Australia as perhaps the most — maybe the second most (after New Zealand) — antinuclear country in the world, having formally passed a law that outlaws the use of nuclear power. He then described how that position has changed during the past five years, to the point where a Leftist government decided to invest $6 million to study how it could become more involved in the global nuclear industry.

Ben’s primary point was to emphasize the fact that it is wrong to assume that attitudes and positions cannot change. Public opinion is easier to influence than the weather or laws based on physics, thermodynamics or chemistry.

Ben also described the importance of the South Australian program to accept used nuclear fuel and explained his disappointment that breeder reactors and their associated recycling capabilities are not farther along. Because the technology has not yet been fully demonstrated in an integral system — thanks to Senator John Kerry and President Bill Clinton with their 1994 move to halt the Integral Fast Reactor program — the Royal Commission could not find sufficient evidence that the technology would be an affordable investment for South Australia.

Recycling used fuel into new fuel may not be the most economic choice — at least at our current stage of technology development and process refinement — but it is a lot more exciting and satisfying than burying the material in deep holes in the ground.

During a discussion about how the issue of climate change provides an opening to discuss the importance of nuclear energy with people who are on the left side of the political spectrum, Rachel made an observation about the value of nuclear as a way for people on the right to accurately point out that they have been supporting beneficial technologies all along.

This segment reminded me of one of my dream near term outcomes of discussions like this one — it would be very cool if people on the left and right, Democrat and Republican would start racing each other on the issue of which one could be more supportive of advances in nuclear technology and actions to keep the existing power plants from premature closures.

Final note: I hope all of the people who have enjoyed seeing high quality, timely videos of important sessions from the NEA take the time to say thank you to the Nuclear Energy Institute. There have been staff members who have been suggesting similar actions for several years, but organizers have been understandably cautious about the potential impact on attendance.

For me, the session videos have been extraordinarily informative. They reinforce the feeling that I need to make the effort to attend similar events in person as often as possible. However, we all lead busy lives, have budgetary constraints and often have schedule or health conflicts that cannot be overcome. Recorded and accessible videos of key sessions after the fact is a valuable knowledge management tool for the industry.

Live streaming that enables some live interaction via tools like Twitter is also a great tool for those who have access at the moment the sessions occur.

Global Climate Panel at Nuclear Energy Assembly

During the recently completed Nuclear Energy Assembly in Miami, Fl, one of the panel discussions focused on the importance of ensuring that nuclear energy has a loud voice and is at the table in policy discussions related to clean power production and CO2 emissions reductions.

The panel participant list included a last minute change, substituting Jay Faison from the ClearPath Foundation for Jason Grumet, who now leads the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Moderator – Lawrence Makovich, Vice President and Chief Power Strategist, IHS


Jay Faison, Founder and CEO of ClearPath Foundation (Note: Please watch the introductory video.)

Christine Todd Whitman, Co-chair of Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASE)

Doug Vine, Senior Energy Fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES)


Jay Faison

I hope that whatever took Jason Grumet away from the panel is nothing serious, but his absence provided a terrific opportunity for Faison to introduce himself to the nuclear industry. Faison shared some refreshing thoughts and made several useful suggestions for nuclear advocates to move from talk to action.

“Back to the advocacy piece. I think one reason that solar is so strong is that every solar installer is an advocate. And I would entreat you that perhaps every nuclear industry person should be an advocate as well…. I’ll put another guy on the list that you can write a letter to, and that would be Mark Jacobson at Stanford. The Left has put so much… they’ve hung so much on this one report that says we can get through this energy crisis with wind, solar, storage and efficiency, 100%… People I know that live in the energy industry laugh at that, but the Environmental Movement hangs their hope on that…There needs to be a bigger voice around making nuclear a reality that has to be part of the solution to the Environmental groups.”
(Emphasis in original.)

Faison’s Clearpath Foundation has positioned itself in an almost unoccupied space. It is an unabashedly conservative organization focused on clean energy solutions with a major focus on “the nuclear option.”

Though he describes himself as a staunch conservative who prefers a smaller government, Faison makes it abundantly clear that he believes in democracy and effective, problem-solving government action. He and his team are bringing their strong, successful business backgrounds into the halls of Congress to help them understand the importance of their decision processes and their need to understand the effects of those decisions.

Makovich: Jay, I think you mentioned complexity, trade offs, fuel diversity is really complicated. So your sense here about whether we’re going to appreciate these things on the nuclear side or not?

Faison: Well in Congress today, when you score a bill, there’s no differentiation between investment and expense. That is a huge problem. They’re two wildly different things. These are some of the crazy learnings that I’m having and we have to fix that. Because nuclear is an investment. Nuclear is an investment in a stable… You know the talking points so I don’t need to go through them. Gas is volatile… These are all investments that you need to make. And somehow we’ve got to break through the complexity and have policy makers understand that there’s expense and there’s investment.

And low cost expense is not always the winner when America was built on innovation and investment. That’s were we’re focused to try to make those arguments.

Lawrence Makovich

As the Chief Power Strategist for IHS, one of the foremost energy consulting groups in the world, Makovich has a comprehensive understanding of energy market relationships that cannot be obtained by skimming headlines.

He asked some probing questions that indicated he is more than little concerned about the way that power markets are using short term price signals to make choices that have effects over a much longer time frame. He asked some really interesting questions about the risks that come with increasing dependence on natural gas, which has a long history of volatility.

Transcript of above segment

Makovich: Natural gas has come up a couple of times here as putting a lot of competitive pressure on nuclear plant operations and so forth. There’s a couple of questions on gas. A lot of people think that nuclear has a competitive problem with gas. But that would be true if we had evidence that gas-fired generators are winning in the marketplace. But as you look at their financials, the key merchant generators have all gone bankrupt at least once in the past decade.

Natural gas fired power plants… we’ve had billions of dollars of write downs. I think that there’s a perception problem here that power markets are working well and the prices are a real economic test, and I’m not sure that’s true. An observation on that, yes or no? Your sense?

Vine: Ummm… My sense is that low natural gas prices… regardless that companies are taking write downs and they are harming all of the sources that bid in at low or zero prices like nuclear, wind and solar, the price-takers in the market, but that’s how it was designed to work. It’s to the benefit of consumers, more than having an environmental goal, for example, which is what we are talking about here.

That market was not designed to solve this climate problem. If it were optimized around zero emission generation or reliable generation or other characteristics, then this group would certainly be more happy with that outcome. Delivering low prices to consumers is a great thing and I smile when I open my electric and gas bill because it just seems to be getting cheaper every month, but it’s not solving this problem.

Aside: Ideally, commodity prices are set by the balance between supply and demand and rarely have a strong relationship to the underlying costs of production. Prices cycle up and down and send signals of either opportunity for profits by making investments and increasing supply when prices are high, or the need to slow investments in new capacity and begin closing down the least efficient producers to bring production into alignment with demand.

Skilled, experienced commodity suppliers and traders aren’t always passive observers of these cycles. As anyone who has been closely watching the world oil markets during the past several years should recognize, there are times when dominant suppliers feel the need to flood the market, drive down prices and drive out competitors so that they can enjoy the next high price cycle a little sooner and longer than might naturally have occurred.

I believe that has been happening in the U.S. natural gas market for several years.End Aside.

Makovich: Well, I’m thinking, for example, Christine… New Jersey is part of PJM and PJM has had an energy market and then they added a capacity market because it didn’t look like the energy revenues were high enough and then the polar vortex hit and PJM realized that they hadn’t really defined what they meant by energy, so these market rules continue to evolve. So my sense is that we still have some problems where the market prices aren’t really where they need to be. Do you see that as a problem contributing to this nuclear run off that we’re seeing and the higher CO2 emissions as a result?

Aside: The term “run off” is appropriate. It comes with the implication that it is an actively pursued strategy, not an effect of passive, well-functioning markets. End Aside.

Whitman: Well there’s no question that all the regulators and everyone is looking now at how we take advantage of the lowest cost of energy to provide to the consumers, to the ratepayers. And right now, the natural gas phenomenon is driving a lot of that, and it is causing a dislocation in the long term investment strategies of a lot of those in the industry.

Aside: The players in the industry are fully aware of the effect that low prices have in terms of discouraging investment. They are banking on a long runway of high prices once enough of their competitors have been driven out of the market. New capacity cannot arrive promptly after a period of low to no investment. End Aside.

Because they kind of have to take advantage of this, and it is a good thing. People are happy when they see their power bills go down. And the problem with that is, as I said before, we’ve been there before. And it gets very dangerous when you see everybody’s eggs are being put in one basket. You see this is where we are going to go and this is what we are going to do and we don’t have to worry about the rest of it. The solar and the wind that’s the other side and they leave nuclear out of the equation because they say “it’s just so expensive.” And until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission really streamlines its review process and starts to move some of these things through, it’s going to stay expensive, perceived as expensive, and people are going to go with the natural gas.

Makovich: Well Christine, you bring up an important point about not having all your eggs in one basket. When you look at natural gas, there’s some interesting things happening there. FERC commissioners right now have protesters that are showing up at their houses protesting gas pipeline approvals. We’ve seen increasing seismic activity associated with fracking, it’s getting a lot of people alarmed. Aliso Canyon in California, huge leak that’s contributed to California’s greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA is very focused on the leakage of methane from the whole system.

Do you see a danger here, that we’re going to lose a good portion of our nuclear supply here, and then gas is going to run into some problems politically and physically?

Aside: This is a clear and present danger. The physical constraints associated with extracting and delivering gas are well known in the business. So is the fact that gas is so difficult to store that only a few gas fired power plants have any onsite storage; most that do actually store fuel in the form of distillate fuel oil, which has its own history of price volatility. Closed nuclear plants cannot be restored to service to alleviate the coming natural gas crunch. Some closed coal plants might be recoverable. End Aside.

Whitman: I think we have to be very careful about that. Because I do see that we’re going to see a slowdown in this appetite for fracking and for natural gas. I’m on something called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, and the Marcellus Shale is where we’re focused. And it’s developing standards that go beyond anything currently required in law or regulation on how to do fracking. How to have an enclosed system and no flaring and those kinds of things. But the problem you run into is that the big guys get it. And they’re willing to go through the process, which takes some six months on anyone of the standards to be certified. They understand it; it’s the Mom and Pops. And in the energy field, you get so many of those.

But I believe we will run into… There are places where fracking is entirely safe and could be done; there are places where it shouldn’t be done. When you stand the potential of damaging the water supply for thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, you may think twice about whether that is where you want to frack. And you are seeing seismic activity. So I think the downside is going to start being elevated in people’s minds. But if we don’t continue making the investment in nuclear, we are going to be left hanging. Because the renewables cannot step up and meet the need in the timeframe we’ve got and we don’t want to go back to coal. In spite of Donald Trump.

In a way, I’m glad that I was not in the audience for this panel. Makovich asked such good, probing questions that provoked such thoughtful answers that there was almost no time for questions from the audience. I’m one of those annoying people that asks a lot of questions at conferences.

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