It is tougher that I thought it would be to participate in a conference and also cover it as a blogger. That is especially true when wireless connectivity is either spotty, toll, or non-existent. The Albuquerque Convention Center supposedly has hot spots, but I cannot seem to find one that provides me with any kind of dependable signal. It might be that there are simply too many laptop carrying atomic geeks – and I mean that in the most respectful way – around trying to do the same thing.
The President’s Reception on Sunday night was well attended and provided just the right kind of cheerful, welcoming note for a gathering of a technical society on the cusp of a significant growth period. There was a mariachi band, lots of vendors, plenty of food and drink and old friends greeting new arrivals. There was even a small controversy – a few of the student members could not understand why undergraduate students were not invited into the reception. Those few could not quite grasp the society’s risk assessment of the combination of an open bar, jovial members and people under the age of 21.
I managed to meet up with several old friends and associates, some of whom I have known since I spoke to their student chapters in the early days of Adams Atomic Engines (1993-96).
The title of this year’s meeting – Ensuring the Future in Times of Change: Nonproliferation and Security – does not really inspire me. It focuses on issues that people opposed to nuclear energy constantly insert into the conversation. In my opinion, the industry has a firm – almost choking – grasp on those two facets of nuclear energy development. However, it is in the nature of the business for its members to get worried about the prospects of widespread growth of their technology.
It is not too surprising that the General Co-chairmen of the meeting are directors of Sandia and Los Alamos – the two National Laboratories that are close to Albuquerque. Perhaps the special nature of their assigned duties explains the choice of focus topics for the meeting. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of planned technical sessions that deal more with opportunity than with cautionary, go-slow messages.
The program for the meeting called for a special video welcome message by President Bush, but recent political events changed his calendar enough to make it impossible for that production. We were joined – via video tele conference – by the two honorary co-chairmen of the meeting – Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).
Both of these senators were influential in getting the Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed, and were justifiably proud of the response to that act by the nuclear industry. (In August of 2005, there were about 2-3 new plant projects being discussed in a distant future sort of way. Now there are at least 31 reactor projects that have notified the NRC that they are interested in reserving a spot on the licensing review calendar). It is appropriate that New Mexico is represented in the Senate by one senator from each of the major parties and that they are both in favor of nuclear energy development.
The senators talked about the need for clean, reliable, cost effective nuclear power as a way to grow our economy without increasing our dependence on fossil fuels. They mentioned the importance of education in math and sciences as a building block for the expansion of the industry. They told us that they look forward to continued cooperation and a bipartisan effort to figure out ways around a rather sticky issue – the new Senate majority leader will be Senator Reid of Nevada. Senator Reid has been fighting Yucca Mountain for years.
As Senator Domenici quipped – he did not think that Senator Reid was going to wake up one morning and say (the words may not be exact, I did not record the session) “Now that I have more power, I think I will give up on my fight against Yucca Mountain.”
During the Q&A session, there was one memorable question and response. Someone asked about what the government could do to encourage the restoration of the nuclear industry manufacturing capacity. Senator Bingaman’s response was the the government had provided some incentives that attempted to ease the way for new construction projects but that the industry should not expect the government to do much more. My take away is that he feels it is now the industry’s turn to figure out how to turn those incentives into projects, those projects into firm orders and those orders into capacity development capital.
Senator J. Bennett Johnson – the 4-term (1972-1997) Senator from Louisiana who was the major author of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 – spoke eloquently about the energy imperatives facing the US and gave his skeptical opinion about any prospects for a hydrogen based economy. In his view, nuclear and hydrocarbons are going to play a major role in our future prosperity.
Commissioner Dale Klein – Chairman of the NRC – spoke about several topics including his agency’s expansion to meet the demands that will be imposed by a large influx of new license applications, about the challenges that the NRC faces in simply providing adequate office and meeting space for its new workers, and about the need for the industry to keep operating existing plants safely and reliably. He also put out an interesting challenge for the ANS – he said that it is time to increase research on plant aging effects so that there would be the supporting information available if there is a decision to allow additional license extensions beyond the current limit of 60 years.
Commissioner Klein then reiterated a comment that I have mentioned before on this blog – he believes that the NRC can refine and shorten the license approval timeline with the cooperation of applicants that submit a quality product with as few open questions as possible. He also encouraged the industry to communicate openly throughout its design process so that potential issues can be addressed and understood in advance – changes made during the design phase are less costly than retrofits. As he clearly stated, the agency does not want any surprises.
Senator Johnson and Commissioner Klein took some questions. I had the opportunity to mention that there might be additional applications outside of electricity production – like ship propulsion – that are natural opportunities for American leadership in the revived nuclear industry. I then asked if the NRC had any plans or discussions about how to regulate that type of application of the technology. Commissioner Klein initially did not seem to understand where my question was leading, since he responded by saying that Naval Reactors takes care of regulating and operating nuclear propulsion plants.
I followed with a brief mention that there were organizations interested in commercial nuclear ship propulsion, and said that I was trying to help avoid surprising the NRC. His response was interesting – he said that his agency would consider that topic once an organization submits an application.
Another question with an interesting response came from an employee of General Atomics (GA). He challenged Senator Johnson’s dismissal of the hydrogen based economy and listed a number of ways that hydrogen can be a carrier of nuclear energy for applications like transportation that cannot use it directly or in the form of electricity. His list included using hydrogen as an ingredient to sweeten heavy crude oil, to convert coal into synthetic fuel, and as the fuel in a hydrogen fuel cell for automotive propulsion. Most of the audience and Senator Johnson understood that he meant hydrogen generated in a GA designed high temperature gas cooled reactor (HTGR).
Senator Johnson agreed completely with using hydrogen as an industrial ingredient to produce additional hydrocarbons, but he pushed back on the direct use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel. His response included giving
a good technical description of the energy density limitations of hydrogen gas in a transportation application. He also mentioned the high cost of fuel cells and the challenge of moving large quantities of hydrogen over long distances. I was impressed by his grasp of the technical aspects of the issue – pretty good for a former politician.
The morning session ended and I ended up in a rather interesting – and somewhat heated (for an ANS meeting) – discussion about Yucca Mountain with an emeritus member who strongly disagreed with my opinion that leaving fuel on site – in licensed dry storage containers – is an adequate storage solution for the foreseeable future.
John Wheeler of This Week in Nuclear helped to extract me from that conversation and joined me for lunch. It was great to finally meeting him face-to-face after several months of listening to his podcast and exchanging email. More about that meeting and our productive afternoon later. My fingers are tired.