Maria Korsnick has a passion for nuclear energy and a well- informed view of the challenges and opportunities the U.S. nuclear industry faces.
That was my impression after recently attending her first press conference as NEI’s new president and CEO.
“If we hope to maximize nuclear energy’s immense potential globally, the United States must take a leadership role and NEI must carry out its mission effectively on behalf of our members and all of the suppliers, vendors and utilities that we represent,” Korsnick told reporters.
“I am truly passionate about the role that nuclear energy can play for our nation and the world. I consider it the unsung hero of our energy mix….My focus is to get nuclear energy recognized as an essential part of the nation’s industrial and electrical infrastructure.”
She is replacing Marv Fertel, who is retiring after serving as the trade association’s leader since 2009.
Nuclear Bona Fides
Korsnick has served as the Chief Operating Officer COO of NEI since May 2015 as a loaned executive from Exelon. Before moving to NEI, she spent three decades in the nuclear industry, initially as an employee of Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E), when it was a regulated, vertically-integrated utility.
After regulatory restructuring, BG&E’s generating units were purchased by Constellation Energy. In 2015, CE was in turn purchased by Exelon.
She has filled positions of increasing responsibility and authority, with time as an engineer, senior reactor operator, projects and outage manager, site vice president and acting CNO for Constellation.
She served in important roles with Constellation as it expanded its fleet from the original two units at Calvert Cliffs to include an additional three units in the U.S. Northeast.
During the Friday press event, Don Brant, chairman of NEI’s board, explained the search process to fill the CEO position and described how Korsnick stood out among a competitive field that started with approximately 200 candidates.
He fielded a question from one of the attending reporters who wondered why the nuclear industry had chosen someone with such a strong technical and industry background instead of someone with more experience in political and customer relations.
Brandt explained that people who have served as site vice presidents and CEOs have obtained experience in communications and working in the political arena. He pointed out that Korsnick has demonstrated strong skills in communicating to NEI member executives, employees, elected and appointed government officials and the general public.
He added that the nuclear industry is special and needs a leader who is thoroughly familiar with its issues.
‘Fine Where It Is Today’
When asked if the industry was going to continue pushing for Yucca Mountain, Korsnick said that the industry was looking for both progress on interim consolidated storage and licensing the repository.
She and her advisors believe that the political situation demands a parallel push forward that includes consolidated interim storage and continued progress for licensing Yucca. Some nuclear energy supporters in Congress will only support interim storage if progress is made in other areas.
Aside: Having watched a number of congressional hearings on the topic, the members that stubbornly insist on completing the Yucca Mountain licensing process seem mainly concerned with beating Sen. Harry Reid on an issue that’s important to him. Reid has retired. End Aside
Korsnick then made an important statement that should be repeated by nuclear industry leaders as often as possible. “The reality is our fuel is fine where it is today. It’s safe where it is today. It’s not a safety concern.”
She went on to explain why the industry insists on meeting the Yucca Mountain milestone, even though there is no economic, technical or safety reason for an urgent change to the way it’s been handing its used fuel for decades.
“But it is a promise, right, that the federal government made to all of these stations that said we will find a place for this fuel,” Korsnick said. “So we absolutely need to pursue the long term solution for ultimate storage.”
Perhaps it’s time for the nuclear industry to play this particular game of tug-of-war with more cunning. When there’s little progress in a long-running match, strategic slacking can be a winning tactic. Done correctly, it results in one side falling down, giving the other side a chance for an easier victory.
Since on-site storage is safe and interim consolidated storage seems likely to be approved in a relatively short time, the industry could suddenly stop pulling for Yucca by stating over and over that a 100-year plan is good enough for now.
That position would give us plenty of time to devise and implement a long term fuel plan that doesn’t depend on politicians following through on their promises. Letting opponents “win” on Yucca would save a lot of time and capital [including political capital] for more pressing issues.
Fixing Dysfunctional Markets
Korsnick stated several times that the electricity produced by the nuclear industry isn’t adequately valued by the market. She indicated that the nuclear industry is planning to push to receive more equal treatment once the election dust has settled.
When challenged about whether Congress has any appetite for providing new tax credits or other incentives, Korsnick explained that the industry sees the necessary assistance as being temporary and a “bridging strategy” to help it through a particularly difficult market period.
Getting attention and support from the federal government often is more difficult than obtaining it from states and localities that are more directly affected by the high quality jobs and tax base benefits of nuclear energy.
Korsnick pointed to New York’s decision to offer a zero emission credit to nuclear as a big win and discussed the lack of progress on similar programs in Illinois.
She was especially pleased that the state used the social cost of carbon in its calculations about the environmental value of its nuclear plants and hoped that the situation was precedent- setting. She didn’t mention the challenges being raised in New York to what is being characterized as an expensive bailout by opponents that ignore situational variables and quote only the highest cost estimate.
The new NEI chief didn’t agree with a question wondering if the industry was guiltily of “crying wolf” in Illinois by establishing a deadline for new support and then not following through with the promised action when the deadline was passed.
Exelon provided an accurate warning, she said. She also said that the situation changed a little as the deadline approached. The situational change gave a little flexibility in a still tough economic situation.
She then begged off answering more questions about particular company situations, saying that NEI has a lot of members with sometimes a variety of needs and situations.
What About Advertising?
In response to a question I asked, Korsnick agreed that the industry needs to do a more complete job describing the characteristics of its product that increase its value to the ultimate decision makers —-t he people that elect government officials and pay electric power bills.
NEI is planning to do more with its advertising and is especially looking at improving its digital outreach. It is looking to be more creative in reaching the ultimate consumers and helping them to recognize how kind nuclear energy is to the environment.
“I’m the mother of two kids and I want my kids to grow up in a world that’s safe, secure and has clean fresh air. One of the reasons I’m a huge proponent of nuclear, having grown up in this industry is, in fact, all of those things….Nuclear ensures that we have that clean air to breathe and that healthy atmosphere.”
It’s ultimately consumers and voters, not the politicians, who need to recognize and place a high value on nuclear energy.
Korsnick spent several minutes providing a progress report on “Delivering the Nuclear Promise,” the NEI program that is striving to achieve a 30% cost reduction for operating nuclear plants.
She spoke about a number of initiatives, the high priority that is being given to the program by Chief Nuclear Officers and the way that the effciency concepts are fully developed, signed off by various reviewers and then distributed to members as efficiency bulletins.
But she did not address the potential effect of the program on the morale of the youngest and least senior people in the organizations.
The bright new recruits know that nearly all costs associated with nuclear plant operations can be traced to employee salaries; cutting costs is nearly impossible without layoffs.
Korsnick expressed her excitement about new nuclear technologies including generation III reactors like those being built at Vogtle and Summer, light water SMRs like NuScale’s, and advanced non-light water reactors.
She placed a high priority on working with the NRC to develop the necessary licensing framework that will enable these projects to move forward more rapidly and predictably.
Almost surprisingly, since it came from an NEI leader, Korsnick described how a 1 to 3 MWe nuclear generator that doesn’t need fuel for 10-20 years can be a valuable product under certain circumstances.
That, more than anything, indicates that NEI hasn’t just changed its voice and face by replacing Fertel with Korsnick. It seems to be in the process of revising its fundamental way of thinking for the better.
Note: A version of the above was first published in the October 20, 2016 issue of Fuel Cycle Week. It has been republished here with permission.