A few days ago I mentioned that I was attending the Utility Working Conference sponsored by the American Nuclear Society. It is an annual meeting that has been held in the same location for about 15 years and it provides the opportunity for industry leaders, vendors and regulators to discuss and make steps towards solving important issues.
Though I have not attended one of these meetings since the mid 1990s, it was readily apparent that this year’s meeting was something special. Reported attendance was up by more than 30% over last year’s gathering, and many of the presentations and hallway conversations involved discussions of new reactor projects. The numbers are striking – last year’s meeting coincided with the signing of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and at that time there were only two or three known projects led by risk sharing groups of companies that were making tentative steps towards building a new nuclear power plant.
This year, the charts used showed that there were 19 announced projects to apply for US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Combined Operating Licenses (COL) and if each of those projects were completed they would result in the construction of 26 new nuclear reactors. (Some of the announced projects are for multiple, but nearly identical units so they are only counted as a single project.)
At least one of the people using those numbers in his presentation – Luis Reyes of the US NRC – indicated that his slide was already overtaken by events and that the real numbers were something greater. Since there is a provision in the law that allows entities to correspond with the NRC and ask them to keep the correspondence confidential (up to a certain point in the process) it sure sounded and looked like Mr. Reyes knew something about the topic that he was not yet able to share. As they would say in the electronics industry – he was probably under NDA.
Aside – I am now taking the official position that it is presumptuous to call people involved in computers, gaming, communications, and software the “tech” industry. There are a whole lot of other cutting edge, technology based industries out there. End Aside
So far, it looks like the Energy Policy Act was well designed as a catalyst for jump starting the nuclear industry. If there were three projects announced as of August 2005 and 19 as of August 2006, that is a growth rate of more than 600% year over year. It was pretty telling to me, however, that not one of the charts that I saw displayed in any presentation used numbers that were any higher than 19 projects and 26 reactors. Unless I missed it, there was no assumption made by anyone that the number would continue to rise at all. In fact, many side conversations and official presentations expressed doubt that eventual number of plants actually constructed in the next 20 years would be that high.
I even saw a presentation with a graph showing a sharp, but short-lived peak in activity that died down to a steady state construction level that would barely replace existing plants as they retired – even with extended licenses. That presentation was by a trade association representative tasked with helping the industry to grow!
In other words, though there are some very positive signs on the horizon, there are plenty of people in the nuclear industry that have a deeply ingrained conservative nature. They have been exposed to talk of new building in the past that has come to nothing, and many of them lived through an era when there were fifty or more plants under construction at the same time and most ended up as monuments to unrestrained optimism.
The industry has a strong pulse, it is moving in the right direction, and there is cautious optimism. I also must tell you that the people at this conference all expressed a sense of purpose and deep responsibility – many of them are employed in operating existing reactors and know that they will be retired before the first new plant enters operation.
However, they constantly remind each other that there will be little chance of successful new projects if the people operating the existing plants fail to keep focused on the vital task of continuing the safe, economical and reliable operation of the existing fleet. The theme of the conference was “Excellence today and into the future” and these people put action into those inspiring words.
BTW – It was amazing to me (as a veteran of a number of conferences in other industries) to see how many of the people attending this meeting brought their wives, children and even grandchildren to the events associated with the meeting. On the last evening, the show floor, which was small enough to circle in about 10 minutes, was full of families. The kids had a great time with some of the creative give aways – and the drawing for special prizes was a lot of fun. I regretted the fact that I came with an insufficient number of business cards – I will not make that mistake next year.
If I sound too much like a cheerleader for the industry – I guess I am guilty, but these people do hard, important work that involves rotating shifts to cover a 24×7 operation. Together, they provide 1/5th of the electricity that plays such an important role in our minute by minute lives. They deserve a few cheerleaders; their jobs are certainly more useful than those of the people that have tons of fans on the sidelines.