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Episode #93: 'The Invaluable Role Of Advanced Nuclear Today And Tomorrow' With Christine King Of GAIN [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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While nuclear energy has been a mainstay of U.S. and global power grids for many decades, recent months have seen a renewed focus on the importance of this dispatchable and carbon-free power source. Rising and volatile fossil fuel prices, variable renewable energy sources, and the urgent prioritization to decarbonize the energy sector have all left nuclear energy as a critical and unreplicable source for the sector. That said, nuclear energy is not without its detractors or challenges.

But those guiding the future of nuclear energy aren't resting on the power source's laurels, nor are they willing to accept any of the existing downsides, which is why the topic of advanced nuclear continues to gain favor. The future of nuclear energy can see generation with reduced costs, smaller footprints, more adaptability, and other benefits that further drive the energy source into the spotlight. Among the most critical entities driving this future of nuclear is the U.S. Department of Energy, and specifically Idaho National Lab and its Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN). Joining podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to discuss the importance of nuclear today and tomorrow, as well as the breakthrough work being done by federal scientists and researchers, is Christine King , Director of GAIN. Listen in as she highlights what you need to know about this critical moment in the nuclear power sector.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, the show that brings leading minds from the energy industry to discuss the challenges and trends that are transforming and modernizing our energy system. A quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy.

Jason Price: 
I'm Jason Price, Energy Central Podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. Joining me from Orlando, Florida, is Energy Central producer and community manager Matt Chester.

Jason Price: 
Matt, as we continue to move toward a cleaner grid, there's much discussion these days about the ways in which nuclear power can and will play a role in the clean energy transition that we're in the midst of. That said, nuclear power has been around for quite some time, so help set the stage on what's changing today that will transform what nuclear is able to take care of in the future.

Matt Chester: 
That's right, Jason. Nuclear energy, it's been around for quite a long time, but some more recent developments are keeping it in the headlines today. Small modular nuclear reactors, a topic we've covered before in this podcast, look to open up the possibilities of where and how nuclear power can be brought to the grid. Carbon-free utility standards continue to highlight the benefits that nuclear generation can bring in that regard and, of course, local regulations continue to get involved in all sides of the discussion. Our guest today is poised to highlight some of the exciting support that the federal energy experts are bringing to nuclear that have the next decade set up to be a transformative one.

Jason Price: 
Agreed. It's true that there's a lot of exciting stuff, and innovation is indeed a keyword in the world of nuclear today. As we talk about nuclear innovation, it's a story that really can't be told without discussing the program that today's podcast guest leads. Joining us today is Christine King, the director of Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, abbreviated as GAIN, at Idaho National Laboratory under the DOE's National Laboratory umbrella. GAIN was established to provide the wider US nuclear sector the type of technical, financial and regulatory support to enable new innovations and opportunities as advancing nuclear technologies move towards commercialization and bring zero-carbon energy to the grid.

Jason Price: 
Christine has been the director at GAIN for over two years, but that's on the heels of an impressive career in nuclear energy where she saw the opportunities, also the hangups and roadblocks, firsthand. We're eager to get her perspectives on how and why now is such a crucial moment for the nuclear power sector, so let's go ahead and bring her in.

Jason Price: 
Christine King, welcome to today's episode of Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Christine King: 
Thank you so very much. I'm excited to be here. I appreciate bringing nuclear to, hopefully, a new audience and sharing some of the exciting aspects of what's going on, but also being honest of where we've been with nuclear.

Jason Price: 
Fantastic. We're thrilled to have you here. Christine, give our listeners a sense of background on the work you and your colleagues do at GAIN. What is the mission, and what are some of the tangible outcomes you've been able to achieve?

Christine King: 
The GAIN team gets up every day to imagine the commercialization and deployment of a new nuclear fleet and preservation of our existing nuclear fleet and, through that, what innovation is necessary to do that. The National Labs and the Department of Energy can provide an interesting nexus to actually helping these new nuclear entrepreneurs preserve their capital by using the resources of the National Labs, so that comes through the avenue of private-public partnership.

Christine King: 
One of the more successful aspects of our program is awarding vouchers which allows a private company to write a work scope for National Lab staff to complete, whether it's to use just our expertise, but also use our facilities. To date, we have awarded 69 vouchers with 40 different companies, and 42 of these vouchers have already been completed, and that's just been in the past five years. The amount of dollars committed here is relatively modest. It's $25 million, but this work has been focused on those hard places that, by using the National Lab expertise or having a facility that's already built that they can place an experiment into, it allows these companies to move forward in their vision.

Christine King: 
One of the other more recent additions we've made to GAIN is engaging with audiences that aren't familiar with nuclear and really just being there to help demystify the technology and ensure that we have the right information available for modeling an integrated resource planning as we consider a clean economy in the future.

Jason Price: 
I want to ask you about the phrase advanced nuclear. It can be a somewhat ambiguous term. How do you define advanced nuclear?

Christine King: 
At its most basic level, I think it means different than today's operating fleet. There are many different designs under development, and they're all being designed to address different aspects of our future energy challenges. As an example, thinking about how nuclear as a partner to renewables allows us to maximize our use of renewables on the grid, but still have the security of a clean base load generation.

Christine King: 
Today's reactors are going to come in a variety of sizes, anywhere from 20 megawatts to the types of sizes we have today at a thousand megawatts. What's different is they're going to feature things like modular factory construction, which will help with cost. As I mentioned, they'll operate flexibly, allowing us to partner with renewables, and they'll have smaller footprints. In the smaller footprint space and these moderate sizes, that allows us to consider potentially putting some of these nuclear units in the same spaces of retiring coal stations.

Christine King: 
I think one of the more exciting parts of new nuclear and advanced nuclear is that these units offer the opportunity to be dual-purpose products, producing electricity, as well as heat. This gives us the opportunity to really reimagine energy center's industrial parks. Let me offer an example about some decarbonizing industrial processes. I'm a chemical engineer, and so, when I think about this, I think it's much easier to focus on finding a clean heat source than redesigning and retooling the industrial process itself. I think, in those ways, when you talk about advanced nuclear, that's the advanced that we're talking about.

Jason Price: 
Gotcha. All right. The conversations around nuclear can sometimes become tough as some camps worry about the safety and the nuclear waste situation and think that we should be avoiding it, while nuclear advocates, of course, point to the safety record and the ability to create carbon-free energy on the scale and reliability that renewables can only dream of. When it comes to talking about nuclear, what should we focus on? What is the best way to handle the disagreements about the technology and how do you approach it?

Christine King: 
Clearly, I'm excited to think about a new nuclear future, but we can't be tone deaf to our nuclear legacy. As we move forward to build a new energy system, what I really hope is that we can all become technology agnostic. You might be a little bit surprised by that answer, but I think it's important that we work across silos to build an energy system that's resilient, reliable, affordable, clean, safe, sustainable and just. That's a lot of things to put in on one system, but no single entity should be moving in isolation to build those systems. We should really be developing common objectives that maximize the use of the resources in each region. Each region across the United States is going to meet a clean energy future differently because they have different resources available to them.

Christine King: 
I think there is benefit though in thinking about the communities that have had nuclear and are maybe more comfortable with the technology, and maybe it starts with those communities and thinking about where they've been and is this an opportunity for a more positive experience with nuclear technology, but, with any disagreement, this all starts with listening and actually not in that listen-to-defend type of thing, but listen to understand.

Christine King: 
I do a lot of work at a state level, and I always start by saying I'm not here to sell nuclear. I just want to help you bring factual information to your decisions. Nuclear can be an intimidating technology. I believe it's an important element in a clean economy, but my opinion is just one of many that are necessary to make that part of our future clean economy. To me, any technology we want to deploy in future energy systems, we need to be creating inclusive forums and coming to these conversations as energy professionals.

Jason Price: 
Christine, there's also a tangible slowdown in the implementation of new nuclear assets. Why is that, and how can that be overcome to allow nuclear to contribute more widely to the clean energy transition?

Christine King: 
Let's start with our existing plants. Over the past decade, we've seen a number of our plants close due to economic pressure associated with direct competition with low natural gas prices. We haven't built nuclear power plants in several decades, and I think we all can appreciate that these are very capital-intensive projects which make it difficult to find a single funder that can manage that type of project on their balance sheet. I think what needs to happen is we need to continue to see federal support to de-risking these projects, moving the technology closer to scale and deployment.

Christine King: 
Now, as we do that, it will make these projects more investible, and we'll start to see the private sector fill in the gaps. A good way to think about this is is not radically different from the transformation renewable has seen over the past decade, and then, by continuing to execute projects, we drive down the learning curve. We'll drive down the cost of the technology. We will approach the scale and deployment needed for these projects to be completely privately funded.

Jason Price: 
Certainly, with recent events and what's going on in the economy and globally, as you look out to the next five to 10 years, a time period that no doubt will be hypercritical to advancing grid reliability and decarbonization, what are the key opportunities that nuclear can bring that you think people should be talking about, and are there areas being overlooked?

Christine King: 
I do think, with the recent events in Ukraine, energy security and energy independence is something that we all have come to appreciate at a different level. I think, in the past, energy security has been something that a few people focus on. I think nuclear has unique characteristics that support energy security and energy independence.

Christine King: 
Now, setting aside the recent events, as I look at the energy transition in the next five to 10 years, there's a lot to build. I'm a hundred percent supportive of building out the wind and solar in the places where we can maximize the use of that technology, but we have just some more practical part. We have a significant amount of infrastructure to build. We have an accelerating pace of retiring coal and then, coming behind that, is either cleaning up natural gas or retiring natural gas.

Christine King: 
As we decarbonize, I really think we have to be mindful of the infrastructure that's present. There's not many things that take longer than a nuclear plant to build, but a transmission connection is one of those. Are we bringing that into our calculation as we look at our energy system going forward? To me, is there work that should be done in repurposing the existing sites or soon-to-be-retired sites that allow us to preserve infrastructure as well and reduce the build that needs to come over the next 20 to 30 years?

Jason Price: 
Well, Christine, you're making my job easy because you just teed up the next question for me, and that is the role of government. What role can government support, play in getting more nuclear opportunities onto the grid, furthermore, supporting GAIN in general? R&D is, of course, critical, but how do we take those advancements and best get them to market as quickly as possible?

Christine King: 
There's a few aspects to this. We still have work to do on the technology front. I think the demonstration projects that the DOE has invested in through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program are a great step one, but it is step one. We need to be thinking about what the next tranche of public projects look like that not only build the reactor itself, but also start to flesh out our supply chain necessary to build an advanced reactor fleet that's inclusive of our fuel supply as well as where we might buy the next tranche of valves and pumps to support these plants.

Christine King: 
Getting them to market, that's a little bit of a different challenge. The demonstration projects we have going on today and probably the next tranche of demonstration projects that will happen, those will continue to help de-risk the investment, but we need to be working at a state level, understanding what are the industries that a state is trying to either attract or retain as corporations are changing their goals around ESG and pushing all of us to produce clean energy?

Christine King: 
Getting into the details on a regional basis, I think, is important. We can't solve these problems just at a federal level. It is really about looking at it in different states. Some states have aggressive, significant goals for decarbonization in the future, and some states, decarbonization is not going to drive the decisions in their states, but economic transformation is important to them, and so, to me, I think it's having those conversations and figuring out in different regions what makes nuclear investible and the right answer supportive to the goals of that region.

Jason Price: 
That's great. Christine, we're going to pause for a moment and give you the last word, but we're first going to go into what we call our lightning round, which is an opportunity for us to get to know you, the person, rather than you, the chemical engineer and leader at GAIN. Each question I'm going to ask you, your response will be kept to a word or a phrase. Are you ready?

Christine King: 
Okay. Sure.

Jason Price: 
Okay. What's the best road trip snack or meal?

Christine King: 
Soft serve ice cream.

Jason Price: 
Do you have any hidden talents?

Christine King: 
I can dance better than I can walk.

Jason Price: 
Who are your role models growing up?

Christine King: 
Ethel McLeese, my high school physics teacher.

Jason Price: 
Who are your role models now?

Christine King: 
Students of leadership.

Jason Price: 
What are you most optimistic about?

Christine King: 
The opportunity to create a clean economy.

Jason Price: 
Nicely stated. Christina, you've perfectly navigated our lightning round and, for doing so, you get the final word. What key lessons you hope the utility audience listening in today takes away from this conversation, and what are you looking forward to in GAIN's immediate plans for the future?

Christine King: 
I would hope that, as we are all considering this transition, and I realize that, as energy professionals, we're all uncomfortable in one way or another, I would hope that we use this next decade to come together and build roadmaps for the next generation to come behind us and continue building and implementing on that. I don't think any one of us has the right answer, but I think, together, we can come together and create options for future generations to consider.

Christine King: 
I'm most looking forward to the opportunity to have more diverse conversations about nuclear that are inclusive of people outside of our immediate industry. I am excited about these new technologies coming forward, but I'm also humbled thinking about the communities that have provided reliable power to us for a hundred years and engaging potentially with coal communities and considering if nuclear might be something, might be an option to keep them as an energy-producing community.

Jason Price: 
Well, that was terrific. Thanks again, Christine, for shedding some light on the exciting opportunities taking place in your industry and at GAIN, so in support of a wider nuclear sector. I know our Energy Central community will have more thoughts and questions, so I'll direct them to leave those in the comments of the Energy Central post. We'll look to you to keep the conversation going at that point. Until then though, thanks so much for your insights, and we look forward to you and all our community members keeping these important conversations going at energycentral.com.

Christine King: 
Thank you so very much for the opportunity to talk and share a little bit about nuclear. At GAIN, we're always open to feedback as well as doing our best to find the answers to your questions, so don't be shy.

Jason Price: 
Understood. You can always reach Christine through the Energy Central platform where she you welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works for the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation, electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics and cybersecurity.

Jason Price: 
Once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com, and we'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

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The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

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Discussions
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Sandy Lawrence's picture
Sandy Lawrence on Sep 5, 2022

     Sadly, neither reliable nor dispatchable and not even completely carbon-free. 

Neither the interlocutor nor either of the discussants spoke to some serious problems faced by the commercial nuclear industry in the United States. We have had nuclear reactors supplying the grid since Shippingport in Pennsylvania went on line in 1954. For the last 68 years this energy sector has been the most heavily subsidized of all the types of power we have in operation [Price-Anderson Act comes to mind]. None of the three speakers offered an explanation of the decline of some 123 nuclear reactors to the current 92, with the numbers still heading down. The only two reactors under construction are the Vogtle reactors in Georgia, more than several years behind schedule and with costs more than doubled, up to USD $30 billion last time I checked.

Additionally, it is unclear to me why nuclear proponents continue to claim nuclear is dispatchable. On the contrary, it is complex to modulate the output down and often even slower bringing back up to full power operation, the antithesis of dispatchable. 

Yes, I will happily acknowledge that nuclear nuclear power is low-carbon, but never zero-carbon. The most energy-intensive part of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle is enrichment, so nuclear still results in marginally more greenhouse gas emission than wind or solar, which are easier, faster, and cheaper to build. These sustainable energy sectors coupled with storage began to allow both grid-forming [wind] + dispatchable types of energy.

Small modular reactors? Require more highly enriched uranium, and a key vulnerability is that heat exchange apparatus is immediately vulnerable in case of reactor malfunction, plus I assume much harder to accomplish maintenance + replacement, the kind of defect that led to the demise of the 2 SONGS reactors in southern California.

And the proponents of extending reactor lifetimes never seem to adequately discuss the embrittlement + activation of, for example, nickel in the high-quality steel of the reactor pressure vessel itself.

Finally, the recent France 24 report is an apology for the sad performance of their fleet of 56 commercial reactors. Thirty-two of them have been shut down for most the 'record hot' summer, due to corrosion problems, 'maintenance' issues and drought. So much for the model of a country which chose to go to 70% nuclear. 

The annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report states nuclear currently provided 19.7% of U.S. electricity.

I would much appreciate if the people interviewed would actually speak to these points. Thanks.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Sep 12, 2022

Great episode - I love this quote by Christine 

Clearly, I'm excited to think about a new nuclear future, but we can't be tone deaf to our nuclear legacy. As we move forward to build a new energy system, what I really hope is that we can all become technology agnostic. You might be a little bit surprised by that answer, but I think it's important that we work across silos to build an energy system that's resilient, reliable, affordable, clean, safe, sustainable and just. That's a lot of things to put in on one system, but no single entity should be moving in isolation to build those systems. We should really be developing common objectives that maximize the use of the resources in each region. Each region across the United States is going to meet a clean energy future differently because they have different resources available to them.

This is so well said and so critical as we all work together to create our next generation of power delivery!  

 

 

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