"When nuclear plants are forced to close early, it can have devastating effects on the local economy and employment"
Maria Krosnick is president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). She is passionate about her role at the head of this institution that fosters the beneficial uses of nuclear technology before the government, public and stakeholders in the United States and abroad. In this interview for Foro Nuclear she covers the most relevant aspects of nuclear energy in the U.S. now and today, with special emphasis on STEM education and the role of women in science and technology.
"We must demonstrate that we can build and complete new nuclear plants in the United States"
We said goodbye to 2017 with some good news for the nuclear sector: the construction of the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors will continue. What did this news mean for the American nuclear sector and the country's economy?
Completing the Plant Vogtle expansion is good for America on many levels, especially in terms of our national security and energy diversity. In addition to the thousands of jobs to build these nuclear facilities, when completed they will produce gigawatts of clean, reliable power, and provide billions of dollars in economic benefits to the regions. We must demonstrate that we can build and complete new nuclear plants in the United States, and we are making significant progress on the Vogtle project.
Do you think that, accordingly, it will be possible to resume and complete the construction of both units at the VC Summer plant?
It is unlikely the Summer project will be restarted, but this remains a possibility.
Meanwhile, American reactors are still getting authorizations for their long-term operation. What is NEI's opinion on this strategy and on the possibility that they might operate beyond their 60-year life span?
Demand for clean, reliable, low-carbon generation means companies and policymakers would like to keep nuclear facilities in operation. So far, two U.S. companies have announced plans to seek second license renewal, and we expect many more to do so.
The Electric Power Research Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy have conducted scientific research to understand the technical issues associated with the safe long-term operation of nuclear power plants. This research demonstrates that there are no generic technical issues that would prevent a well-maintained nuclear power plant from operating safely during the second license renewal period.
Most reactors have had their licenses renewed under the current NRC licensing process and many have been safely producing electricity for more than 40 years. The NRC's process used to extend plant operations 20 years, together with an update to industry guidance on technical and materials issues, provide a sound, proven basis for second license renewal.
Continuous upgrading and replacement of parts and systems, rigorous NRC oversight and learnings from research and development and operating experience ensure nuclear power plants continue to operate safely.
Still, there are reactors being discontinued due to a lack of viability. How do you think they might be made profitable?
Some nuclear plants in America have closed prematurely because markets do not value the attributes they provide, such as reliability, emission-free power and energy diversity. In short, nuclear energy competes on an uneven playing field in many U.S. energy markets. We have been working, primarily at the state level, to promote measures in these markets that recognize the important role the nuclear plants play in a diverse, resilient and modern electric grid. Some states such as New York, Illinois, and Connecticut have already enacted policy reforms to value the nuclear plants in their states. As markets do a better job of recognizing these attributes, we'll do better.
"Preserving our fleet depends on continued success with state-level initiatives, as well as national reform"
Can you give us a summary in numbers for the socioeconomic impact of nuclear industry in the United States? Do you think that society at large, and politicians, in particular, are conscious of how important it is in terms of economy and employment?
America's nuclear power sector contributes $50 billion per year to the national economy and employs 100,000 workers. Our 99 power reactors produce 20 percent of our nation's electricity and the majority of our emission-free power.
Nuclear power plants are often the largest employer and economic engine in a region, with hundreds of well-paid employees and contributing an average of $500 million per year to local economies. When nuclear plants are forced to close early, it can have devastating effects on the local economy and employment.
Although residents and the elected officials who represent them understand the importance of the nuclear facilities in their own communities, America as whole may not comprehend how critical the nuclear sector is to our energy infrastructure. We at NEI are working to change that.
Can you please summarize NEI's strategy to preserve its existing fleet, support innovation and help the growth of the nuclear industry?
Our highest priority is preserving our existing nuclear plants. If well-run nuclear plants keep closing prematurely, we lose vital economic and environmental assets. And closures additionally affect key aspects of industry's future, from attracting young talent to developing next generation reactors.
Preserving our fleet depends on continued success with state-level initiatives, such as those I mentioned earlier, as well as national reform. Sustaining our fleet longer term necessitates progress on used fuel management—Yucca Mountain and interim storage—and development of accident tolerant fuel, and innovations related to increasing R&D programs and improving the regulatory framework for new reactors.
For our industry to thrive we also need to increase export activity, which starts with competitive bids for new reactor construction for international projects. But this requires a strong nuclear energy infrastructure at home; the U.S. will not be a credible leader if we allow our nuclear fleet to atrophy.
"Nuclear power plants are often the largest employer and economic engine in a region"
Recently you launched an impressive media campaign titled "Power the Extraordinary". Are there results from its repercussion?
This new campaign is yielding extraordinary results. It truly is a fresh and innovative approach to communicating nuclear energy's value proposition. One thing we've found from the campaign is that the more times people are exposed to it, the greater their support for nuclear.
The publication of this interview coincides with the month that celebrates International Day of Women and Girls in Science. How would you rate women's presence, specifically in the nuclear industry and in research jobs in general?
Women in the United States are underrepresented in technical fields and science and especially so in the nuclear energy sector. We are working through several initiatives to increase the participation of women in industry, especially in managerial and technical roles.
Greater emphasis today is being placed on what's known as STEM education—science, technology, engineering and math. The American Association of University Women estimates that, by 2018, 71 percent of new jobs in the U.S. will require STEM skills. I'm an enormous advocate of STEM. I encourage young people, including my own children, to give STEM education a serious look. High-tech industries like mine are counting on them to provide our workforce of the future.
U.S. Women in Nuclear is a network of more than 8,000 people who work in nuclear- and radiation-related fields around the country, and it is part of an association of more than 25,000 members from 107 countries around the globe. It provides a network for women and men in nuclear-related careers and conducts public outreach on the benefits of nuclear science and technology.
"Nuclear energy also prevents us from becoming overly reliant on too few energy sources, which is good for America's economy and national security"
It is often stressed that nuclear power plants do not emit CO2. However, currently you are communicating this fact to a president who wants to abandon the Paris Agreement. How do you convey these messages?
Nuclear power plants possess many important characteristics. Nuclear energy is America's most reliable energy source and a remarkably resilient one; on average U.S. nuclear plants produce power at over 92 percent of their capacity—far above any other source. Our facilities keep up to two years' worth of fuel on-site and resist weather events such winter storms and hurricanes.
Nuclear energy also prevents us from becoming overly reliant on too few energy sources, which is good for America's economy and national security. Because of their role in maintaining a resilient grid, fuel diversity and the economic benefits, nuclear facilities are important components of our energy infrastructure. For these and other reasons, we are seeing strong support for nuclear energy from senior government officials, including President Trump and Energy Secretary Perry.