Rebirth of nuclear energy assessed at 69th annual meeting of ORAU Council of Sponsoring Institutions
Leading experts discussed technology and educational challenges
Declines in new construction, evolving safety regulations, and building the next generation of nuclear engineers and researchers are among the challenges facing the future of nuclear energy, but there is hope, according to a top Nuclear Regulatory Commission official.
Speaking recently to more than 130 attendees at the annual meeting of ORAU’s Council of Sponsoring Institutions, Patrice Bubar, chief of staff for NRC Commissioner William Magwood, shared the agency’s perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing nuclear energy.
“There have been many projections and predictions about the future of nuclear power,” she said. “Nuclear power plants continue to operate safely and construction of new plants continues.”
According to Bubar, 100 active plants currently provide more than 19 percent of the nation’s electrical energy. Seventy-four of these plants have had their licenses renewed for another 20 years, and construction is under way for new nuclear plants in Georgia and South Carolina. At the same time, increased research is being focused on newer nuclear technology, such as advanced light water reactors and small modular reactors.
A challenge area for nuclear energy is the continual implementation of lessons learned. A recent example is the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan that spurred the issuance of new safety requirements for U.S. nuclear plants. To address the potential for extended loss of onsite or offsite power at the plants, the NRC issued orders requiring that all U.S. nuclear plants must be prepared to deal with these circumstances. These orders included adding redundancy to systems required to keep nuclear fuel cool during a plant shutdown. Bubar said those lessons of being prepared to deal with extreme events proved vital in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy impacted the operations of several U.S. nuclear power plants.
Nuclear technology education is another area of focus for the U.S. According to Bubar, the country saw a sharp decline in the 1990s of students enrolling in nuclear engineering and research programs. Creating new educational opportunities through fellowships and scholarships, partnerships with minority institutions and an investment in nuclear-related research and technology are now helping to turn this trend around. An Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education study released in early March, titled “Nuclear Engineering Enrollments and Degrees Survey, 2013 data,” reported that that the number of college students graduating with a major in nuclear engineering is increasing based on 2012-2013 data.
“Pat (Bubar) and all of our speakers helped us present a meeting that was enlightening, informative and lively,” said Andy Page, ORAU president and chief executive officer. “As is the case with any important issue, there is seldom total agreement. Through this meeting, we were able to bring many perspectives together to explore this issue, and the conversation will continue back on the campuses of these many educational institutions.”
Following Bubar’s keynote presentation, the two-day meeting continued with focused panels. The Technology Challenges and Opportunities panel featured speakers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Idaho National Laboratory who discussed basic research challenges, opportunities, and the needs for advanced nuclear energy systems.
The Revitalizing Nuclear Education panel focused on how to develop the next generation of technology leaders of the global nuclear enterprise. Joining that conversation were representatives from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, the U.S. Department of Energy, and North Carolina State University.
On day two, attendees also heard from Peter Bradford who titled his talk “Did It Jump or Was It Pushed: Five Lessons from the Prematurely Named Nuclear Renaissance.” Bradford is a former member of the NRC who currently serves as an adjunct professor at the Vermont Law School and is vice chair of the board for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The final panel session was Economic and Policy Issues, in which speakers from North Carolina State University, the University of Tennessee Institute for Nuclear Security, and University of Texas talked about the social, political, and affordability issues that impact the advancement of nuclear energy.
ORAU will also make available the outcomes of this annual meeting at the upcoming World Nuclear University Conference at ORNL March 31–April 4, 2014. ORAU is one of the co-sponsors for the event.
The complete list of speakers, topics, panelists and links to presentations provided during ORAU’s annual meeting can be found with the agenda at http://www.orau.org/council/.