By Will Davis
Attendees of the 2017 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting were fortunate to hear an address by William Magwood, the former NRC Commissioner. Magwood is currently the Director-General of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the OECD. He addressed the ANS members on the ANS Grand Challenges developed under the leadership of (now immediate past-President) Andy Klein.
Magwood said that “these nine challenges resonate well with what we are seeing around the world,” and observed that the challenge associated with changing how the ANS engages with the public “is very significant.” He pointed out that stakeholder engagement is very high on the list of the NEA’s priorities as well, and observed that in general “these nine challenges or issues that ANS has highlighted are the right things for the (nuclear) community to be working on.”
However, Magwood continued, “the world is more complicated now” than just these nine challenge areas, although he quickly added that this doesn’t change the fact that the challenges are the right things for ANS to work on. He said that on a broader scale that the NEA is starting to see some “general trend lines” to give some thought to.
“First,” Magwood he elaborated, “we aren’t who we used to be.” He observed that in years past we were as a nation constantly in space and that NASA was preparing seriously to send astronauts to Mars. “We don’t do big things any more — not just NASA,” he said. “We don’t think the same ways.” He pointed out that this isn’t just NASA who fell down (and now cannot get to its own space station, he quipped) but also the AEC at its end. He asked the audience, “When was the last time we did something really big?”
Magwood observed,”It’s hard to envision the future because we don’t know what we want, where we want to go, how we want to get there. This is global, and it’s why politics is so messy in so many areas.” According to Magwood this malaise is the product of “democracies in mid-life crisis,” or at a stage when they really aren’t sure how to take any next, big steps. Magwood said that this condition “automatically makes it institutionally hard to do big things” and pointed out that this is very serious for nuclear energy.
Of course, as Magwood correctly observed, “Eventually you reach the point where you just have to do something,” and then quickly connected the fact that our infrastructure is both dated and aging rapidly. “Lots of this was put in place in the 50s and 60s and these things are very hard to replace,” he said. He pointed out also that “the human infrastructure is in deep, deep decline” in many places. This however, is one brightening area for the U.S., who according to Magwood had only 480 students enrolled in all nuclear engineering programs nationwide in 1998 but which now has over 5,000. “You can’t find another country on the planet that can say that,” he added.
Finally, Magwood opined that the issue of energy “has become very heavily politicized.” He pointed out that many governments make energy policy choices based not upon proven facts, but rather simply upon politics and on political lines. “Few,” he said, “are making really solid decisions based upon the facts.”
In terms of solutions Magwood suggested (as did others at the 2017 ANS Annual Meeting) that an international approach in many areas might be key. “Some problems,” he said, “cannot be solved purely on a national basis. We may need international efforts on things such as research and licensing.” He said that there is presently a great deal of discussion underway between national regulators on ways that they can increasingly work together. He did point out that IP (Intellectual Property) issues “are so predominant that much progress on this international level is blocked on the commercial power side.”
And, as did others, Magwood suggested fixes to the electric power markets in the U.S. sooner rather than later. “The electricity markets are so completely broken that you cannot tell what generating source is really cheaper,” he said. “The costs aren’t all in, really. The costs of sources are never really fully reflected in the market. Then, the cost drops to zero, and we wonder why anyone would build anything anymore — who would want to?” Magwood asserted, “The markets need to be fixed, and it will take a lot more political bravery than exists in most countries.” On the generating side, Magwood said “Trying to compete in a market that doesn’t make any sense at all is hard to figure out; in 10 years maybe, things might be worked out. But for certain, if nuclear energy doesn’t have its act together by then it won’t be in any position to seize the opportunity when it comes.”
The resounding applause Magwood received was evidence enough that he’d struck a nerve with those attending and that his assertions were believed correct, even if tough, by the appreciative (and packed) room.
Will Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.