By Will Davis, from the ANS Winter Meeting, Washington, D.C.
“There’s no one I’d rather go into battle with,” said ANS President Bob Coward to a packed Opening Plenary audience this morning, “than nuclear professionals,” in reference to the stated purpose of ANS in advancing nuclear technologies. Coward’s very first remarks set the tone for a speech that was remarkably hopeful and bright given the recent blows that nuclear energy has suffered here in the United States.
Coward began by observing that the theme of this year’s meeting is “Generations in Collaboration,” and augured his vision of the future of nuclear energy in that light. “We can look around and see some hints” of the future, he said, and then, strongly, observed that “the most important thing is that more likely than not the whole world will try to decarbonize its energy systems” – and added that this includes the USA. Noting that there is a tide flowing, Coward told the enthused crowd that if deep decarbonization is actually to be achieved, it will mean the reduction or elimination of fossil fuels.
“There’s a difference between clean energy sources, and non-emitting energy sources” said Coward as he moved to push nuclear’s attribute of what it doesn’t do – emit greenhouse gases. “Gas,” he said, “is clean but it emits measurable greenhouse gases.” Nuclear energy of course has no exhaust and thus no emissions since it isn’t a chemical process, which Coward pointed out by simply saying that nuclear is not only clean but non-emitting. Thus, he summed up, the only way to really deeply decarbonize a nation’s energy is to turn to nuclear.
Saying that he believes that “the world will give us the chance to prove nuclear,” Coward told the attendees that he thinks of three streams in the energy future. First, getting fossil fuels out of the electric generation realm; second, cutting down the use of fossil fuels in the transportation sector; and third, taking a big chunk out of the process heat field through the use of nuclear power (at which point he called up HTGR’s or High Temperature Gas Reactors as one possible path to process heat.)
Coward then described having had a change in thinking since working on nuclear plant licensing in Texas some time ago when it was believed that water rights were the single biggest power plant resource issue. “I’ve had a change in my thinking,” he said, having observed a 6400 MWe coal fired power plant in Johannesburg which has entirely been built not with water but with air cooling. “Now, what matters is land rights” he said, although he quickly added that “there’s a complex relationship between land, air, and water; use of any one affects the others.” Making the case that in clean energy land will now be the most important factor, he told the attendees that while a 1000 MWe nuclear plant might take up “a square mile or a mile and a half” of area, to get the same energy from solar you’d need 50 to 60 square miles and for wind you’d need 300 square miles. “Also, you have to connect that power” he said, indicating that the generating sources need to be linked to where the need is which often leads to enormous struggles and costs in permitting and building lines.
It isn’t that Coward is against renewables – in fact, he’s quite far from it. Not only did his company just install the world’s largest grid battery storage project in the world (in California,) Coward said that he was for renewables and hoped they were “successful to the maximum extent because that benefits all of us.” He then observed that the new battery installation produces the power of the now-closed San Onofre nuclear station for only about 3.5 minutes, and added that for storage to be really useful the working range of the stations won’t be in the megawatt-hour range but the gigawatt-month range. And that’s a long long way away, he said.
Staying on the topic of infrastructure, Coward then told the ANS members, media and guests that he believes that the single most important national physical asset is actually the electric power distribution grid. He observed that we need it for most everything we do – and that we need it to have real prosperity. “Do we want to risk this asset on undeveloped, unproven storage technologies?” he asked.
“The world will turn to us, but it won’t give us anything,” Coward said as he began to wrap up. “They’ll call our bluff (on the promises of nuclear power) and we must deliver. Things are tough now but we cannot stop. We must prepare for opportunity to come,” he said in a move to urge the crowd to see past today’s (temporary) problems. “There’s an opportunity for this group to do really important stuff,” he said, adding that he was “worried more about our ability to deliver than about whether or not the opportunity will show up – we MUST deliver!” he exhorted.
The ANS President finished by observing that political support for nuclear energy is, politically, much stronger right now than it’s been in decades. “People in Washington like us for all the right reasons,” he said, and pointed out that they’re ready to help us. “I believe the horizon is bright for us,” he said, which was met with strong applause as he closed the opening speech of the plenary.
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. His popular Twitter account is @atomicnews.