Safety, future of nuclear power focus of ANS 2012 opening session

A packed house welcomed the 2012 American Nuclear Society's (ANS) Annual Meeting Monday, June 25 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago. Following the distribution of multiple ANS awards and a short introductory speech from ANS President Eric Loewen, John Rowe, former chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Exelon Corp. (NYSE: EXC), welcomed the audience to Chicago.

Rowe said the city possesses a long history in the nuclear field and is home to “cutting-edge” research at the Argonne National Laboratory. Rowe also discussed the challenges facing the nuclear industry, giving strong predictions for the future.

"We must understand that with today's natural gas prices in the United States, in western Europe, it is probable that new nuclear plants will not be economical for a decade” said Rowe. “And two decades is as good a guess as any."

Rowe also addressed the headline-stealing event of the industry since March 2011, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

“A great deal of public uncertainty was created,” he said. “And a great deal of genuine environmental damage was done.”

Rowe said there is now a situation in which new requirements for nuclear plants are being imposed in the U.S, and that there has been periods in Japan in which all reactors have been shut down. Rowe also cited the phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany as an example of post-Fukushima response.

“The combination of low power prices driven by cheap natural gas, perhaps for a very long time, and the new uncertainties created by Fukushima are very large challenges for all of you in this industry,” he said. “And if you don't stare those challenges in the face, squarely, with all your talent, with all your integrity, you will make very bad mistakes.”

Rowe said an indicator as to how deeply he feels for the nuclear industry was apparent when he closed his career as the CEO of Exelon by acquiring another nuclear company, Constellation. After completing the merger in 2012, Rowe said, Exelon is now responsible for operating 22 nuclear plants in the U.S., the largest fleet in the country.

During the opening plenary, appropriately titled the same as the theme of the 2012 Annual Meeting, "Nuclear Science and Technology: Managing the Global Impact of Economic and Natural Events," Amir Shahkamari, General Chair of the 2012 ANS Annual Meeting and CEO of Exelon Nuclear Partners, said nuclear technology's contribution to human life has been, and will be, crucial. He said building a nuclear power plant is a 100-plus-year marriage, and is glad to see those that are thinking long-term and aggressively building new technology world-wide.

Speaking from a political standpoint, Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) said he believes nuclear power in the best option to provide clean, baseload power.

“For those people who believe that greenhouse gases and global warming is a reality, nuclear power is the best answer,” said Simpson. “But its future is dependent upon the continued safe operations of the current fleet of nuclear reactors while ensuring that new plants are built on-time and on-budget.”

Simpson said Yucca Mountain is still providing controversy within the government. The Senate, he said, has proposed conducting a pilot program on interim storage testing at a willing site.

“I don't have any problem with that. I still support Yucca Mountain,” he said. “The fact is that we need to solve this problem.”

He said, though, the question of "How long is interim storage?" needs to be answered.

“We all know no matter what you do, you are going to need a geological repository,” he said. “And we have not been able to come up with that.”

And government spending will continue to be a challenge, as the U.S. government is looking at $16.7 trillion deficit.

“Fact is, there is going to be austerity on spending over the next several years,” Simpson said.

He added that some government representatives want to go “too far,” and cited a House amendment that would have cut $514 million from the current $785 million allotted for nuclear research.

“That would have effectively ended nuclear research in this country,” he said.

The amendment received 106 votes, and did not pass.

“But, you can be sure that austerity is a reality,” Simpson said. “I am very optimistic that a majority of members still support nuclear energy and the need to develop nuclear research capabilities around this country.”

Kristine Svinicki, commissioner with the NRC and ANS member for the past 25 years, provided the audience with an overview of the NRC and its responsibilities. The independent regulatory body, she said, is responsible for protecting public health and safety, in regards to the use of nuclear materials.

“I think the intense focus on protecting public health and safety has resulted in an NRC which I believe has a very strong performance record,” she said.

Svinicki said a record of success, though, can lead to complacency.

“It is a constant necessity to be self-critical and to ensure we are not distracted from our safety and security objectives,” she said.

Svinicki should know first-hand as she has been going through her somewhat controversial re-nomination process as her term as an NRC commissioner is due to expire June 30. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the re-nomination of Svinicki to the NRC on June 21, a vote that must be approved by the full Senate and one that was met with opposition. Committee Chairwoman Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said she could not support Svinicki's re-nominaiton.

"I do not believe that she has demonstrated the commitment to safety that the America people have a right to expect in this post-Fukushima era,” said Boxer.

The attendees at the ANS meeting seemed not to agree as they gave her a roaring applause before and after her speech. Svinicki was also awarded with an ANS Presidential Citation following the plenary session.

“Commissioner Svinicki has demonstrated leadership and adherence to the highest standards of professional conduct while serving on the Commission,” said ANS President Loewen.

And Svinicki showed no signs of slowing down her work as an NRC commissioner.

“As an NRC Commissioner I do meet routinely with other regulators from around the world,” she said.

She said safety is the focus of those meetings, although each regulatory agency may have its own way of achieving its goals.

One of those regulators, Dr. Hans Wanner, director general of the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate and representing the Westen European Nuclear Regulators' Association (WENRA), spoke about Europe's response to Fukushima and the implementation of stress tests at nuclear plants in the European Union. Wanner said over 150 nuclear reactors in 17 countries have been reviewed as part of the stress tests. Each country sent three experts to serve on the nuclear stress test review board.

“Nuclear safety is not only a country-specific task, it is an international task,” he said. “And Fukushima has taught us this lesson clearly once again.”

WENRA members agreed to a common commitment to continuously improve nuclear safety, Wanner said.

“Nuclear safety is not of a nuclear power plant, is not what is written in the license,” Wanner said. “Nuclear safety is more than that. Nuclear safety is continuous improvement over the years as new evidence comes up.”

Regardless of the country or nationality, the plenary session at the 2012 ANS Annual Meeting made it clear that safety is at the forefront of nuclear industry.

Rowe said his faith in new nuclear is not in technology, but it is in the people within the industry.

“The most talented operating and engineering people in the electricity industry work in the nuclear business,” he said. “There is no better group than this.”

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