The nuclear industry has played a crucial, often unsung role in helping the US meet the challenges of COVID-19. Professionals from all corners of the industry have stepped up to keep the lights on, sterilize testing kits, research new treatments and pitch in however they can to help flatten the curve. Here, American Nuclear Society CEO Craig Piercy answers questions and shares insights into what’s next for the industry.
How is the nuclear industry helping the world respond to the pandemic?
Quietly and with little drama, our industry continues to provide roughly a fifth of our nation’s electricity and over half of our carbon-free electricity. If you think about this crisis and what we’ve been through, you know, electricity is really key — it’s food and it’s shelter and it’s a very basic need that we all have. We can’t do business without it. And our men and women have really stepped up — they’re unsung heroes, and, they’ve done a great job of keeping the lights on.
We went through a very successful spring outage season where, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, 20 or so of our nuclear plants shut down to refuel and take care of other maintenance. It was choreographed like a Formula One pit stop. I mean, really, it’s so elegant the way that they do this. There was social distancing during the refueling outages and repairs, not a lot of COVID-19 cases and no disruptions to operations — it’s kind of a success story of the times.
And we need to recognize the American Nuclear Society is about more than just energy. I think every swab that’s used in a COVID test is sterilized using radiation or nearly all of them are. So, the non-energy uses of nuclear technology are also contributing to the effort to flatten the curve.
We’ve seen some really encouraging results from some clinical studies where they’ve been using low doses of radiation to essentially attenuate the immune reaction in people’s lungs, since it’s that cytokine storm of a runaway immune response that really does damage to the tissue. So that actually has been another success that really isn’t widely appreciated.
Have the pandemic and other recent events affected the development of new technologies?
I’d say it’s too early to say, but my hope is that it’s changing our perspective on what’s important as we look at the future and our future energy system. The value and the attributes of nuclear fit well within that new conception of what we want. I think resiliency and cleaner air are going to be much more important coming out of this. A lot of people around the world who live in cities that were highly polluted because of fossil fuels witnessed cleaner skies during the lockdowns.There were some cities in India where people saw the Himalayas from their town for the first time, because the air was clean for once from the lowered consumption levels of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
Hopefully, that’s given people an appreciation of what could be, and nuclear is really central to that because it allows us to have the carbon-free energy we need and the life that we want — a prosperous life — which in this age means that we need to be able to plug everything in that we use and, at the same time, have the benefits of clean air. Clearly the economics of utilities, both in the U.S. and internationally and have been challenged by the pandemic.
There’s a much greater focus now on resilience to natural disasters. And so nuclear fits very, very well there. Nuclear facilities by and large are heavily fortified and built to withstand the extremes of weather and other natural phenomena. You always want some diversity in your power supply mix, and I think there’s a recognition that nuclear has its place. I think that nuclear does actually fit in really well with wind and solar as a baseload source of clean energy, that allows you to really deeply decarbonize your electricity system. And, so, I think that new technologies allow plants to be put in places where you wouldn’t be able to put them before.
I think you’re also seeing a lot of interest in high-temperature gas reactors, where the product isn’t necessarily only electricity but industrial heat applications for chemical processes, making plastics and, even, cement production, which is a very energy-intensive process.
How has ANS helped the industry adapt and prepare to move forward?
We are a scientific and professional society, so we cater to our roughly 10,000 members and really all the members of the nuclear technical communities and professional community. We’re really pleased with our annual meeting that was held back in June. We had over 2,300 registered for that meeting and had just record-breaking participation.
One of the other things that we’ve been very focused on in the last couple of years is developing a curriculum. We worked with the U.S. Department of Energy and Discovery Education to put together an online curriculum, called Navigating Nuclear: Energizing Our WorldTM, for nuclear science and technology education that is available to every teacher in the country. We had a lot of our technical experts collaborate on it. Eric Loewen, one of our former presidents was really instrumental in making sure that we were teaching the right things the right way and that it is fact-based and unbiased. And it’s especially useful now as we’re entering into the fall with a need for virtual learning during the pandemic. We’re in middle schools and high schools with Navigating Nuclear materials, and we’re working on our elementary curriculum right now. There are a lot of Navigating Nuclear resources available to teachers who want to teach this kind of science and technology in their classes.
We continue to work on standards, honors, awards, scholarships and all the other things that we do to help promote a vibrant nuclear workforce and for the adoption and application of nuclear technologies to solve societal problems.
We’re pleased with the feedback that we’ve gotten so far and we’re committed to providing services to our members in these strange times in ways that they can access them and that make sense for their lives. It’s been a big challenge, but I tell you, our team has really stepped up to the plate.