William D. Magwood, IV on Nuclear Power’s Present and Future

William D. Magwood, IV, formerly head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and commissioner at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and current director-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), spoke with POWER Editor Gail Reitenbach on October 16 at the World Nuclear Exhibition outside of Paris. The discussion ranged from safety and training issues to new technology races and the politics of nuclear energy. The interview has been edited for style. A shorter version of this interview will appear as the Commentary in the December issue of POWER.


Gail Reitenbach: Congratulations on your new role. What are you most looking forward to about this new position?

William D. Magwood, IV: Thank you. There are so many things to look forward to. I have always been involved in bringing different countries together to accomplish things that are difficult for any one country to do. Doing that, from a U.S. standpoint, was always very entertaining and very challenging. Now, I’m in the middle of it. Now that’s a principle part of my role, to bring countries together to solve problems and to do analysis, and answer questions. Now it’s a full-time job, and I’m looking forward to that very much.

I assume you’re based in Paris, now?

Based in Paris, yes.

When you look at the state of nuclear power globally, what worries you most? Where do you see the strongest signs of progress?

The nuclear story internationally varies greatly from country to country. Some countries, as you know, have decided to step back from using nuclear power. Other countries are moving forward very aggressively. I think that that’s perfect. I think each country has to look at its own specific situation, understand its own energy requirements, and see where nuclear fits. In some countries, the advantages of nuclear power propel them to want to have a large program.

Energy independence is usually the biggest motivator for countries, and as you look around the world, clearly, Asia is the center point of nuclear power in the next decade or so. In Europe, in places like Finland and the UK, there are also programs moving forward. The United States, obviously, has five reactors under construction. We have talked to people from Mexico and South America who are investigating the possibility of new plants. It’s really a global interest. It has not really been affected that much by the accident in Japan. I think that’s a surprise to many. But, it is an issue that requires a great deal of analysis and a great deal of hard work for countries who are ready to embark into this new area, if they haven’t built plants in the past.

You ask what the biggest concern is. The biggest concern I would have is there are so many countries that are embarking into the nuclear arena that don’t have the infrastructure and don’t have much background in those areas. Watching how they build their capabilities and prepare and build new nuclear power plants is something that certainly has my attention and has the attention of many people around the world. Many of us who work in this area are committed to helping those countries as much as we can, to make sure they make good decisions.

Could you elaborate on the countries that are making the most progress today?

Clearly, Asian programs are still the strongest right now. Watching what’s happening in China has been truly remarkable. It’s the biggest program in the world today. It’s quite possible that the Chinese nuclear program will be the biggest in the world in a very short period of time, so that’s been remarkable to watch that development.

I was involved in policy decisions in the U.S. years ago, before the U.S. really engaged the Chinese nuclear program, and their program was at the very early stages. At that time, the Chinese program was very small. Just over that very short period of time, just 15 or so years, and see where they’ve come—it’s really something to see. But it’s not just China; there’s also India and Korea and Vietnam, and other countries are very active in the nuclear area, and I think that shows that Asia is the center point right now.

As I said, other parts of the world are also continuing to develop new nuclear projects in Europe, in the Middle East, in South America, so it’s a global phenomena, but clearly Asia is leading the world.

I just came out of the session on training and safety. Is the global fleet safer today than it was a decade ago, or less safe, and why?

Well, you mentioned training. That’s one of my favorite subjects to talk about. I think that making sure that we have a new generation of scientists and engineers who can take up the operation of existing plants and deal with development of new technologies and solve old problems, like nuclear waste—I think that’s essential to the future.

Whatever direction nuclear programs take in different countries, having a strong infrastructure of well-trained people to make good decisions about what to do with nuclear waste, how they decommission facilities, or how to build new facilities, I think it’s extraordinarily important. I think every country needs to make a substantial investment to make sure that young people have the background to take on those roles as they mature and begin their careers.

One of the things that comes into mind, when it comes to thinking about the safety of nuclear plants, is the fact that in many countries, the fleet of nuclear plants will be the oldest fleets they’ve ever operated. In places like France and the U.S., for example, the average age of plants that are in operation today is going to be as high as they’ve ever been.

At the same time, because of the generational shift that we’re all seeing, it’s very likely that the people running those plants in a few years will be the youngest team we’ve ever had running nuclear power plants. It’s just even more important that we have these people well trained because they are going to be taking over positions of responsibility very quickly.

To answer your basic question, though, I think that plants are safer today than they’ve ever been. I think that we’ve learned so many lessons over the years from the operation of plants—from normal operation and off-normal operation. We learned from the Fukushima disaster, and around the world, regulators and operators have incorporated these lessons learned very effectively. I think that we’ve created the strongest safety infrastructure we’ve ever had, the strongest levels of safety we’ve seen in nuclear in its history, so I think there’s no question that nuclear plants are safer today than they’ve ever been before.

You jogged my memory about something the speaker from Finland said yesterday about training and how they are essentially luring new students into nuclear programs with Generation III and Gen III+ reactors and then putting them to work on Gen II reactors.What you’re talking about is kind of the same thing where the newest people in the industry are going to be working on the oldest plants. Do you see that as a potential difficulty?

I’ll give you my experience with it, and my experience, of course, is mostly in the United States, but I can tell you that young people who are technically oriented, who want to have great technical challenges that they can take on and overcome in their careers, they love working at nuclear power plants. They really do. The vintage of the plant doesn’t seem to matter. I think that the basics, the complexity of the technology, the discipline of the environment, the skills required to operate effectively in a nuclear environment, they love it.

When I visit nuclear power plants, I make a habit of sitting down with the younger people on plants’ staffs. When I sit down with people in their 20s mostly, and talk about why they are doing this type of work, they tell me that the work you do at a nuclear power plant is just different than any other environment.

I’ve not seen the phenomena where people don’t want to work at older plants. In fact, older plants have characteristics that give the younger people a charge that they can’t get at a newer plant because they get to do more and they get to learn more. My experience is actually quite the opposite. I don’t see the difference at all.

Obviously, the young people are excited by the prospect of new technologies, but when you’re coming into the nuclear business, it’s all new technology. It’s all brand new. It’s all high-tech. Even if the plant is 40 years old, you learn so much from those plants that the young people who are technically aggressive just take to it very quickly.

Is the U.S. gaining or losing ground in terms of nuclear technology development capacity because of where we sit relative to the rest of the world right now?

Today, I would say that the U.S. technology, without sounding chauvinistic I hope, is still the best in the world. I think that the U.S. technologies that are available from U.S.-based vendors are the most advanced, current technologies. I think that at the same time, others are catching up with them. The features that are available in some of the U.S. designs that have not been available from other suppliers are showing up in one way or another in some of the newer designs from other parts of the world.

I think where the U.S. is not keeping up is when you’re looking over the horizon. On our panel yesterday, we heard from our colleagues in Russia and France talking about their Gen IV reactor programs. Those programs are much more aggressive than what’s happening in the U.S. right now. In the U.S., there is a very vibrant program, at the Department of Energy, looking at a variety of different science and technology issues, but we don’t have in the United States a very broad-based, integrated technology program aimed at developing any particular technology at this point. And that’s something that I hope gets resolved in the near future.

You mentioned the U.S. doesn’t have a broad-based technology program, and you mentioned yesterday too, that Russia and France are really the only two large developed countries that do. How would you see that sort of program coming to be in the U.S.? What would it look like?

The U.S. used to have programs like that, not that long ago, and so I think there are still people in the Department of Energy and the national laboratories that know exactly what those programs look like and know what they would like to do. It’s just a matter of making a decision to go forward with those kinds of technologies.

I think there are significant questions about exactly what technologies should you work on, and how should it be funded, and what the participation of industry ought to be. Those are all important questions. I just hope that over the course of the next few years that colleagues in the U.S. begin to deal with it, because I think that if they do not, they will have to wait and see what the French and the Russians do with it, and then use the technologies from those countries, because they won’t be available domestically.

You were involved with the Gen IV reactor development program. What’s the future of that program given the slowdown, at least in the U.S. nuclear sector?

Well, the Gen IV initiative is something we came up with more than 10 years ago now. Time flies. Its purpose was to bring countries together to work on difficult technology issues in common, instead of having each country work on those issues all by themselves. That way, you save time, you save resources, and you build an international understanding about these important new technologies.

To a large degree, Gen IV has been successful in that respect. Since it was created, the Gen IV International Forum has continued to develop relationships between countries, and work has gone on, analyzing different systems and has been quite successful in continuing over the last decade. This is particularly true for fast reactor systems and high-temperature gas reactor systems. Those are two areas where I think the most focus has been. Gen IV has been very successful in that respect.

I think the beauty of Gen IV—and I think this was our intent from the very beginning—it’s multilateral. Because it is now something that the NEA administers as the technical secretariat, it has a very firm basis as a multilateral program. If one country’s program slows down, it doesn’t affect the overall agenda.

There are other countries that are able to pick up the ball and move forward, and that’s what’s happening. As programs have waxed and waned in various countries, the overall program has moved forward. Gen IV was never intended to be the program that would lead to the construction of new demonstration facilities or new reactors, so that would be a next step.

I think that’s a misunderstanding, generally, in the industry. When people hear about the Gen IV program, they are thinking about an actual Generation IV reactor, like a new model.

It was always our belief that Gen IV was the program to create the enabling technologies, and it’s been moving in that direction, but to take the next step to build a facility, that’s more complex, not just technically, but politically, legally, intellectual property rights. . . . It gets very complicated very quickly. It’s always been our understanding that Gen IV would be the forum for developing technologies together, but that when the time came to build a reactor of some sort, if countries decide to do that, some subset of countries would go off and form a new cooperative to actually build something. That was always the intent.

From what you see, what country is likely to put what you might consider Gen IV reactor into operation first?

It depends on what you mean by Gen IV reactor. I mean, China has, right now, both a fast reactor program and a high-temperature gas reactor program. So, you could say China might be the first. Russia is building a demonstration reactor using sodium-cooled fast reactors. You could say Russia could be one of the first. France has also made a decision to build a fast reactor. So, all these countries are really doing things that are moving in that direction. India is also building a fast reactor. We’ll see which one finishes its work first.

I think that when you look at what the Gen IV International Forum is trying to accomplish, there was an interest in moving the technology beyond what we can do right now, today, and whether these countries are going to really push the ball that far forward, I don’t know yet. I think the French certainly have the intent to move the advanced fast reactor technology beyond where it is as of today, but I’m not as familiar with the other programs. I think the Russians are, as well, but the others I’m not sure about. So we’ll have to see what they ultimately do.

My other horse race question involves small, modular reactors. Who do you see taking the lead there, since there are several countries interested in them?

There are many countries interested. We’ll have to see which ones are most successful. There are several vendors in the United States that are developing these technologies, and I’ve visited their facilities. They are doing a lot of work and preparing to put forward applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In Russia and France and Korea and other countries, there’s great interest in this type of technology, and we’ll see how it all shakes out.

You’re not going to give me your pick…

I don’t think it’s possible to answer that question right now. I think it’s too early. I think there’s still so much work to be done, and until you see a reactor demonstration actually in operation, it’s hard to know whether any of these things will ever happen.

Then, even when you get past all those technology issues, which I think are all manageable, you have to deal with the regulatory issues, which I also think are manageable. Then you have to move on to deal with the infrastructure issues, the financial issues, the operational issues. Those are all things that I think people are still giving a lot of thought to.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan was billed as being supportive of nuclear power. How do you see that playing out, either already, or assuming that it becomes final, in the near term?

I think certainly any initiative that deals with carbon emissions inherently is a boost to nuclear power. It’s just because nuclear power is the only large-scale energy source that produces electricity without increasing carbon emissions, so that by its nature any limitations on carbon emissions is a help to anyone who’s trying to build nuclear power plants. The specifics of the EPA rule—it’s a very complicated rule. It’s still being sorted out.

I think it’s too early to tell exactly what the impact will be, but I think there’s a real good prospect that it will be beneficial to the nuclear producers in the United States. A lot depends on exactly how the targets are set, and how compliance is understood, and whether issues such as power uprates and license renewals are incorporated into the regulation. Those questions, I think, still need to be answered. I’m sure they’re sorting that out right now, so I’ll be very interested to see what the final product is.

When I came here this morning, at the train station, there were protesters holding signs reading “Nuclear Energy Is Immoral.” Just as a large-scale industry question, how does the nuclear industry play a role in fostering general public education without resorting to PR lobbying? What’s the most effective, but non-lobbying way of doing that?

Well, I’ll give you my perspective. When I was with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I made a very committed effort to sit down with groups that had very negative views about nuclear power. I’ve sat down with people and had lunch with people who think nuclear power is inherently immoral and there’s no way of fixing it. In their view, it’s just simply something that is incompatible with human existence. They’ve talked in those terms.

We talked about it, and what I’ve always tried to do is to impress upon people with those viewpoints that people who work in the industry, people who work as regulators, they are not bad people. They are not stupid people. They just don’t happen to agree with that point of view. If people of goodwill sit down and talk, they may never ultimately agree on whether to operate nuclear power plants or not, but what I think they can do is they can agree on what the ultimate objectives ought to be for all of us. We all want to have clean water. We all want to have energy for our future generations. We want to make sure the future generations are safe. There is common ground there in that conversation.

I think the best way for industry regulators, government, to go forward, is to have dialog, is to sit and talk, and recognize you’re not going to change everyone’s mind. You’re not going to convince everyone that nuclear power is a wonderful thing.

You can have a dialog, you can talk to people and have some mutual understanding on a human level, so that people understand that the people who are working in industries like nuclear are not bad people, are not out to harm anyone, are not just out to make a euro, but are really doing what they think is the right thing. I think once you have those types of dialogs, the conversation can shift a little bit and talk about, okay, where can we agree, and where can we make progress together? I think that’s the most productive thing you can do.

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor (@GailReit, @POWERmagazine).

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