Saturday, November 21, 2009

ANS Conference:

New Energy for Nuclear Energy

I've now had a day or two to reflect on the recent American Nuclear Society Winter meeting held in Washington DC last week. If the meeting was any indication, there is certainly new energy in the air for nuclear power. The conference, as those who have ever attended an ANS conference will know, sometimes seems like a three-ring circus, with multiple parallel sessions, industry exhibits, a raft of committee meetings for those involved in governance, and many friends and acquaintances to catch up with. No one person can capture all that goes on in the conference, and indeed, after every meeting, I eagerly await the issue of Nuclear News a couple of months later that summarizes some of the sessions I was unable to attend.

So rather than report the nitty-gritty from those sessions I chose to attend, I'll restrict myself to some general observations that I think suggest the changes I see happening:

• First, and perhaps most obviously, the attendance at the meeting was up. The final number of registrants was just over 1600, almost double the attendance at the beginning of this decade, if my memory serves me right.

• Not incidentally, the number of exhibitors has increased substantially. I spoke to the exhibit coordinator, and he said the available space was virtually sold out. I also asked some of the exhibitors how the show was going for them, and everyone I spoke to seemed pleased.

• The Young Generation-Nuclear group has continued to gain in numbers and level of activity. A major initiative at this meeting was a day of visits to Capitol Hill on the last day of the meeting. I attended the kickoff for this event, and was pleased to see the turnout and the enthusiasm. One of my initiatives when I was ANS president had been to try to encourage more of this kind of grassroots activity among the membership, and I am glad to see that more members now see the value of this kind of activity.

• Perhaps the most interesting development came at the very beginning of the meeting. I was surprised to see that the final program showed 1) such a long list of speakers, and 2) so many prominent speakers. No fewer than 10 speakers were listed. Three of them were very high level government officials: NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, DOE Secretary Steven Chu (via video), and DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, Warren F. "Pete" Miller. Three were current Members of Congress: Senators Jeff Bingaman and Lamar Alexander, and Representative James E. Clyburn. One was a former Member of Congress, Senator Pete V. Domenici. There were also three non-government speakers: Michael "Mike" J. Wallace (Vice Chairman and COO, Constellation Energy), and the General Co-Chairs of the conference, Carl Rau (President, Bechtel Nuclear Power) and Mark H. Ayers (President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO).

As an old Washington hand, I just knew that among all these high-level people, there would be some no-shows. In Washington, when you invite speakers of that ilk, you must always be prepared for the unexpected crisis that will pull your speaker away. I assumed that was why the organizers had so many "extra" names.

How wrong I was. Not only did every one of these speakers show up, one additional Senator showed up! Senator Jim Webb joined Senator Lamar Alexander in announcing that they were introducing bipartisan legislation on that day, "The Clean Energy Act of 2009," to invest in nuclear energy development. I do not know how if such major legislation has been rolled out at an ANS conference before, but I know that it hasn't happened often.

My second concern had been that, if all the speakers showed up, we might be there through lunch, but once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Every one of the 11 speakers kept to the time, and we finished the opening plenary on schedule. Kudos to all the speakers and organizers for that almost unprecedented performance!

The meeting, of course, covered much, much more, but suffice it to say that, from the opening plenary session, to the exhibit hall, to the buzz in the hallways of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, the mood of the ANS conference has changed. As someone said in one session, "A few years ago, we were talking about decommissioning. Now the talk is focusing on new nuclear power plants."


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