Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The ANS Conference:

Lots to Think About

I'm a little late reporting on the American Nuclear Society conference, which took place June 13-17 in San Diego, but I have been trying to synthesize in my mind some of my many observations during the course of the meeting, and I only now feel I can add something to the reports that have already been written.

In the first place, the meeting appeared to be very successful. Strikingly, although the economy is still in the doldrums, the meeting attendance was up--very much so for a summer meeting, which usually draws a smaller crowd than the winter meetings. More than 1400 people attended. Although I could not get statistics, I was also struck by the number of non-US attendees. Again, there are usually more foreign attendees at the fall meeting, particularly every other year when the fall meeting is in Washington, DC.

There are several possible reasons for this, one of which may be the renewed interest in nuclear power. Companies that haven't sent people in the recent past may be re-engaging. Another factor might have been the fact that additional people were drawn to the meeting by the three "embedded topicals" held simultaneously with the meeting. The three were: the International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants (ICAPP); Second International Meeting on the Safety and Technology of Nuclear Hydrogen Production, Control and Management (ST-NH2); and Nuclear Fuels and Structural Materials for the Next Generation Nuclear Reactors. The international nature of these meetings may also have contributed to the high number of non-US attendees.

The number of simultaneous conferences, of course, made for many competing sessions, and the only downside was that it was sometimes difficult for me to hear everything I wanted to hear. I necessarily had to be selective, and although I heard from others about sessions I missed, my report reflects what I was able to see and hear firsthand.

The opening plenary was a good kickoff for the conference, with talks by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, Dick Stratford from the Department of State, Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marv Fertel, Hitachi-GE President Masaharu Hanyuu, and Ross Ridenoure of Southern Cal Edison.

I was particularly interested that both Marv and Ross offered very thoughtful cautions about the potential entry of so many new nations to nuclear power. While the idea of more nations having nuclear power seems attractive in some respects, Marv cautioned that there is a need to assure that new entrants have the competence to operate nuclear power safely, and Ross wondered about the ability of the grids in some smaller countries to support nuclear power. Small reactors would seem to be a large part of the answer to that, but turning again to Marv's comments, he indicated that he saw a definite role for such reactors in the future, but he noted that all reactors look good on paper, and hoped that the small reactor community would learn from the mistakes of the large reactors. Another interesting observation offered by Marv is that no technologies are completely proliferation resistant. We need both good technologies and institutional controls.

There was much more to the session, of course, including a lively Q&A exchange on the new NRC-commissioned study by the National Academy of Sciences on the effects of radiation around nuclear power facilities, and a very comprehensive summary by Dick Stratford of the status of the various nuclear agreements between the US and other countries, and the reasons behind the approaches taken, the reasons some agreements have moved or stalled, etc. It was a fascinating look into international diplomacy.

I would be remiss if I did not conclude my discussion of the opening plenary by congratulating Dick Stratford on receiving the Smyth award at this meeting. (The Smyth Award is the highest recognition given jointly by ANS and NEI. Its recipient must have international stature in a broad area of the nuclear energy field and must have made significant contributions toward the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.) Marv Fertel presented the award to Dick, and in his acceptance of the award, Dick noted that his former boss and mentor, Dick Kennedy, had received the same award in 1998, but in Dick Kennedy's case, the award was made posthumously. Dick Stratford opined that he was very glad that his award wasn't posthumous!

In other sessions, one thing that was notable to me were that a number of presentations were made by people looking at the role of nuclear energy in a broader context. These included looks at the implications of very large-scale energy storage to allow nuclear power to meet peak loads by Professor Charlie Forsberg of MIT and two of his students (Isaiah Oloyede and You Ho Lee), and an interesting proposal by Cal Abel, a student at Georgia Tech, to replace coal-fired plants with nuclear plants, but to maintain the coal--and rail--industries by converting coal to natural gas to replace imported petroleum for transportation needs.

In addition, there were many talks that covered advanced reactor technologies, both large and small, and both water-moderated and other. In addition to talks from the developers of some of these technologies, there were some more general discussions of regulatory issues and the like. Still other talks that I attended addressed issues of financing or issues associated with the national strategies of particular nations, including potential new entrants such as Jordan. Rather than trying to offer a complete synopsis of sessions I attended (which would only be a subset of the meeting anyway), I hope to bring in further comments and insights as appropriate when I address particular subjects in the future.

My own small role in the meeting was to organize and chair a plenary session in the embedded topical on nuclear hydrogen covering some of the nuclear hydrogen programs around the world. In opening the session, I had to observe that, when we organized a similar session at the meeting in Boston 3 years ago, I had six countries and IAEA represented. At this meeting, I had only 3 countries and IAEA in the program (and due to a last minute health problem, the speaker from China could not attend). The 3 countries who did not participate this time were South Africa, France and Russia. The three countries who were on the program were all in Asia (Japan, Korea and China), and the two who were present both reported slowdowns of their activities.

Thus, as always, different activities proceed at different rates. The good news is that in most cases, the slowdowns appear to be temporary. In some cases, they may be related to belt-tightening by governments, and in other cases, they seem to be a pause to take stock and possibly redirect focus. Whether the slowdowns will stretch out, I cannot guess at this point, but given the current interest in nuclear power on other fronts, nuclear hydrogen efforts could well be reinvigorated in the months ahead.


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