CEO of NAC International
NAC’s Role in Nuclear Waste Disposal
In this episode, Kent Cole reflects on his career in nuclear, how NAC came to be a leader in nuclear waste storage, and how vital nuclear waste disposal is to the industry's success.
Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.
Kent Cole (0:10):
Safety is always top of mind in the nuclear industry, and we work really hard to embed essential traits like compliance and a questioning attitude into NAC’s culture.
Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.
We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at deepisolation.com/podcasts.
Elizabeth Muller (01:48):
Well, hello, Kent. It’s really great to have you here today. My name is Elizabeth Muller. I’m the CEO of Deep Isolation and Kent Cole is the CEO and President of NAC International. I should also add that Kent and NAC were the lead investor in Deep Isolation’s Series A last year in 2020. So we’re really happy to have you here today Kent.
Kent Cole (02:12):
Thanks, Liz. It’s really great to be with you today.
Elizabeth Muller (02:16):
And maybe you could just start by giving us a little bit information on your background. How did you get interested in nuclear and how did you end up as CEO of NAC International?
Kent Cole (02:26):
Well first I studied nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University, and I actually began working on co-op assignments at the South Texas Project in the spring of my sophomore year. And that experience and advice from some engineers that I worked with there led me to change my major to get into mechanical engineering, but after graduating from A&M the nuclear industry came calling and I joined General Electric’s nuclear energy business. And I worked there for 16 years in a variety of engineering, project management and business management assignments. And the key to me in each of the assignments was to dive in and learn as much as I could. Try to exceed the expectations of my managers and my coworkers, and then build on those experiences as I moved to my next assignment. Joining NAC in 2003 presented me with some new learnings. First, it was focused on the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle. I got to dive into storage, transportation, and disposal, parts of the business that I was not involved in at General Electric. And it also put me in a small company environment, which was also refreshing and challenging as well. And I eventually became CEO in 2006.
Elizabeth Muller (03:58):
Thank you for that Kent. NAC is really known as a leader in nuclear waste storage and transportation and consulting services. What are the biggest issues that you think are top of mind for the nuclear industry and for NAC international today?
Kent Cole (04:17):
Safety is always top of mind in the nuclear industry, and we work really hard to embed essential traits like compliance and a questioning attitude into NACs culture. I think another is really focusing on integrating the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Right now in many countries, including the US, there’s not a comprehensive plan or program to integrate the nearer-term needs for safe, secure spent fuel storage with the longer-term needs for safe, secure disposal. There are clear opportunities for a more efficient system solution. However, in the US the DOE is responsible for disposal but is hamstrung by politics. Nuclear power plant owners are responsible for near and interim-term storage and are doing so safely, but without definition of the disposal system and package requirements. So they are optimizing for the near-term and immediate-term needs. There’s a real opportunity here.
Elizabeth Muller (05:37):
So what do you think is needed? What would be helpful with that? What could help with nuclear waste disposal issues?
Kent Cole (05:48):
Yeah, well, I think disposal is absolutely vital to the industry and our obligation to the next generation is to be good stewards of the environment and to be responsible for the safe disposal of the waste that we generate. If that’s your perspective, and it should be, then waste disposal solutions are essential to new nuclear power initiatives, including new small modular reactors. Sure. There are some technical challenges for disposal, but the solutions are there. The key is to flip the political imperative from avoidance or kicking the can down the road to addressing the issues with a determined commitment. Some have advocated for moving the responsibility outside of the federal government to private industry or a fed corp, and these structural fixes need action.
Elizabeth Muller (06:52):
Hmm. That’s a powerful statement you just made Kent about what’s needed for nuclear waste disposal. I’d love to just go into the safety issue a little bit more. You touched on the safety culture and how important that is for the work you do. How do you develop that safety culture and how do you convey it to the public who is concerned about safety?
Kent Cole (07:20):
First, I think the public should understand that the nuclear industry is highly regulated by a very rigorous and independent regulator. They’re just plain tough. Second, the regulations are demanding. They require proving that our designs will work under very extreme and even hypothetical accident conditions. Third, all of our designs and all of their supporting evaluations and analysis are subject to detailed review by the regulator. And fourth, the regulators frequently inspect our work at our premises and our adherence to the regulations and to our own operating procedures. Finally, with a focus at NAC, we train our team on the regulations and procedures and we promote and enforce rigorous compliance. We foster a questioning attitude and we promote everyone’s right to raise concerns.
Elizabeth Muller (08:26):
For our audience members. NAC is working with us, with Deep Isolation on the supply of canisters for our disposal solutions. Can you tell our audience a bit about why that is so important?
Kent Cole (08:40):
The disposal canisters are really the most central element of the disposal solution. They contain the waste and isolate it from the environment. They will be loaded above ground, either in a hot cell or a pool, and they may need to be stored and, or transported prior to disposal. So they’re vital, they’re touched in all elements of the operation. We have the necessary processes, background technology, technical resources, and innovative spirit to help the isolation advance its deep wormhole disposal solutions.
Elizabeth Muller (09:23):
Yeah, thank you. That innovative spirit, I think, is so important when we’re trying to do something that nobody has ever successfully done before. What do you see as the biggest challenge regarding the canister design and manufacturing development?
Kent Cole (09:39):
The biggest learnings for us actually have been getting up to speed on the remarkable advancements in directional drilling technology that now make Deep Isolation’s innovative solution a reality. The process we follow to design a canister for disposal is pretty similar to the one we use to design a canister for storage and transportation. Once we define the requirements of what the canister has to do and how it has to perform, our skill design and engineering teams will use their experience and expertise to create a design that meets those requirements. What is new in this case is the technology that will be used to deliver the canister to its destination. Instead of a crane or a heavy haul vehicle traveling a hundred yards, we now have an advanced tooling system placing the canister up to one mile underground. It’s been a really interesting experience for our team learning about new equipment that we will interface with.
Elizabeth Muller (10:51):
And what do you think is the future of nuclear waste disposal?
Kent Cole (10:54):
It looks to me a little bit like this, and this is kind of more of a vision of how I want to see it, but I think I’m looking for clear and applicable regulatory requirements and frameworks. You know, well Liz, is that we’re dealing with a lot of legacy requirements that in some cases don’t make a lot of sense, for instance, a a drill hole or a borehole solution. I’m looking for a single entity in each country that has the responsibility and is driving an efficient and integrated management system. That’s well-funded and free of political meddling. I’m looking for local communities that support the facilities and consented in hosting them that trust and communicate frequently with the operators or sponsors. And most of all, I’m looking forward to actually moving forward and accomplishing the mission of safe and secure disposal. Deep isolation is I believe a very, very significant part of that future.
Elizabeth Muller (12:09):
So do you think the nuclear industry is where it should be when it comes to innovating new solutions for disposing of nuclear waste? And where would you like to see the industry 5, 10, 20 years from now?
Kent Cole (12:25):
Innovation is essential. In business, if you don’t innovate, you will lose your customers and lose your business. There are unique challenges with managing innovation, of course, particularly in the nuclear industry. First, decision-makers, in general, are really conservative. Many of them view change as risk. And so innovations must be very well demonstrated and proven. Second, it takes a significant amount of time and expense to get innovations reviewed and approved by skeptical regulators. So there can be a significant lag in time from the the concept of the innovation to implementation. As noted earlier, there needs to be integration between nearer term storage and longer term disposal solutions. To get started, one needs to begin with the end in mind and specify and design a robust disposal package that can be integrated efficiently into nearer-term storage and transportation solutions. To do this, modern regulations for disposal that are inclusive of a broad range of solutions is a near-term imperative. We recognize the benefits of disposal at such depth that assure isolation of the waste over the very significant time horizons when they can be a threat and the associated beneficial reduction in performance requirements that this enables for engineered safety features. We also love that the drilling and in placement techniques are well-proven and have been successfully practiced daily around the world.
Elizabeth Muller (14:25):
I will just say thank you so much for participating in this podcast. And where can listeners go for more information?
Kent Cole (14:32):
We can always go to our website NACINTL.com.
Elizabeth Muller (14:40):
All right, well, thank you so much. It was a pleasure having you.
Kent Cole (14:43):
Thank you Liz.
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