Episode 10

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Andrew Sowder

Scientist and Senior Technical Executive for the Electric Power Research Institute

The Advent of the Advanced Nuclear Renaissance

In this episode, Andrew Sowder dives into the global need for carbon-free electricity, his experience engaging with indigenous communities, and EPRI's role in the nuclear industry.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Andrew Sowder (0:10): 

I have learned from my time working with geologic disposal and reactor technology, is it’s important to keep in mind that no matter what technology you use, there will be some amount of something that needs to be disposed of for a very long time.

Narrator (0:28): 

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.

Kari Hulac (01:53):

Hello everyone. I’m Kari Hulac, Communications Manager for Deep Isolation. And today I’m talking to Andrew Sowder, a scientist and senior technical executive for the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research development and demonstrations focused on electricity generation and how it can be safe, reliable, affordable, and environmentally responsible. Welcome, Andrew. Thank you so much for joining us too.

Andrew Sowder (02:21):

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

Kari Hulac (02:25):

So first off why don’t you give us a high level look, your thoughts on what are the concerns for the world right now when it comes to safe, reliable, affordable electricity generation. What’s top of mind for you on what we need to be concerned about?

Andrew Sowder (02:45):

Sure. Well, I think in general globally, electricity is associated with quality of life and all these things that are measured on the human development index from the United Nations. And so certainly granting access to more and more people to safe, affordable, reliable electricity is a good thing. I think the challenge is how do you do that within the constraints of climate change concerns, resource concerns, and other environmental concerns like that. So really it’s about how do we continue with progress and electrifying more of the world while also living within our means and reducing perhaps our footprint that we leave in the environment. So EPRI is about initially electricity, but I think the other key thing is that electricity is not separate from other key infrastructures, like transportation, broader industry, and just broader energy infrastructure. So infrastructures play with one another and also can actually compliment one another to solve these big problems.

Kari Hulac (03:59):

Great. Yeah, it’s something that so many of us just take for granted, you know. So what are your kind of top goals at EPRI coming up for 2021? What are you kind of looking forward to? What do you hope to accomplish this coming year?

Andrew Sowder (04:14):

Well, I think the big one for EPRI writ large, and again, I’m just in one little section of EPRI, EPRI addresses everything from the actual generation of electricity to its delivery to the wires and then to the end-user and how it’s used, and now even how it also interacts with other energy sources and providers and users. So broadly we have rolled out a new low carbon resource initiative this year that’s gaining traction. And so, I’m working with the Gas Technology Institute on their similar organization, obviously for the gas industry, natural gas industry, on how we can actually achieve reductions in carbon emissions while also still meeting the needs of society in an affordable way. So that’s probably the big one. And I would say for nuclear, the area I’m in, it’s really about how, what role does nuclear play in the future in the, in the areas of, you know, mitigating climate change, reducing carbon emissions, but also perhaps even more importantly, just providing that reliable, safe, affordable power and energy that people also need in order to stay alive.

Kari Hulac (05:39):

So let’s go back in time a little bit how you ended up in nuclear yourself. You’re a health physicist. So I was reading that before you started your career at EPRI, you did some interesting scientific environmental work around uranium and nuclear weapons production, including working with the Navajo nation and communities affected by uranium mining. So how did those early experiences shape what you’re doing today?

Andrew Sowder (06:04):

Sure. And so as a graduate student, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on a former nuclear weapons production facility, the Savannah River Site here in South Carolina, where I actually still live now. And so I spent a lot of time working on the impacts and the fate and transport of things like uranium and heavy metals once they’re released to the environment associated with the production activities there. So I got to work there with the ecologists you know, plant biologists, animal wildlife biologists, my work focused on the soil part. So there, I got a real appreciation for the importance of considering, you know, the entire system and how things interplay and the things you need to consider anytime you’re undertaking a new activity. I really did enjoy it and it was really an honor to spend time on the Navajo Nation.

Andrew Sowder (07:02):

So one of the projects that I was able to participate in was educational outreach on the Navajo Nation. And so as part of that, I got to meet folks that were working on this abandoned uranium mine project. And it was real education, an eye-opener, you know, I had been in grad school, I thought I knew a lot of stuff about the history in the U.S. and I had assumed that a lot of these legacy, these are from the Cold War days, legacy mine and milling sites had all been cleaned up or at least addressed. Well, it turns out the mill sites and things had been addressed under one federal program and a lot of those mines were left just abandoned and left unreclaimed.

Andrew Sowder (07:50):

And you can imagine there’s a physical hazard of open shafts, but also, you know, mine tailings with a lot of uranium in them laying around on the surface. So, that really opened my eyes about the importance of, again, considering you got to think about the whole lifecycle when talking about technology from cradle to grave, so to speak. And there was a case where actually there were some real exposures to hazards from radiation and radioactivity simply because of the proximity and people incorporated some of that uranium ore into their homes, into concrete. And so, you know, it’s ironic in many ways we worry about isolation of spent nuclear fuel, used nuclear fuel, and other high-level waste and really managing those to very low doses and dose rates. When, in fact, in other parts of the fuel cycle and other activities that we may not think of, the risks and hazards can be higher, for example, radon, everyone knows radon is a problem.

Kari Hulac (08:58):

Interesting. Interesting. And so, kind of tying this to the present with the issue of, like you mentioned, spent nuclear fuel. I know that EPRI did a lot of research. I think I counted like more than 180 reports on your website with Yucca Mountain, which is designated to be the United States mined repository for nuclear waste, but has an uncertain future. So what are some learnings there? How can this body of technical expertise that you bring to the table and EPRI’s work on this, move the U.S. toward a permanent nuclear waste solution?

Andrew Sowder (09:36):

Sure. So, you know, again, I should just point out, you know EPRI’s role, no matter what we do, is technical. We stay clear of the policy space and that’s for others to decide. So, you know, our bread and butter is doing the technical work that’s credible and defensible. And so, really our role in the Yucca Mountain days, as I would call them, was providing an independent evaluation of the performance, including safety of the repository that ended up being designated at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. So we actually conducted work probably over two decades and actually led some of the development of really the contemporary way of how do you evaluate something like a geologic repository that’s supposed to contain its inventory and perform over, in the U.S. at least, a million years.

Andrew Sowder (10:40):

And so we really helped develop the total system performance assessment, PSPA method. And so in many ways, you know, we were at the forefront of some of that, just even how you think about, how you get your arms around the evaluation process. In that regard, we worked very well, kind of complimentary with the Department of Energy. They had their own innovation program, we had a different purpose. We were really on here to inform the utilities in the U.S. at least, our members, and keep them apprised, but also to provide technical peer review and insights into repository performance because obviously, that is, it was and is such an important issue.

Kari Hulac (11:30):

So you were the point person for the very in-depth, the 190 pages EPRI report that was recently released about how deep horizontal boreholes could work for advanced reactor fuel disposal. Full disclosure, my colleagues did contribute to this report along with many others. And thank you for your work on it. Now that it’s complete, it’s been published. Any insights or takeaways and anything about how it’s been received?

Andrew Sowder (11:59): 

I’ll go back to actually how long ago it was that we did active work on disposal. We actually exited from the Yucca Mountain work as it went into licensing. And so since then, it’s been all over a decade since we had actually done work in geologic disposal. And so now that we’re looking forward and most of the work I do now is in the advanced reactor space. You know, there was a perceived need to come up with a new story for maybe the new generation of reactors. Again, separating this from the existing fleet and existing inventory.

Andrew Sowder (12:39):

But we really thought it was time to actually think about options for the next generation of reactors. And so the spirit of the report is really one of exploring options. And so I think, I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that it’s important to have options. But in order to have an option available when you need it, you actually have had to think about it, pursue it and develop the option. So this report was really, in my mind, just the first step towards thinking about, well, could you actually utilize some of the now developing technology that is just now being demonstrated by companies like Deep Isolation and also by other researchers here in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Andrew Sowder (13:27):

Could it be done? What does that look like in terms of scale? How does it fit in with the operation of a plant? And even things like preliminary costs because costs and schedule are always important. So that’s kind of our role. And we basically, since Deep Isolation really was the only commercial developer out there that we identified. We did appreciate being able to utilize your technology as the example in a way. So we use it as a kind of a proxy for what the technology could do. I think the conclusions of the report are, again, it’s preliminary. It was strictly based on a hypothetical non-existent site, we just chose a region of the country and looked around and said, you know, what would be involved in deciding this?

Andrew Sowder (14:23):

But what we really determined was there were no clear showstoppers technology-wise at least to the deployment of the technology on some reactor sites, again depending on where you’re located. Really the devil is in the details, and this will really depend on, you know, what, where the site is, and as with Yucca Mountain, the real important aspects are more the social and political aspects of will a community let you utilize the technology and will the powers that be you know, likewise agreed to allow the technology to be deployed.

Kari Hulac (15:06):

I’m glad you brought up the community again because I actually was thinking of that when you were talking about the Navajo nation, how eye-opening that was to see how they were affected. And, you know, that’s really important, and I know that’s important to you all as well. You know, if this is going to happen, there has to be great community engagement.

Andrew Sowder (15:28):

Yeah. And in the report itself, for example, you know, we do spend some time exploring actually a unique option that the technology offers in terms of using it in both an interim storage mode, as well as the permanent disposal mode, but part and parcel with that does come the requirement which is pretty broadly recognized for early and continuing engagement with the community and really giving the community the option to change their mind up to a certain point. When is enough, enough? And when does that ability to change their mind end? And what does that all look like? That has to be worked out, you know, politically and with the community, but what’s key is sound science, having the technical basis, and communicating it effectively with the community, listening to the community, and having the credibility that they actually believe you, because if you have no credibility, then there’s nothing you can say to actually get them to buy into plans.

Kari Hulac (16:38):

So let’s talk a little bit more about advanced reactors, as you mentioned, that’s kind of what you’re focused on. So what are the next best steps for continuing the nuclear waste dialogue with the advanced reactor community? This was, you know, that report was a huge big first step, as you said, you hadn’t done anything in a decade, so exciting that there’s this work, body of work now. So what, what do you see happening next? And I know you’re on a, I know you have an advanced reactor team at EPRI, and you can kind of talk a little bit about that, how that fits in.

Andrew Sowder (17:09):

Sure. So really, you know, one thing that came to light as I mentioned, is the report is very generic and conceptual in nature. So one of the important things to know is, well, what is the fuel or the waste that you want to manage, to store, dispose of? And so without a specific technology in mind you know, it’s really difficult to also make a lot of explicit and straightforward conclusions. So I think one of the important things for EPRI and others is to understand more what the technology developers are proposing and it will be important to actually tell this story and understand what comes out of the reactor at the end. Because as we’ve seen with the current fleet you know, it is an important consideration. You know, in relation to the amount of energy that is derived from the technology, but the waste still, because it is so concentrated, it is very hazardous and so needs to be managed appropriately. So I think really understanding the technologies and what different fuel forms because that’s the one thing that is going to change with the new technologies is you have really a full spectrum of fuel types from traditional solid fuels, all the way to liquid fuels. And a liquid fuel, you can imagine a dissolved fuel, will need to be somehow addressed in a way that can be managed and disposed of.

Kari Hulac (18:46):

From what, you know, do you think multiple technologies are likely, so there’ll be multiple paths? Or do you think a few may rise to the top and be most likely to be adopted?

Andrew Sowder (18:58):

Well, I think some will likely continue to just use the fuel once, at least in the near term, and other technologies are really pinning their case on being able to continually recycle fuel or use fuel from another era or another design of reactor. So again, that’s really where the complexity comes in and you have a lot of different use cases. And I do think there will be multiple reactor designs because moving forward there will be probably different missions beyond just straightforward electricity production. And some reactors are better suited for higher temperatures and compatibility with providing heat to industry. I have learned from my time working with geologic disposal and reactor technology, it is important to keep in mind that no matter what technology you use, there will be some amount of something that needs to be disposed of for a very long time.

Andrew Sowder (20:01):

And people debate how long that is, but some of these, you know, last for hundreds of thousands of years, and I’m talking fission products, not just the other things that can be potentially reused, like the uranium, plutonium, those sorts of things. So that’s really why it’s important to have options for disposal because you’re gonna need to dispose of something for a very long time.

Kari Hulac (20:29):

That makes sense. So there’s a, you have, you’re part of a team now, is that kind of a recent development? Tell me a little bit about what that group is within EPRI? 

Andrew Sowder (20:38):

Sure. When I first started at EPRI things were looking very rosy for nuclear. There was a nuclear renaissance on its way, but that’s all in a context. And the context was natural gas was expensive, climate change was a concern, and there was a recognition that reduced carbon emissions would be something needed in the future. And so natural gas did not look so great at the time. And nuclear looked to be really one of the mainstays. Within a year of that, all changed with the arrival of shale oil and gas production.

Andrew Sowder (21:15):

So that shows you how a simple, well, I won’t say simple, but a single technology disruption can change the picture almost overnight, at least in a country like the United States. And so getting to your question, around 2015, you know, well I was given the chance to, with some seed funding within EPRI, to start up a small program or a strategic area looking at, you know, what would it take essentially to convince folks to consider advanced reactors, something beyond what the current technology is? And so in the meantime, we’ve had the small modular reactor. And so that kind of provided a bridge from the large reactor to really the more advanced or very different non light water reactor cooled designs. And so about 2015 was when we started something and fast forward five years or so. Last year we formally incorporated that advanced reactor focus area into our EPRI so-called portfolio. And so it’s significant because it’s really the first time that EPRI has really focused explicitly on this area beyond just, you know, sponsoring one-off projects.

Kari Hulac (22:37):

That seems hopeful because, as you said, there was this chance of a Renaissance. And then it kind of died out for pricing reasons of energy. And now you have this, so does this make you feel hopeful about the future? Like, okay, we’re kind of looking at this closely.

Andrew Sowder (22:55):

Oh, it does. And I would say it feels different than it has before, although again, I’m only at midlife in my career. But you know, certainly, I think there’s a lot of energy. And then what I think is really important, at least in North America, is there’s private investment, significant private investment because in the past a lot of the realm of R&D and necessities fell to the governments. And so, you know, a lot of times technology developed exclusively by the government doesn’t always match up with what the industry needs, at least in the United States. I think it’s been a very good sign that you have so many entrepreneurs with so many ideas, and I call it like multiple shots on goal in hockey terms. And again, what’s different also is that you are offering these at different scale sizes and also capabilities.

Andrew Sowder (23:58):

You know, that’s essentially a given that the current fleet is safe, but you know, anything new has to perform as well, if not better. And so I am hopeful and recent developments, even in just the U.S. have been very positive, such as the U.S. Department of Energy has invested a lot of money in demonstrations, which in my mind are key. The customer needs to see the technology operated and it needs to be de-risked before someone takes a real risk. Why would someone buy and risk a lot on a technology that hasn’t been really proven before when they already have, you know, something that they could buy today? So that’s, I think what has changed is, you know, really this diversity of ideas and also in private sector investment.

Kari Hulac (24:49):

So I know EPRI is not just focused on the U.S. of course. Maybe we could talk a little bit about the international market for advanced nuclear, any countries to watch there, any guesses on who might be first to deploy an advanced reactor elsewhere?

Andrew Sowder (25:05):

Sure. We’re now an international organization and a lot of our funding and membership is international. In fact, in the nuclear sector over half of our funding and membership is outside of the United States. So, which makes it for a very exciting place to work. And it forces us, we do have to keep a view that’s not just U.S. centric. And so looking outside of the United States, you know, we already see countries like China, you know, really expanding their nuclear builds, you know, at a scale that’s reminiscent of the United States actually during the 1970s, when we built out the majority of our fleet. So they’re kind of going through that same rapid growth that we had and France had and other countries. 

Andrew Sowder (25:53):

But looking ahead, you know, in the past, when someone mentioned these advanced reactor concepts you know, generation four reactors, a lot of people would roll their eyes and say you know, I don’t believe that is that really going to happen? But you know, now my favorite phrase is really, it’s not no longer if, it’s when and by whom. And so it’s clear that there’s a lot of action going on in many countries around the world. 

Andrew Sowder (26:24):

If you look to China, you know, they’re about to start up a high temperature gas-cooled reactor, their HTR-PM reactor design, which is similar to ones that companies in the U.S. are looking to commercialize. And again, it’s kind of important to remember most of these concepts aren’t new. In fact, many of them were operated at some scale back in the 1950s and 60s.

Kari Hulac (26:51):

This has been a great discussion, Andrew, I guess I’ll just kind of give you a chance to mention, are there any other projects, upcoming work that you’d like to highlight for our audience today that we haven’t touched on yet?

Andrew Sowder (27:06):

Well, sure. You know, one of the things that I’ve been championing over the past several years is trying to recreate what we did for large light water reactors, but more geared towards the new generation of advanced reactors. And that’s really the development of a common owner operator requirements, a guide, which would help really align the needs of the customer with the developers. Because again, it’s easy to develop things in a silo and lose touch with your customers. And so this is a function that EPRI’s done before. And what’s different now is there’s so many technologies. We are looking to make this a much more high-level open framework, that’s technology and mission inclusive. And so this year we’re really trying to internationalize that more, reach out to partners, and work with others so that, you know, it’s not just focused in the U.S. or one area, but really could end up being a template for helping developers understand what the market needs are and helping the customers understand what they should be asking of the developers. And then the regulators can also use these frameworks because then they can kind of see, well, here’s the things we’ve got to get ready to actually license and regulate. So that’s kinda my big push is this internationalization harmonization, and that would be working with other organizations around the world.

Kari Hulac (28:44):

Well, great. Thank you so much for joining us today. It sounds like a lot of exciting things going on and we’ll keep an eye on what’s next there at EPRI.

Andrew Sowder (28:53):

Well, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it.

Kari Hulac (28:57):

All right. Have a great day. Thank you.

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