Note to readers: This is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Kathryn Huff, Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, which was released by the agency on 06/08/22.
Dr. Kathryn Huff (right) was confirmed by the Senate and takes over a $1.7 billion R&D portfolio for the Office of Nuclear Energy (NE). Prior to her confirmation, she served as a senior advisor to Secretary Jennifer Granholm and was NE’s principal deputy assistant secretary.
Dr. Huff steps into the role at a crucial moment for nuclear energy as the industry looks to maintain its existing fleet, deploy advanced reactors, and address key issues with its infrastructure and supply chain.
She recently shared her priorities for the office, thoughts on the challenges ahead, and her perspective on future role of nuclear energy in the nation’s clean energy transition.
Q: DOE is requesting $1.7 billion in FY23 for the Office of Nuclear Energy. What are your top priorities in managing the office’s R&D portfolio?
A: We need to maintain the existing nuclear fleet and enable light-water reactors to sustain our carbon-free transition. We also need to build out advanced reactors. I think we have a lot of programs that target that, both from the R&D side but also in demonstration and deployment, particularly through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Of course, none of it will be sustainable unless we put sufficient attention towards our spent nuclear fuel challenges and ensure that the government is making progress on its commitments to manage it responsibly.
Q: During your time as the principal deputy assistant secretary for NE, you spearheaded the restart of the consent-based siting process for federal interim storage facilities. Why is this an important step forward?
A: The federal government is responsible for managing spent nuclear fuel and the industry has paid a mil per kilowatt-hour for a very long time to support that endeavor and I’m a big fan of living up to your commitments. By making progress toward consent-based siting for an interim storage facility, we can take on the responsibility of removing that spent nuclear fuel from the sites at which it’s been abandoned. But broadly, I think this is a start that has a lot of roots in processes that have succeeded elsewhere. I think by leveraging a consent-based strategy for siting these facilities, we have a real chance of succeeding this time and we can rely on the things that we’ve learned before, as well as what’s been learned internationally about making these sites work.
Q: Prior to your confirmation, you were advising the secretary during Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. How has this conflict impacted civil nuclear programs both at home and abroad?
A: The images coming out of Ukraine over the course of the last few months have been deeply impactful and distressing. As a democratic nation, we should be concerned for the safety and security of all democratic nations…One of the key components of this is energy security. Nuclear power provides a clean option that also has some energy security associated with it. By being a highly dense energy source that’s refueled very seldom, we have an opportunity to bring up that supply chain in such a way that it’s robust, it doesn’t require constant attention, shipments, pipelines etc… We recognize now that we have, over the last many years and decades, allowed other competitor nations to play a role in the supply chains for our fuels, including nuclear fuel, and this is an opportunity for the United States to bolster the security of those supply chains for us, as well as our democratic allies.
Q: U.S. sanctions on Russia could impact the nation’s ability to acquire enough enriched uranium for the current fleet and new advanced reactor demonstration projects. What is DOE doing to ensure they can help meet this fuel demand?
A: The secretary has stood up a really important endeavor—a uranium strategy tiger team that the Office of Nuclear Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration are working together on. That tiger team is focused on enabling a strategy that can give a comprehensive look at where our fuel cycle supply chain stands and how the DOE can bolster it. Our goal here is to ensure that, in the very near term, we have a plan. If Congress decides to appropriate funding and authorities to do so, we have a plan to help encourage our existing commercial nuclear fuel cycle suppliers to stand up new capacity and enable our fuel supply chain.
Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge for nuclear energy right now?
A: In the United States, we have lost a lot of capability to build big complex engineering projects on time and on budget. I do think that this is a moment for us to seize an opportunity and demonstrate that we still can do this. The investors and financial interests that are ready to put dollars on the table for our clean energy transition, they need to see some predictability in those timelines and budgets and I think that’s an opportunity that nuclear really could hold in its hand if we can see these new demonstration projects come through as expected in a predictable way.
Q: DOE’s new Civil Nuclear Credit Program is accepting applications to support the continued operation of U.S. reactors. How impactful can this program be?
A: This program is absolutely critical. Nuclear power provides half of our nation’s clean electricity and it is the single largest source of our clean electricity. We cannot allow these plants to be economically at risk because we failed to recognize their important contributions to our clean energy system, to our firm energy capacity, and our energy resilience. Once a nuclear plant closes, it can be very hard to start it back up again, so we really just cannot allow them to close in the context in which we need them.
Q: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also includes more than $2.5 billion to support the demonstration of two advanced reactors in the U.S. and at least one nuclear-hydrogen demo project. How important are these projects to the future of the industry?
A: The two demo projects and the hydrogen demonstrations are the future of the industry. As we look at those technologies being demonstrated here in the United States, they create the opportunity for the second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-of-a-kind to be built, not only here in the United States, but elsewhere with our democratic partners interested in expanding their nuclear capacity. If we want to enable nuclear and renewables to work together on a clean energy grid, hydrogen is going to be absolutely necessary. Heat plus electrons is a great way to create hydrogen and can be an excellent demonstration of what’s possible with nuclear.
Q: Advanced nuclear will be in the clean energy conversation at several high-profile international events this year, including the Nuclear Power Minsterial and Clean Energy Ministerial that will both be held in the U.S. What role do you see for nuclear energy in global efforts to combat climate change?
A: This is a fantastic moment for the United States to reclaim global nuclear energy leadership. We’re really in a position to lead in the conversations, the bilateral and multilateral engagements that will come out of these meetings, and in the incentives that we can see broadly for energy security and the carbon transition worldwide.
Q: You also helped create a new funding line in the congressional budget for nuclear R&D at U.S. universities and colleges. What does this mean for the university research community moving forward?
A: There is nothing more important to me personally than education. Making sure that this university R&D line has its own particular place in our budget, really highlights its importance and enables us to think critically about bigger problems and to enable bigger solutions. It’s really going to enable bright ideas to come out of the university. Those ideas can be picked up by the national laboratories that can bring those bright ideas and creative high-risk, high-reward concepts into fruition and then the industry can pick up the down-selected ideas from the national laboratories. This is how innovation should work and making it its own line really enables us to focus on that and think bigger.
Q: As a professor, what advice would you have for those who might want to join a STEM field and what are some of the opportunities available within NE for those interested in pursuing the nuclear field?
A: This is a great time to join nuclear energy. It’s not only in a growth period right now but, because of the bimodal distribution of ages in nuclear energy, there are a lot more positions open in nuclear energy spaces, whether it’s startups, national laboratories, or here in DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. We have opportunities where folks are retiring today who have incredible expertise that you can learn from. So, my advice is definitely to get into it whether it’s as a nuclear engineer, as a communications specialist, as a policy maker, or even a social scientist. It should be clear the role that nuclear energy can play and I hope folks can find a role for themselves in that space.
Dr. Huff received her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Chicago. Her research focused on modeling and simulation of advanced nuclear reactors and fuel cycles. Prior to joining DOE in 2021, Dr. Huff served as a professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was also a Blue Waters assistant professor with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Dr. Huff was previously a postdoctoral fellow in both the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium and the Berkeley Institute for Data Science at the University of California-Berkeley.
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