McCarthy: My name is Kathy McCarthy. I’m Director of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and my organization is responsible for research in the area of advanced nuclear energy, and also for the fuel cycle work that supports nuclear energy. In that capacity, what we’re doing is looking to the future. Where do we need to go with energy production? Why do we need to do that?
If you look right now at world energy needs, let’s take fifty years from now. In fifty years, because we want to bring the developing countries up, we will need to increase our energy production by about two and a half times the existing world production. That’s a lot of additional energy. What’s the best way to do that?
Well, nuclear is a wonderful way to do that when you’re looking at increasing energy by a significant amount. Because nuclear is sustainable, so it can provide energy for many generations beyond now. It’s economic, and it’s extremely safe. Right now, in the United States, 20% of our electricity is generated by nuclear, and worldwide that number is closer to 30%. But it’s a big part of our current energy production. From an environmental point of view, it makes sense to expand energy using nuclear, because nuclear energy is environmentally friendly.
We’re looking at the next generation of nuclear power plants. Our existing power plants, we typically refer to as Generation II, the ones that are built in the United States. In some other countries, especially Asian countries, they’re starting to build what we would call Generation III reactors, really just the next step in the nuclear energy design. The reason for that is it’s like any other field, where you’re always trying to improve things. Each generation, our goals are to make the plants even safer. We want to rely on things like natural systems, gravity, to be able to shut a reactor down in the case of an unexpected event. You always want to improve economics, and you want to make sure that what you’re doing is friendly to the environment.
Generation III plants are being built abroad. The United States is focusing on doing work on the next generation, what we call Generation IV nuclear reactors. Again, what we’re doing is trying to make improvements in all of these things, to make them simpler. That adds into economics, and adds into safety, too. You want this system to be as simple as possible. That way, when you go through the licensing process, it’s much easier to prove that this thing should be built, it can be economic, it can run safely. That’s what we’re in the process of doing.
We’re also supporting the Generation III work. That’s primarily the responsibility of industry, if you look at Generation III, if they’re willing to move forward with that. We do support that to some extent. Our emphasis is really on Generation IV. Then if you look at what we’re doing here at the INEEL [Idaho National Engineering & Environmental Laboratory]—soon to be the INL, when we combine with Argonne West, we will become the Idaho National Laboratory—our role is to really lead this research forward. What we want to do is help to get things moving. There’s the support to Generation III, but then the emphasis on Generation IV.
We’re looking at building a nuclear plant, the next generation nuclear plant, here at the INEEL, and this is to be deployed somewhere in the 2017 to 2020 timeframe. This is a really exciting time for us, because we believe this is really what the industry needs to push things forward. We want to show that the licensing process is simpler than it used to be. Therefore, that makes it a better investment for the utilities, because they don’t have to wait so long between when they construct to when they actually can operate. The idea is, this would really jumpstart the industry and move things forward.
Kelly: How many plants do we need to make to meet the United States’ energy needs, would you project, over the next 100 years?
McCarthy: Yeah. You know, I don’t know actual numbers. If you look at the worldwide need, if you’re trying to add two and a half times the current generating needs, I think worldwide there are—actually, in the U.S. there are about 103 operating plants. Worldwide, obviously, there’s more than that, but you can easily do the math on that particular number if what you’re trying to do is increase two and half times beyond what we have currently.
One of the things that’s really important in this is, we want to be less dependent on foreign oil and gas, and that’s a national security issue as well as an economic issue. Nuclear energy is one of the ways that we can do that. As soon as you decrease your dependence on foreign oil and foreign gas, that makes for a more secure environment. It makes for a more secure world.
In addition, you want to try to lessen the difference between the haves and the have-nots. The United States is certainly in the realm of the haves, and our energy consumption is on the order of 300 to 350 gigajoules per capita. Compare that to the world average, which is 67, and the developing world, which is 20.
What we want to do is bring all those people up, at least to around 100, for the world average. Again, from an environmental point of view, you want to do that with something that doesn’t add to the greenhouse gas problem. You want to do that with a kind of energy that’s sustainable for our children and our children’s children and beyond. Nuclear energy is really the energy source that can provide that, in a widespread sense, in the larger picture.
Kelly: One of the things you’ve mentioned as a key criterion for the future is safety. Can you talk about how would you characterize the safety that we have now in a plant, and how will it differ in the future?
McCarthy: Okay. Our existing plants, if you look at the nuclear industry in the United States, it’s an extremely safe industry. Very, very few off-normal events, and even the ones that we have had, the plants have responded very well. Take for example, Three Mile Island, which is the accident in the United States that people tend to point to. Even with all the things that went wrong, we did not have significant consequences from that. We didn’t have lasting consequences from that.
But what we’re trying to do with each generation is make that safety case even simpler, and make the overall safety better. For example, in the next generation nuclear plant, which is the plant that we hope to build at the INEEL in this 2017 to 2020 timeframe, that’s an extremely safe plant. If there were some sort of an off-normal event, it would automatically shut itself down. Even if you were to lose all of the cooling, it still would automatically shut itself down so that you would not have a release of radioactivity.
Those are the types of things that we’re building into the plants. Rather than having a system that a human needs to turn on, you want to rely on things that happen naturally. That’s really the emphasis in this next generation of plants.
Kelly: In the early decades, there was a lot of testing that showed that very thing. In the loss of fluid testing in 1986 with the EBR-II [Experimental Breeder-Reactor II], they tested and it shut itself down. So, you’re just incorporating what we knew into this. Why didn’t they incorporate that into these other generations?
McCarthy: If you look at the plants that were deployed in the United States, we have primarily light-water reactors. These are water-cooled reactors. Some of the tests that you’re referring to, for example, the liquid metal reactors, had a different kind of coolant. The existing plants do rely on systems, basically, to kick in to cool things down if there’s an off-normal event. This next generation won’t do that.
We’re even looking at some water-cooled reactors. There is something called the supercritical water reactor, which is basically just our existing light-water reactors running at higher temperature and higher pressure. That’s advantageous, from an economic point of view. But even those reactors now are being designed with these built-in systems, so they automatically shut down if there were some sort of an off-normal event. So, we don’t have to rely on some system working or on human intervention.
Kelly: Larry Ubronda yesterday talked about the early years of commercial development of the reactors and that there were lots of varieties. It was like going to a car shop and you could buy a 4-door or a 2-door or a convertible or whatever, there was so much variety. But that caused problems in operations when every plant’s different.
Kelly: What are we doing in the future about that?
McCarthy: One of the things that we’re doing is really trying to focus on a few designs. The idea being, you have a design that’s approved by the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission]. You get all the approvals in place so that design is basically approved, should a utility want to build it, rather than having several different types. Any time you have a lot of different types of a particular—it doesn’t even have to be a reactor—but a particular item, it costs more to manage those, because everything is a little bit different.
We’re focusing on basically what’s called a thermal design and a fast design. The thermal versus fast has to do with the speed of the neutrons. What’s important there is what you build reactor out of has an influence on the neutrons and how quickly they move through the material. We’re looking primarily at what are called thermal reactors. They have the slower neutrons for energy production, also for hydrogen production, not only electricity, but also hydrogen.
We’re also looking at selecting, around the year 2010, a particular fast reactor design to focus on. The main purpose of the fast reactors is in transmutation of waste, so basically, recycling fuel. All of that is aimed at using a repository, such as Yucca Mountain, to the best advantage possible. You want to use that space in there as efficiently as you can.
We really are focusing on a thermal design and on a fast design, and it’s for the very reason that you had brought up. From an economics point of view, from a licensing point of view, it’s simpler if everybody’s focusing on the same types of designs.
Kelly: If I followed this—the fast design, which is really a breeder reactor.
McCarthy: Not necessarily.
Kelly: No, not necessarily?
McCarthy: No. You can design your fuel to give you either a breeder reactor, which is where you’re producing more fuel than you’re using, or, you can bring that conversion ratio, as it’s called, down to around one, which means basically you’re equal, you’re not producing additional. With certain fuel, you can even have it below one, and then you’re consuming rather than breeding.
The fast reactors don’t have to be breeder reactors, although in the United States, the fast reactor program in the past has focused on breeder reactors. EBR-2, for example, was a breeder reactor and a breeder reactor program.
Kelly: I guess I’m just not clear then—what’s the connection between these fast reactors and Yucca Mountain?
McCarthy: Okay. Yucca Mountain, we’re hoping to get licensed. Yucca Mountain is very important for the nuclear industry, because to move forward, we really do need to show that we can handle waste. From a technical point of view, I believe we’ve certainly done that. From a political point of view, I think we’re not quite there.
You have a certain amount of space in Yucca Mountain, and you don’t want to have to build a second Yucca Mountain. If we look at the waste that we’re producing with current reactors, Yucca Mountain can handle that. If we’re going to have a significant increase in nuclear generation, we need to look at, “How can we minimize the waste that’s going into Yucca Mountain?”
There are a couple of ways to do that. We can do reprocessing, separation, making new fuel, running it through our existing reactors, through our light-water reactors. But that doesn’t give you an efficient, what’s called a burn on some of the actinides, some of the material that you want to reduce.
When you take spent fuel, fuel that’s come out of a reactor, it has undergone transmutation. In some cases, you’ve got material produces a significant amount of heat, and there’s also material that produces a significant amount of radiotoxicity. What you want to do is, minimize that. With less heat and less radio toxicity, you can put more into Yucca Mountain, because the limits on Yucca Mountain are based on the heat and the radio toxicity.
In a light-water reactor, to some extent, you can do some of that recycling. But if you really want to get rid of the bad actors efficiently, you want to have these faster neutrons. Because the faster neutrons will transmute the material to things that are less radio toxic and are giving off lower heat.
That’s where the fast reactors come in. They can absolutely produce energy also. They don’t have to be used only for this waste issue. That’s an area they can provide, that a thermal reactor isn’t as efficient with. Does that make more sense?
Kelly: Yeah, that’s very good. Who is going to make these decisions? What role will the public have, if any, in looking at weighing these different options?
McCarthy: If you look at what we’re doing right now, the next generation nuclear plant is a really important focus for Generation IV and for this thermal reactor. There will be, I’m sure, a lot of public interest in it. It’s really our job, as people working in the nuclear industry, to go out and educate the public. If you look at how things were handled the first time around, we didn’t do a very good job at that. I mean, it made sense to us, and we just thought it should make sense to everybody else.
But we have a very big effort at the INEEL now to give presentations to the community. Many of us talk with various Chamber of Commerce. We go to universities and talk there. Try to give presentations at meetings that aren’t traditionally attended by nuclear engineers, in alternative energy, for example. We’re trying to get the word out. That’s one thing that we’re doing.
With respect to some of this downselect, around the year 2010, the U.S. wants to downselect from the fast reactor designs that are being looked at right now, to one in particular that they will concentrate the research on to move forward.
Kelly: To what extent are you looking to other countries’ models, such as the pebble-bed [reactor] experiments in South Africa?
McCarthy: Very much. Everything that’s done now, particularly in the technical world, is international. Generation IV research is really no different. There’s the Generation IV International Forum, and that’s made up of several countries that are all working together on this research. Now, each country has their own particular take on things and their own research that they’re doing. But we typically share the results, and we have many collaborations going with other countries.
You had mentioned the South African project. We’ve had a lot of discussions with them. The fuel that they’re using is very similar to the fuel that would be used in the next generation nuclear plant, this gas-cooled reactor that we want to build here. The South Africans have some interest in the United States doing some testing, and that could potentially be tested in the advanced test reactor out at the INEEL site.
We’re also having discussions about codes and models and that type of thing. For example, if you take the RELAP5 [Reactor Excursion and Leak Analysis Program] model that was developed here at the INEEL, that’s used worldwide. It’s looking at systems and fluid-flow and that type of thing, already used worldwide. It’s definitely a worldwide effort collaborative.
McCarthy: The nuclear program is very much an international program, the nuclear energy research program. We’re working through what’s called the Generation IV International Forum to develop many of these designs. One example is the South Africans, who are actually not part of the Generation IV International forum. But they are right now building—or have plans to build—a gas-cooled reactor, what’s called a pebble-bed reactor, where the fuel, which is about the size of a billiard ball, actually moves through the core.
We have been in communication with them quite a bit, because that particular fuel is very similar to the fuel that we would use in the next generation nuclear plant at the INEEL. They have some interest in us doing tests in our advanced test reactor with that fuel. We’ve also had some discussions with them on codes that we’ve developed that could be applied to that.
That’s one example of how we collaborate internationally. Another example is on the next generation nuclear plant that we’d like to build here. The French are very interested in that, and so we do have discussions.
In all cases, while there is this international collaboration, each country has its own particular view of how it should be done, and particular research that they’re focusing on. But, like most technical things nowadays, the nuclear energy research is to a large extent international and collaborative.
McCarthy: The next generation nuclear plant has two roles. One is to show electricity production economically, and the other is to produce hydrogen. The exciting thing about this is, during the times when electricity can be sold at a higher rate, utilities can use this plant to produce electricity. At times when the demand for electricity is less, the plant can be used to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen is extremely important, because it can be used as a transportation fuel. It’s a very significant way that we could decrease our dependence on foreign oil imports.
This plant that we’re building will have this dual focus. And, there are many different ways that hydrogen can be produced, and were looking into many different ways: chemical means, but also we’re looking at what’s called high-temperature electrolysis. This is really the simplest thing to look at, because electrolysis, everybody learns about in their college chemistry classes. What we’re doing is boosting the temperature up and we can produce hydrogen more efficiently, so on the order of 50% efficiency rather than some of the lower efficiency that—regular electrolysis on the order of 30%.
When you look at hydrogen production, we produce a significant amount of hydrogen in the U.S. right now. It’s used to treat crude oil—for example, to sweeten it, they add hydrogen. But the hydrogen that we’re using now is produced with fossil fuels, and that isn’t really what you want to do in the future. We want to, first of all, decrease our dependence on imports of oil, and we also want to do it with a process that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. With nuclear, we can do that. We can produce this hydrogen without producing any greenhouse gases, and it’s a way to lessen our dependence on foreign oil imports. It’s, again, really important for national security.
Kelly: Can you comment on how safe is this? What have the past practices generated in terms of releases that might be of concern? How has the Site dealt with this? What’s the future look like?
McCarthy: Okay. In the United States in commercial nuclear power plants, we have had no significant releases. Chernobyl, and the type of reactor that Chernobyl is, is something that we would not build in the United States. That particular reactor had no containment. The types of reactors that we build in the United States and that we’re assisting the other countries with now, too, because, of course, it’s extremely important that worldwide nuclear energy is safe.
We’re really focusing on these safety systems, and education is important here. Because people have a tendency to be afraid of what they don’t understand. If you take, for example, when cars were first introduced, people weren’t interested in having a car, because they were afraid of it. There are a lot of people who would much rather drive across the country than fly. But on the other hand, flying is really much, much safer, if you look at the statistics. Perception is very important, because for a person, perception is reality. What we need to do is make sure we get the information out there [on] how extremely safe our existing plants are running, and how what we’re doing in the new designs are going to make them even safer.
It’s very important that people understand all of the issues, not just the electricity generation, but also the waste generation and how we can deal with that waste, how that waste can be safely handled and dispositioned. All of these things are extremely important.
I think where we really need to start is in the schools with the kids at elementary age. Because by the time they get to junior high and high school, they’re already not aware enough of science in general and certainly nuclear. They start to form opinions based on what they hear, often things that aren’t substantiated.
Those of us in the nuclear industry need to be as vocal as the anti-folks, because we need to get our word out. We can’t just sit back and assume that everybody’s going to get out the textbooks and read. We’ve got to go out and educate people and help them to understand.
I’m a mother and I have two children, and we live here in Idaho Falls, and I am absolutely comfortable with building a reactor out there. I’m absolutely comfortable with what’s been done out there in the past. I look at it, for my children, this is extremely important. This is really their future that we’re talking about. What I want to do is help to leave them with a world that’s safer, and with a world that they can do what they need to do and go off in the future and accomplish things. I don’t want to leave them with a legacy that they need to later take care of. Nuclear energy is really what is going to help provide for all the future generations.
Kelly: Great. That’s motherhood. You’re probably also a nuclear engineer.
Kelly: I don’t which is more compelling. That was good, very good. Have you lived in Idaho Falls all your life, or are you someone who’s come in for this project?
McCarthy: No, I’ve lived here since 1991. I was actually involved in fusion energy research, originally, and that’s what I came here to do after graduate school. And then got involved in management, and now I’m overseeing both fission energy work and fusion energy work. I came up here following the fusion program and ended up being here at a really exciting time for the Site. I mean, it’s absolutely wonderful.
To put things into perspective, I graduated from high school—and now you can calculate my age—I graduated from high school in 1979, which is the same year that the Three Mile Island accident happened. But I had a high school professor who was very interested in nuclear power, and he used to talk about it. I liked math, so I thought, “I’ll do engineering. Nuclear engineering sounds interesting.” I went into that as a freshman in college, and just became fascinated with it. I started out doing it because it was challenging, and I thought that it would be interesting.
I really stuck with it, because I think it’s the right thing. I really think it’s the right thing for the world. Even through all the things that have happened—I was trying to arrange my PhD exams sitting in a professor’s office at UCLA, when he got a phone call about Chernobyl. He looked at me and said, “Do you speak Russian?”
I said, “No.”
He said, “Well, then I don’t have time right now,” and he chased me out.
All those things were happening while I was in the course of my studies. But I stuck with it, because I really feel like it’s the right thing.
Nalezny: I’m curious. When you go out and you do these public presentations, if you had to pick like three key points that you’re trying to leave people, what are you trying to leave those groups with when you talk to them?
Kathy McCarthy: If I tried to think of what would be the three main things that I’d want an audience to be left with after I go and talk to them, one is that nuclear power is absolutely safe.
The second one is that from an environmental point of view, nuclear power is absolutely what we need to reduce greenhouse gases and avoid potential global warming.
The third thing that I would want to leave everybody with is that from a national security point of view, our energy security is extremely important. We want to reduce our reliance on foreign gas and oil imports, and nuclear is the way to do that. It can help us both with electricity production, and it also can provide hydrogen, which can help us to reduce our reliance on oil for transportation fuels. Those are really the three main messages.
Nalezny: And now you’re speaking to the fourth grade class, and Cindy is your fourth-grader. Can you explain to her in terms that they would understand, how does nuclear energy work? How does that reactor make power?
McCarthy: The way that nuclear energy works is: you have a material – a fuel. Uranium, for example, is the primary fuel that we used in existing reactors in the United States. That is what’s called a very heavy element, so it has a lot of neutrons and electrons.
What you want to do is, you absorb a neutron in that [atom], and that makes it break into smaller pieces. If you were to add up all the mass that you end up with, if you weigh everything, you’d find out that the weight is less than what you started out with. Well, that weight has been converted to energy, and it’s like [Albert] Einstein’s E=mc2. The mass has been converted into energy, and that’s how nuclear power works. That’s about as simple as I can do it.
Kelly: Good. Pretend that I’m your nephew when he was in the 10th grade. Because this is confusing to everybody, because the history of atomic power was started with the bomb, the two collide in people’s minds, or coincide. If you can explain how the two are different, and why reactors should not be thought as so dangerous as about to explode any moment.
McCarthy: Okay. The way that nuclear energy works and how that’s different from a nuclear weapon is: nuclear energy is produced in a controlled manner. You’re releasing heat, but you have mechanism built in. For example, when that fuel starts to heat up, you start producing fewer neutrons, and therefore, you’re causing fewer of the reactions and producing less energy.
In a nuclear weapon, you have energy being produced in a very, very quick manner. A nuclear power plant has all of these controls in place so that you can’t have a runaway reaction. You can’t have the reaction continuing, this chain reaction that just builds on itself, because you have all these mechanisms that are built in so that it will shut itself down.
From a public relations point of view—and really, a public perception point of view—what people have been exposed to more is the atomic weapons that were dropped to end World War II. People linked that then with nuclear energy, which came later, which is built on the same principles, although there are very, very significant differences between the two.
When the bombs were dropped at the end of World War II or ending World War II, that was something that the public all knew about. Everybody was very aware of it. Then we put our energy into producing nuclear power. What we didn’t do was advertise that. We didn’t put the word out. So the perception that people had in their mind tended to be much more linked towards the nuclear weapons that they understood about. Typically, people fill a vacuum with misinformation, and so if there isn’t information out there, this is how rumors get started.
We had the Three Mile Island accident, for example, and we didn’t do a very good job of getting the word out that this did not have significant adverse consequences. What did get out was the information about this terrible thing that was happening there.
Scientists, frankly, don’t like to get out in the spotlight. They don’t want to be out there talking to the public. They want to be there working on their computers or doing their experiments. We didn’t provide enough information so that people could understand what actually happened.
We’re doing everything that we can think of to change that perception. The nuclear engineers and a lot of the people that we hire at the INEEL, we also give them training so that they can go out and talk to the public. We encourage that.
One of the things that we do is, we try to watch the editorials in the major newspapers, and when there’s something that comes up that’s anti-nuclear, a lot of times we’ll try to correct the misinformation if there’s misinformation there.
We also try to be more proactive and get good press on nuclear, get newspapers and reporters interested in the good things that we’re doing in nuclear, so that that information gets out. Not just in reaction to somebody saying something against nuclear energy, but really just getting out there so that people start to get used to it, start to get more accustomed to it, become familiar with it.
Nalezny: Before I got involved in this, I couldn’t have told you that Idaho had a hand in any kind of atomic anything. From the people we’ve talked to—people even on the other side of the state—don’t always know what’s going on. Can you give us some idea of exactly how far-reaching the accomplishments in Idaho have been? Where they reach? Where you find the results of all the effort and innovation as you go forward?
McCarthy: Sure. The work that has been done at the INEEL since its inception—I think back in the ‘50s is when that was—has really brought forward nuclear energy. We are responsible for a significant amount of the nuclear safety work that was done to support the deployment in the United States. But not only is it used in the United States, it’s used internationally. We’ve developed codes that are used in Europe and in Asia and other countries to help design and to predict and to support the licensing case for reactors. The work that’s been done here has really been far-reaching.
The INEEL, which was called the Reactor Testing Station when it first was cited, was originally put there, originally cited, to help bring nuclear energy forward. That was really our role, and we’ve been extremely, extremely instrumental in that. If you look at energy development, it’s the INEEL that played the major role in that, just as some of the Albuquerque labs have played the major role in weapons development. It’s a similar kind of thing. From a nuclear energy point of view, the INEEL is really the leader, has been the leader. Now, when we’re moving things forward again, it’s kind of like getting back to our roots, to a large extent.
What we’re running into is that you’ve got the folks who are involved in those early programs who are retiring or have already retired, and they’re taking with them a body of knowledge that really hasn’t been transferred to the newer people that have been coming in, because we haven’t had programs that we could use their knowledge on and transfer that knowledge. Well, that’s changing. Now, we’re getting those programs in; we’re starting to do that work again. We’re bringing back some of those folks, who are still around, and involving them in that work, and having them mentor some of these younger people. We’re at a point where we’ve already lost a lot of knowledge, but we haven’t lost it all. It’s extremely important that these programs move forward now so that we can take advantage of that before they’re not around anymore to do that.
Like with anything else, it’s really important that we don’t forget the history here. What we did in the past is important, even in what we’re doing now and in how we’re designing these new reactors. When you look at a lot of the experiments that we are planning now and that we’re carrying out to support this new research, it’s taking advantage of what we’ve done in the past. We’re certainly not starting over. The work that was done back then is just as valid now as it was then.
In addition to talking with folks who have been involved in that, we’re also making sure that we’ve got all the reports and the documents that have the information that was so important in developing nuclear energy. Because it still has bearing in what we do today. We don’t want to forget about that.
It’s really important, I think, for the community to know what we’re doing. For the community to understand how important Idaho has been to nuclear power in the past, and what an instrumental role that it’s playing as we move forward.
I think there are a lot of people who aren’t aware of what we’re doing here. I was over in Boise several months ago, and people are very interested. They want to know. I think that rather than waiting for them to ask, we need to make sure that we’re getting out, not just to the Idaho Falls community—which tends to be pretty aware of what we’re doing—but to the surrounding communities, whether that be Jackson or across the State of Idaho over in Boise. We need to make sure that we’re spreading that word, so they understand the significant role that we’re playing.