Aug 24, 2018

Ep 63: Bill Magwood - Director‑General, Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD)

Nuclear Energy Agency
Play audio

Show notes

Q1 - Introduction to Nuclear Energy

Bret Kugelmass: What is the NEA and the OECD?

Bill Magwood: The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is one of the organizations formed during the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the second World War. One of the things the Europeans wanted to do as part of reconstruction was to make a big investment in nuclear technology. This predecessor organization became the NEA. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) today is a global organization with 33 member countries, including the United States, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Canada, and many European countries. NEA’s mission is to bring the best and brightest people in the world in nuclear technology together to solve difficult problems, such as technology, science, legal, and safety issues. Bill Magwood grew up in Pittsburgh and followed his desire to learn how the universe worked by studying physics at Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating in physics, Magwood stayed an extra year and got a degree in creative writing. This led to a position in the University of Pittsburgh creative writing graduate school, where Magwood taught until he returned to engineering and got a job at Westinghouse. Magwood’s biggest influences included space exploration and the visionary space program that transcended national concerns. He participated in Westinghouse Science Honors Institute as a sophomore in high school, a program intended for high school seniors going to science and technology universities, where he first learned about nuclear energy. Shortly after this, Three Mile Island happened, bringing nuclear into the media. Magwood’s first role at Westinghouse was doing thermal analysis for waste technology and retrieval storage at Yucca Mountain. After four years, Magwood applied for a position at Edison Electric Institute and moved to Washington.

Q2 - Rebuilding Nuclear’s Research and Development Program

Bret Kugelmass: What work did you do in D.C.?

Bill Magwood: Bill Magwood spent six or seven years with Edison Electric Institute and left to join the Department of Energy (DOE) as a political appointee. Instead of being a career civil servant staff, Magwood was appointed by the Clinton White House to come in to be part of the management staff of the Department of Energy where he was in charge of policy, program planning, and development of technology programs. At the time, the DOE was very focused on the advanced light water reactor program, which led to the creation of GE’s advanced boiling water reactor in Japan, Westinghouse’s AP-600 reactor, and the System 80+, whose combustion engineering system is the base for Korean reactors. Magwood became passionate about university nuclear engineering program and worked with staff to create programs to encourage more young people to pursue nuclear. After Three Mile Island, the number of nuclear students stayed fairly steady, but during Clinton’s presidency, Clinton called for ending all unnecessary nuclear research. This shut down almost all the research and development underway in the United States. After four years in the DOE, Magwood’s took over the Office of Nuclear Energy at the DOE in 1998. The new Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, came in soon after and was a strong supporter of the program. Magwood was the head of nuclear energy for the next seven years. During the same year Magwood took over as the head of nuclear, Congress zeroed out nuclear’s research and development budget due to a lack of faith in the way things had been managed. Magwood worked to rebuild the program by establishing an advisory committee, the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee (NERAC). The Nuclear Energy Research Initiative accepted proposals for grants in nuclear technology; one of the first grants was for the program that would become NuScale.

Q3 - Reestablishing a Nuclear Presence in the U.S.

Bret Kugelmass: Was the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative something for the industry to rally around and look forward?

Bill Magwood: Things in the nuclear industry were pretty depressed at the time and there was not a lot of enthusiasm, but Bill Magwood thought there was a lot that could be done. In 1998, there were 480 students in all of the nuclear program across the United States and people thought the program would collapse. They got money to provide fellowships, scholarships, research grants, and infrastructure investment. Magwood spent a lot of his person time going to universities and talking to administrations and students; today there are over 5,000 students in nuclear engineering programs. It was five or six more years until industry started hiring people in significant numbers. The Generation IV International Forum was also launched around this time. Magwood realized he didn’t have much money, but wanted to pull resources from people who do have money and worked with the Department of State to invite countries to Washington to talk about advanced reactors. This forum still meets today. Nuclear Power 2010 was launched after getting together with an advisory committee with industry, academia, and laboratory experts. These groups got together and wrote a report identifying what it would take to have nuclear plants in the U.S. by 2010. Government resources and encouragement were needed to get utilities back in the game of building nuclear power plants, but some utilities didn’t even want to consider at first. Government offered the industry a 50/50 cost share of completing the designs of new advanced reactors and moving them into the licensing process. Two applications were accepted: one from Dominion Resources, and one from New Start, which eventually paid for the AP-1000 certification and the ESPWR certification. The Department of Energy struggled with getting the laboratories aligned with where the DOE wanted to go. DOE started launching programs that would give money to groups that had partnerships between academia, laboratories, and industry. Another program forced universities to talk to each other in order to create interuniversity cooperation and collaboration.

Q4 - Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Bret Kugelmass: How did you become leader of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)?

Bill Magwood: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency in the U.S. Government that oversees nuclear safety. When Bill Magwood was at the Department of Energy (DOE), the Chairman of the NRC was Dick Meserve. Magwood and Meserve had a very good relationship and found a lot of common ground between nuclear safety and technology. Nils Diaz succeeded Dick Meserve at the NRC. Magwood was expecting to leave the DOE after the Clinton administration, but was asked by the Bush administration to stay. Magwood stayed through the whole first Bush term. Many of Magwood’s programs were planned during the late Clinton years and executed during the Bush years. The officials at the DOE were skeptical of the Generation IV program, but new Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham got excited about the program and supported implementation. After spending 11 years at the DOE, Magwood was ready to do something else and left for a couple years. When the Obama administration came in, Magwood was accepted an offer to serve as a Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner. The five commissioners of the NRC serve as a court with an appeals process for the regulation and decisions.

Q5 - Role of Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners

Bret Kugelmass: What was something interesting that you had to rule over while serving as a Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner (NRC)?

Bill Magwood: If someone felt that the NRC had not implemented a regulation correctly, they could file a complaint and it would go through the adjudication process. The commissioners would have to rule whether the decision was correct or not correct. There were also cases in which people were accused of lying to the NRC and in once case, the staff recommended banning the person from the nuclear industry. One very contentious case was regarding whether the Department of Energy had the right to withdraw its application on the Yucca Mountain site, since President Obama did not want to proceed with the Yucca Mountain program. This issue was never resolved or withdrawn, but the administration has changed and is no longer an issue. Bill Magwood saw his tenure on the commission as the other side of the coin from the Nuclear Power 2010 program, thinking that it would be about building new plants. About a year into his tenure, Fukushima Daiichi happened at the same time a regulatory information conference was going on the U.S. The first thing Magwood hear about the nuclear plant was that it was hit by a tsunami, but that it was under control. Throughout the day, it was determined that there was actually a nuclear accident taking place. Luis Echavarri, the Director-General of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) at the time, reached out to Magwood, a friend of many years, asking him to take over his position upon his retirement. An American had not held this position since 1985 and decided to go for it; Magwood now leads a staff of about 125 people from all over the world.

Q6 - Nuclear Energy Agency Initiatives

Bret Kugelmass: What did you see at the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) when you first came in and what initiatives did you decide to put forward?

Bill Magwood: Particularly in the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi, there has been a lull in excitement in the nuclear area in some places. It was clear to Bill Magwood that something needed to be done to regain momentum. Magwood saw that innovation had become very difficult in the nuclear business. If you wanted to deploy a new nuclear fuel, it was estimated to take 20 to 25 years to get approved. A new program called Nuclear Innovation 2050 brought in over 100 people from around the world to talk about where the nuclear program should be going. One priority from that group was advanced fuels, so the NEA is pushing to bring the international community together to shorten the development cycle for advanced fuels and to cooperate the use of testing facilities to get new fuels into use. For the kind of fuel testing needed, the major facility in the world is the Holden reactor in Norway, which was operating under an NEA project for the last sixty years. The operator of the Holden reactor recently announced they will shutdown the reactor; there is no reactor that completely replaces the Holden reactor, but there is a Modernized International Reactor (MIR) facility in Rosatom, Russia that may be made available to a lot of international players. The French are currently constructing the Jules Horowitz reactor, which could solve a lot of problems and will hopefully be available by the mid-2020’s. NEA looks at the whole nuclear picture, including small modular reactors (SMR’s) and thorium.

Q7 - Future Success of Nuclear

Bret Kugelmass: Why have you remained in leadership roles in the nuclear industry?

Bill Magwood: Bill Magwood sees nuclear technology as one of the most important areas of science, engineering, and technology that mankind has ever had. Nuclear is the way to solve so many of our problems, such as energy, environmental issues, curing cancer, and going to Mars. For example, there is no other technology that can enable us to be effective in exploring space. The technology on Earth needs to be evolved to be cheaper and safer. The public needs confidence in the nuclear system. The International Energy Agency has made it clear that the climate issue cannot be solved without nuclear energy. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) aims to make more facts about the technology readily available. To take the next steps in nuclear, countries cannot be successful if they work alone and it must be pursued on a multinational basis. There must be a big market across the world to make nuclear successful. The future of nuclear is a global future and a multilateral future. Many countries are still trying to get their people access to electricity or to develop their regions into middle-class life. Nuclear is part of the answer to environmental issues, but only if it is cost effective and safe to the public.

Sign up for our newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.