Ep 197: Bruce McDowell - Senior Project Manager, Advanced Reactor Program, PNNL
Bruce McDowell: Bruce is the project manager for the Clinch River Environmental Impact statement for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Naomi Senehi: What did it take for the EIS to be approved by the NRC?
Bruce McDowell: This project is for a small modular reactor, a first of its kind. We’re qualifying the site for a small reactor that’s up to 800 megawatts.
The NRC has to do an assessment like this for any major federal action. It took us 2 years, which is the fastest process in the last decade.
Naomi Senehi: Was this for one or many sites?
Bruce McDowell: The concept behind these reviews is that there’s a proposal and also other alternatives to the main proposal. This one is located in the Clinch river in Tennessee, which is where we landed after investigating other nearby sites.
Naomi Senehi: Why Tennessee?
Bruce McDowell: One of the main reasons is to be near the Tennessee valley authority. Also, this site was previously developed for the breeder reactor in the 70’s, so the site has been previously evaluated and is close to the federal facility (the Oak Ridge National Laboratory).
Naomi Senehi: Because it was previously evaluated, did that make for differences in requirements?
Bruce McDowell: The interactions with the environment are the same. The main difference is the ability to bring the small modular reactors can be brought online incrementally over years, which changes the socioeconomic impacts.
Naomi Senehi: Tell me about the socioeconomic impacts?
Bruce McDowell: Because of how big these plants are, they will take thousands of people to build it.
Naomi Senehi: And this is all part of the EIS?
Bruce McDowell: We do very thorough assessments and economic models regarding how the whole process affects the community to make sure the site is truly qualified.
Naomi Senehi: How does the project start once it’s put on your desk?
Bruce McDowell: The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) goes to the NRC and begins a long process of pre-application discussions.
Naomi Senehi: Where do you start in gathering information?
Bruce McDowell: Each resource is different. In this case, we talked to Fish & Wildlife Services, the Core Of Engineers in Tennessee and directly to the applicant. The applicant has to put together an environmental report which is the key basis for our assessments.
Naomi Senehi: Can you paint a picture of what the site looks like?
Bruce McDowell: It’s in rolling hills in Tennessee and is a managed river. The river system is a series of dams, where water is released stored and shut off. This creates a situation where the direction of the current changes between downstream and upstream.
Naomi Senehi: So who is the plant proposed to provide electricity to?
Bruce McDowell: TVA has several different purposes for this plant. They wanted to demonstrate that this tech would work and provide secure power to federal facilities. They also wanted to meet some greenhouse gas objectives and incrementally follow the load growth. It’s a midrange plant in terms of comparison to other plants in the US.
Naomi Senehi: How does a site like this differ from others in terms of carbon footprint?
Bruce McDowell: SMR’s are being designed to not need active power systems to maintain cooling, etc. The current designs are such that it can be passively cooled, which is a large safety improvement. Also the carbon footprint is much smaller than fossils.
Naomi Senehi: Do you do any sort of long term life cycle analysis for these statements?
Bruce McDowell: Currently, we only look at whether this site is qualified. That analysis will come into play when TVA comes in to build a reactor. At that point they apply for a 40-year license, which would require us to analyze the impacts that would occur over the next 40 years.
Naomi Senehi: So you look at species, water bodies, topography… Is it a requirement to determine contamination of the water table?
Bruce McDowell: At the clinch river site, that was a major concern. Past activities there have contributes to group water issues there, which required us to assess whether there would be contaminated groundwater that would be dug into.
Naomi Senehi: Are there other nuances unique to this site and what you had to do for the EIS?
Bruce McDowell: The emergency planning zone is smaller than a typical (larger) plant, minimizing the impact of the plant if it’s approved. This plant required a direct line to Oak Ridge for backup power, consisting of a 6-mile underground transmission line.
Naomi Senehi: So the past construction that was supposed to be for the breeder reactor, are those supposed to be used?
Bruce McDowell: They didn’t get in to that, other than making sure there were no problems of fault.
Naomi Senehi: What are the next steps?
Bruce McDowell: The next step is the NRC approving the application. Then TVA will have to decide at what point they want to apply to for a license build an actual plant.
Naomi Senehi: What’s next for you regarding this project and after?
Bruce McDowell: The NRC will hold hearings on the application, and after that we’ll close out our piece of the process.
Naomi Senehi: What is the hearing process?
Bruce McDowell: There’s a mandatory and a contested hearing. In this case we only have the mandatory hearing, in which the NRC hears arguments and ask questions regarding the plan and process. This will take place in August.
Naomi Senehi: How did you get into the nuclear field?
Bruce McDowell: I grew up in northern California, where my father was a logger. I worked for him in the summer in high school and college. By the time I finished college, he had transitioned into buying and selling timber, and I worked with him in that role.
There was one parcel we bought that contained a stream. After we logged it, we put a damn on the stream to create electricity. By investigating the permit and build process, I learned the craft and process of siting energy plants and facilities.
My dad and I started a business called Frontier Land & Power that owned land and sold power plants in the 80’s. Eventually there was less opportunity in that field.
After this, I got an MBA from University of San Francisco. Eventually I connected with the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory via a job fair and went to work doing environmental assessments for them and then more project management work.
Naomi Senehi: So your job is a lot of permitting based work?
Bruce McDowell: Yes, it’s primarily dealing with permits and regulations.
Naomi Senehi: Do you see a difference in working on projects around building nuclear vs other types of sites?
Bruce McDowell: There’s certainly a public perception difference, largely because of the radiation potential. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about it and also obtained a masters degree in Atmospheric Dispersion & Modeling at UC Davis. The health physics aspect is a whole field in and of itself, which is unique to nuclear projects. We have a lot of different types of specialists and a strong team. The size is different, as well.
Naomi Senehi: Looking at the impacts and risks, how has that shaped your personal view of nuclear energy?
Bruce McDowell: In the 17-18 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve concluded that the contribution that nuclear energy makes to reducing greenhouse gasses exceeds the risk and is worth it.
Naomi Senehi: As we wrap up, what do you hope to see for the future of nuclear?
Bruce McDowell: The future needs to be incorporate non-traditional applications for nuclear power.