Ep 265: Craig Piercy - CEO, American Nuclear Society
Focus of the American Nuclear Society (0:00-10:45)
(Craig Piercy looks back on how his experience in policy led him to get involved with the American Nuclear Society)
Q: Tell me about your background and how you came into the nuclear space.
A: Craig Piercy came into the nuclear industry through work in the policy vector. He spent ten years on Capitol Hill in the 1990’s working for a Republican Congressman who ended up on the Appropriation Committee with Energy and Water as one of his subcommittees. This led Craig and the Congressman to learn about the Environmental Management (EM) program, which received about seven billion dollars a year at the time to clean up the former nuclear defense sites. This allowed them to develop an appreciation for nuclear technology. Craig then took a few years off to work at a university, eventually entering private practice and started working for American Nuclear Society (ANS) as a consultant. Through that process, he became the Washington representative of ANS, which facilitates scientific exchange, leads communities of practice, and represents roughly 10,000 dues-paying members who have devoted their careers to nuclear technology. As a consultant, Craig focused on public policy and government relations, doing a little bit of lobbying, but mostly focused on R&D appropriations and support for the nuclear workforce. ANS was very involved in the creation of the modern Nuclear University programs at the Department of Energy and making sure nuclear engineering programs have a steady stream of funding. This includes protection of the nuclear industry across all sectors, such as industrial and medical uses. ANS has about 35 full-time employees, centered in La Grange Park, Illinois. The society has a number of divisions and committees to analyze what’s going on externally, in policy or commercial markets, to understand impacts of new ideas and gain support for these strategies. ANS has two meetings a year which form communication between the community through technical sessions. They also use the traditional tools of advocacy such as media, social media, and letters to Congress. The American Nuclear Society (ANS) as a technology community has always been more out front on the technology than industry groups. Small modular reactors and advanced reactors were looked at by ANS first. There has been a change in attitudes regarding climate change, which has been a challenging issue since they are not the climate experts. However, there is an emerging understanding that, in order for nuclear to survive and thrive in the future, there must be a carbon constrained environment and sights set on deep decarbonization.
Stronger Science, Better Service, Louder Voice (10:45-21:17)
(How the American Nuclear Society addresses challenging nuclear issues such as research funding and the public’s understanding of radiation)
Q: Tell us about your current role and how it emerged.
A: Craig Piercy was approached by a number of senior leaders from the American Nuclear Society (ANS) to consider his new position. Craig has a deep love for the community and the people in the community. Nuclear is something that people look at and appreciate the technology. In his new role, Craig has completed a thorough review of ANS headquarters operations and made changes to the org chart. The goal of ANS is: Stronger science, better service, louder voice. Part of the job of the ANS is to work with divisions and communities of practice to advance science with good meetings and peer-reviewed papers for publication. As part of better service, Craig worked to simplify interactions on the ANS website by streaming questions from members, in addition to making sure clients and customers are satisfied. In striving for a louder voice, ANS works to be a voice of the nuclear community and the men and women of the community. Nuclear will only be successful by taking a long term approach and getting past quarterly profits. A long term approach would look at a scale-up of technology and the waste streams of doing so. The community of professionals that understand the technology details need a louder voice. There are three issues that come to the top of the ANS focus lists. One is to create a unified community voice about the need for increased public investment in nuclear R&D in the 2020’s. Some bipartisan progress has been made in the past couple of years, but it will require a lot more and ANS is putting together a high level group together to recommend where funding needs to go. The second issue is the public’s understanding of radiation. Any nuclear issue, at its core, is driven politically by a fear or lack of understanding of radiation - what it is, what it does, what is safe, and what is a dangerous level of exposure. This conversation needs to happen especially in the time of COVID-19 when people are making risk-informed performance based decisions every day, such as when to wear a mask or whether groceries need to be cleaned with bleach. As new information arises, processes are adjusted and recommendations change; this is what the nuclear community does every day in terms of radiation protection and exposure. In the nuclear community, protection comes first, but it is more because of the background public fear of radiation than the science. This conversation will play out over a decadal time frame and will not get solved overnight. The best way to address it in the long term is to teach good science in the K-12 environment. This generational advancement needs to be leveraged to bring others along.
Risk-Informed Decisions: COVID-19 & Nuclear Radiation (21:17-33:38)
(Craig analyzes the differences between risk-informed decisions related to COVID-19 and nuclear radiation and waste)
Q: What is good science when it comes to radiation? Is it the linear no-threshold theory or is there actually a threshold?
A: Craig Piercy recognizes that there is a lot we don’t know or understand about very low levels of radiation and what all the factors are related to individual biology. Due to COVID-19, the whole world is getting a crash course in epidemiology. At low radiation doses, there is no epidemiological evidence of effects. This has led to a theoretical discussion of thresholds. Understanding that concept and recent conversations about epidemiology can lead to public education that fear is expensive. If fear drives addressing a real risk, then it is money well spent. However, if fear of something that doesn’t bear out in terms of risk leads to needless spending that could be used for other things. The American Nuclear Society (ANS) has partnered with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to look at how to communicate risk to a population, but it will take time and funding. ANS, with its broad purview of all nuclear technologies, is the right organization to take that challenge on. The next problem that no one is dealing with is the nuclear fuel cycle, specifically nuclear waste. The debate in Washington, DC must be reset to take small steps towards progress. Interim storage is a good first step, but there needs to be conversations about the organization that will be created to be charged with managing the back end of the fuel cycle. The DOE used to have an office for this purpose, but was defunded a while ago. This management conversation can happen now without naming specific sites. Current utilities know the government is responsible for the ultimate disposition, so they can focus on making sure their plants run well, safely, and profitably. However, advanced reactor developers have problems because there is no waste policy in the country. There doesn’t need to be a grand solution right now, but there can be conversations about organization and management. There must be an improved level of literacy about radiation over time. But climate change efforts cannot fail because there are worries about threats that will not bear out in epidemiology or science. Nuclear is generally safe and is the only base load source of non-emitting energy that could be scaled up realistically without any technological showstoppers. Sights must be set on the end game and worked backwards from there, including how to have conversations with the public about radiation and waste.
Nuclear’s Role in Bending the Carbon Curve (33:38-41:10)
(Why nuclear power needs to be integral in combating climate change and the technical solutions that will get us there)
Q: So what other specific things do you see happening in the community around the world that give you hope as to what the future might look like?
A: Craig Piercy recently watched “Planet of the Humans”, a new movie produced by Michael Moore which created a very strong visual impression of the scale required to address the climate change problem. The main premise of the movie is that renewables with storage are not going to get the planet there with climate change, even though it doesn’t mention nuclear power. A reasonable conversation with people needs to happen about what their energy demand looks like in the future and how it can be provided in a way that helps bend the carbon cuve. Major utilities have commited to net zero electricity by 2050. Cost-competitive power needs to be delivered in a way that it can be scaled up in a way that allows us to address the problem. A lot of electricity will have to be generated to remove a lot of carbon on the back end to get us where we need to be. Most of the developed countries have made some change in policy at the national level that sets the table for industry to meet the challenge in a technologically neutral way. Most, if not all, of the existing fleet have been saved and continue to run and be maintained. Advanced reactors will scale up, starting in the microreactor markets which are competitive right now with truck-in or flown-in diesel. Economies of production will be mastered to allow scaling of designs that would tackle the challenge of climate change. The nature of our electric consumption will change and in the end will benefit the stability and resilience of nuclear power. The public must be brought along into the debate without worries of levels of radiation.