Ep 61: David Shropshire - Section Head: Planning & Economic Studies, IAEA
Q1 - Early Days at Idaho National Labs
Bret Kugelmass: Where are you from?
David Shropshire: David Shropshire great up in Idaho, where he has spent a majority of his career at Idaho National Labs. After receiving his industrial engineering degree at Montana State University, Shropshire left the region to work in California and Colorado. Shropshire liked the idea of systems and system engineering, particularly in the economic analysis. His first job out of college was in defense electronics with Texas Instruments, which was a very technical look at defense systems that were used on different kinds of aircrafts and looked at ways to manufacture components. After eight years with Texas Instruments, Shropshire returned to Idaho in the late 1980’s to work at Idaho National Labs (INL). At that point, the INL was hiring a lot of individuals for environmental restoration, as it temporarily moved away from its research mission and into cleanup mode. Shropshire worked for five years in waste management during cleanup, focusing on designing the systems and technologies involved in nuclear waste retrieval, storage, and disposal. At the time, waste management was very regulatory driven. Later, when Shropshire moved into radioactive waste management, the focus was more long term, such as for a reactor or nuclear program, as opposed to short term waste management during cleanup efforts. He enjoyed working with Lockheed Martin while at INL, completing projects from a systems engineering approach. As a multiprogram national laboratory, there are opportunities to move around and do lots of different work. Bechtel came in to INL as a contractor with a focus of fossil energy and carbon capture and sequestration. Shropshire served on the Carbon Sequestration Advisory Committee for the State of Idaho and analyzed terrestrial sequestration, storage of carbon in soil.
Q2 - Nuclear Systems Engineering
Bret Kugelmass: How does terrestrial sequestration affect the soil?
David Shropshire: People thought bigger farming would be better, but it turns out sustainable land practices are beneficial and can end up being economical like large-scale farming. David Shropshire became involved with the Idaho Soil Conservation Commission during his work on terrestrial sequestration. This gave Shropshire some environmental background in his career, where he later got involved with climate change on the energy side. After the fossil energy stage of his work with Bechtel, Battelle came in to INL and Shropshire found an opportunity to work on nuclear advanced fuel cycles, getting him more involved in nuclear technology and generation IV reactors. His program participated in a number of studies, including the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) which looked into closed fuel cycles for fast reactors. The economics of the front end of fuel is dependent on if its using a natural uranium or a MOX fuel with plutonium that was recycled out of used fuel. On the back end, there is storage and ultimate disposal of the fuel and the other waste products produced, which may include recycling schemes. Plutonium recycling is being done in some countries, such as France, but their data is not available, so a lot of the information Shropshire used was derived for various studies done within the Department of Energy (DOE) system. Shropshire recognized that there was not just one cost, but if the cost was evaluated close enough, there was a distribution of potential costs. When alternatives were compared, it was a comparison of the distributions. The DOE tried to promote a closed fuel cycle for a fast reactor, but to scale up any of these programs beyond a lab setting is very expensive. Shropshire had an opportunity to work for the European Commission and moved to Europe to work at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Petten in the Netherlands for two years. The JRC is similar to a national lab, but looks at all energy systems. Shropshire supported the nuclear domain, working on energy systems evaluations, looking at the nuclear component of the broader systems. This gave Shropshire a clear indication of the reality of the energy situation, especially how renewables were limited due to storage, transmission, and load flexibility.
Q3 - Nuclear Energy Compared to Renewables
Bret Kugelmass: What is the threshold for grid penetration in intermittent power sources where supply does not meet demand?
David Shropshire: The threshold for grid penetration of renewable energies is different for each country. Every region has different renewable abilities, but wind and solar are the most intermittent sources. There are some predictive capabilities of when you can expect them to be operating, but not as much as hydro and thermal power. Most of the renewables can be accommodated within the grid at five to ten percent. If there isn’t enough adequate backup sources or linkages to other systems, it could be a problem. Renewables can continue to be pushed upwards, but in general maybe 50% may be a limit. Renewables need efficiency, backup power, storage, and other kinds of flexible energy sources for more of a moment to moment standpoint. A certain amount of load following could be done with nuclear, which is currently being done in France and has been done in the U.S. in the past. From an economic standpoint, it is better to run an expensive asset all the time at peak efficiency and get the most capacity out of it, so it may not make sense to ramp the power up and down. Excess energy could be used as a heat product, such as low temperature for desalination or high temperature for hydrogen production. The light water reactors we have today do not get hot enough for hydrogen production, but the existing high-temperature reactors may be used for chemical processing. Thermal energy is needed and nuclear could play a role in the future to use some of their energy produced for other purposes.
Q4 - Nuclear Energy Economic Planning
Bret Kugelmass: Is there any research being done to the carbon footprint of energy storage systems themselves?
David Shropshire: There have been some studies looking at the systems aspects of using intermittent renewable power, in that wherever the backup source is coming from, there is going to be a price. It takes resources to build batteries, operate them, and dispose of them. That all has a carbon footprint and gets added onto whatever energy system they are assisting. Nuclear power already has a very low life cycle carbon footprint and doesn’t have a variability issues. If it is used as a baseload, it will still need peaking capacity through other means. After two years in the Netherlands, Shropshire made some connections in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). His studies involved looking at how small modular reactors (SMR’s) could work within these systems to balance out renewable energy systems. A couple studies showed how using a flexible source of nuclear power could assist renewable energy in being able to achieve higher levels of penetration in the grid than they would otherwise. Shropshire aimed to create an opportunity for nuclear to be a win-win with renewable energy. Shropshire joined the IAEA to work in the Economic Planning Studies area, which is a section within the Department of Nuclear Energy and interacts with other aspects of nuclear energy. The section management planning capacity building, which is the development of energy planning models that is provided to member states to better understand options and trade-offs. Requests for support are funneled through the Technical Cooperation aspect of the organization, which tries to come up with a program for these countries that can assist them as best as possible. Through the tenant cooperation (TC) program, the IAEA sets a schedule to put on training in the country and help build up the expertise of their experts.
Q5 - IAEA’s Role in Energy Development
Bret Kugelmass: How do the needs of countries in different regions of the world differ?
David Shropshire: Some countries have fairly fundamental energy needs that need to be met. Most of these cases are not looking at nuclear power, but are looking for basic energy solutions. These solutions help provide a basic standard of living, which may be better utilizing their own domestic resources that may be clean, like hydropower, implement renewable energy, or partner with other countries to provide some services. In Africa, there are a lot of regional partnerships, as countries realize they don’t have the resources to bring on energy development on their own. The IAEA works with a lot of regional players to understand the energy needs of a region, not just a country. About 30 countries have approached the IAEA with interest of integrating nuclear at some point in the future. Once a country’s economy has developed and they can recognize the value of nuclear power, they want to get more information about how it could be used and how it could work in their situation. A program in the Infrastructure Development section provides them with a checklist to see if the country has all the capabilities needed to support a nuclear program. Nuclear requires a regulatory body and infrastructure to support the program, as well as the skills and expertise within their workforce to support the facility. The agency’s role is to assist these countries and help them be successful.
Q6 - Energy Poverty and Sustainable Development Goals
Bret Kugelmass: How do we think about the problem of energy poverty and sustainable development goals?
David Shropshire: David Shropshire sees countries that are in-tune with the sustainable development goals and considering the carbon that is being produced for their energy development. They might start out with natural gas or propane, and their energy planning might migrate into lower carbon technologies as they grow. They have to look at the cleanest way possible to bring them out of energy poverty, and then consider other options later. The IAEA helps inform decision makers in these countries about what their options are. There are trade-offs between different energy technologies, such as carbon footprint, physical footprint, and other pollutants. The IAEA produces a number of reports along this domain and aims to be a source of information on the costs of different energy technologies.
Q7 - Coordination Between Nuclear Energy and Renewables
Bret Kugelmass: When planning long-term, how do you think about incorporating technologies that haven’t been implemented yet, and what do you see coming?
David Shropshire: Energy systems are evolving and we are seeing a lot of progress in the area of renewables. Nuclear is also seeing development, especially around small modular reactors (SMR’s) and other similar concepts. These have potential for nuclear to produce a different product than in the past, not just base load electricity, but potentially process heat or variable need that the renewable energy systems have. The industry is also looking at how to replace the reactors that will be decommissioned over the next one or two decades, which will have a significant impact on the overall fleets within the world. We don’t want these reactors to be replaced by high carbon sources, but instead by more nuclear or some combination of nuclear and renewables. Nuclear can maintain a role as both base load as well as helping offset some of the variability aspects of the renewable energy systems.