Ep 22: Edward McGinnis - Assistant Secretary of Energy, Department Of Energy
Q: Tell us about your path to the Department of Energy (DOE).
A: Ed McGinnis attended graduate school at American University and upon graduation, immediately started working at the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE is the lead department for all things energy, including acting as the custodian of the nuclear weapons deterrent, leading in technology and innovation, and directing disruptive exploration technologies, including oil and gas, directional drilling, space-based missions. At the end of the first year, McGinnis actually submitted applications pursuing other opportunities, unaware that he would spend 27 years in the Department.
Q: Early on, was your energy focus more on security applications?
A: Ed McGinnis attended the School of International Service at American University, with the intention of going into a government, international or domestic, mission-based area focused on national security. He also attended the Harvard Executive Program while working for the DOE in Nuclear Non-Proliferation Warhead Security and pursued two certifications at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Q: Tell us about your collaboration between 40+ countries in understanding radiological threats across the world.
A: Ed McGinnis earned the trust of his leadership to lead a collaboration between multiples countries in understanding radiological threats across the world. Secretary Abraham was responsible for DOE at the time a new focus area called dirty bomb threat reduction, or dirty bomb concerns, developed. Dirty bomb concerns were related to using radiological sources as a weapon. There were also concerns about the materials all over the world that could be used to create an improvised nuclear device. The Assistant Secretary level office leadership asked McGinnis to start a secretarial task force on global radiological and nuclear threat reduction. McGinnis had been a senior advisor for seven years, in addition to Russian warhead security work, before he stepped into this role. He was asked to build an international coalition of like-minded countries that shared concern about the threat of radiological materials and nuclear materials that could be used for malevolent purposes. More than 20 countries got together around the world, working to secure materials in hospitals and nuclear institutes in order to reduce the chances of those materials falling into the wrong hands.
Q: Was it clear what all the sources of these radiological and nuclear materials were, or was that part of the force that you led?
A: Ed McGinnis led the threat reduction task force to understand the global inventory of different materials that could be used in an RDD (radiological dispersion device) or an improvised nuclear device, which have different impacts and threats. The force used the National Labs to baseline the location of materials, such as those found in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union countries, and also in hospitals with little or no security protocol. Many of these materials found in hospitals had not been protected or safeguarded in the past. The DOE also recovered materials from Iraq, such as radiological thermoelectric generators and plutonium beryllium sources. McGinnis was responsible for understanding and taking action on this new, emerging threat. The global threat reduction initiative has seen great success in recovering and securing these materials, which McGinnis is extremely proud of. McGinnis recognizes the commitment to non-proliferation shown by the U.S. companies that export the products, who realize the gravity and responsibility of this market. The U.S. nuclear industry has the highest standard of non-proliferation in the world.
Q: Is it more imperative that the U.S. is the exporter of radiological and nuclear materials around the world, because we carry through with our technology, people, expertise, safety protocols, and the ability to track materials? What can we do to further enable our nuclear export preeminence?
A: Ed McGinnis believes it is imperative that the U.S. is the exporter of radiological and nuclear materials. Great innovation has come out of the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi, and Admiral Rickover of the nuclear Navy fleet. U.S. companies such as Westinghouse, GE, and others led the way in the 1950’s U.S. nuclear industry. The U.S. was the founder of nuclear energy in many respects. The world has dramatically changed in that the U.S. used to have 90% of the market in the 1970’s to 1980’s, and now only maintains about 20% of the market. If the U.S. does not supply into this competitive market, consumer countries are going to look elsewhere to supplier countries that do not have the same level of safety, security, and innovation and customer service-based philosophy that the U.S. does.
Q: Russia and China both have state-financed nuclear industries. Does the DOE look toward initiatives to make ourselves competitive? What can doe do to help private companies against these?
A: Ed McGinnis has led the DOE to utilize many competitive initiatives in the nuclear industry. In order for the U.S. to compete overseas, the U.S. must continue to out-compete in the innovation, safety, and efficiency markets. The U.S. has the largest fleet of reactors at 99 units total, currently operated at over 90% capacity; the domestic industry was resource savvy and got the most out of these major national assets. The U.S. has the highest standards in the industry and leads in innovative new designs, such as microreactors and advanced small modular reactors (SMR’s), which will get the U.S. back in a leadership role. The U.S. also has leading national laboratories, 17 total, that are preeminent around the world. The DOE harnesses, mobilizes, and partners with national labs to test transient reactors and complete modeling and simulation advanced fuel fabrication. The DOE wants to dispatch significant and disruptive technology at the highest optimal impact point. McGinnis challenges that companies think innovatively, and state-owned enterprises are not going to be able to match that.
Q: It is imperative that we bring innovation and advanced technologies to market. How would the DOE like to partner with the advanced technology companies?
A: Ed McGinnis and the DOE bring four game changing factors for the future of nuclear energy.
The first is knowledge about existing reactors. Major issues of confidence in the past encourage technology and innovation that can support a new class of reactors from a safety perspective, including walk-away safe designs. Most of the new reactors are designed without any human intervention or electric pumps, but instead will naturally shut down. This will prove to the public that a reactor can safely shut down without fear of core melt. The second game changer is versatility. Large reactors are large base load and do not power up and down in variable ways very well. Newly developed small reactors are load-following. NuScale is designing the first reactors under development that can go from zero power to 100% in 60-120 minutes. As for versatility, SMR’s have 12 different 50MW electric units that can operate individually at a different level or for different purposes. The third game changer is financeability. Large units cost too much for utilities to shoulder and take too long to construct. Small modular reactors are set up to have a plant like NuScale that is able to start small, begin generating power, and then grow gradually. The final game changer is the ability to recycle waste. Reactors are being developed that can burn waste into a power source. All of these factors create a highly disruptive movement in nuclear sector.
Q: How does the DOE balance ushering in the new generation of reactors versus the courtwork and managing the waste of existing plants?
A: Ed McGinnis approaches more complex problems with an intuitive, simplified approach when balancing roles of the DOE. The DOE approaches nuclear energy in terms of fleet, planning new reactors, and fuel cycle infrastructure, including disposition. On June 29, 2017, President Trump committed to reviving and expanding the U.S. nuclear energy sector. In the past, the sector struggled with a lack of clarity from administration. McGinnis leads a newly reinvigorated DOE with a clear mission: maintain a safe, sustainable fleet. Goals also include extending life extensions from 60 to 80 years and developing accident tolerant fuels. The average age of existing nuclear plants in the U.S. is 38 years. A long length of service at safety and service has been sustained, but as the end of the life for those plants is approaching, it is essential to bring in a new, disruptive class of technologies. This forges an additional set of options, especially for communities that never had that option for nuclear energy from financing option. Ed McGinnis envisions widely distributed opportunity over the next decade in the U.S.
Q: What short term challenges does the U.S. still need to face, and where do you picture the world ten years from now, from a nuclear energy perspective?
A: Ed McGinnis sees short term challenges in taking intellect and innovative concepts from the private sector and clearing a path for them to commercialize and bring to the market. By reducing unnecessary bureaucracy, becoming more efficient,and helping dispatch technology at National Labs, the DOE can help them compete. Ed McGinnis compares the nuclear energy industry to the aerospace, oil and gas, and IT sectors, in which the U.S. will leapfrog the world in supplying technology development in the nuclear sector. The DOE also has challenges amongst the National Labs regarding 3D printing. Oak Ridge National Lab is among the world’s leaders in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, looking to create nuclear components and even a microreactor with these processes, upending the wisdom of the conventional manufacturing supply chain. Ed Mcginnis sees a completely transformed nuclear energy sector around the world in ten years.