Mar 14, 2018

Ep 10: Emma Redfoot - Fellow, Idaho National Labs

Idaho National Labs
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Show notes

2:48 - Path to Nuclear

Bret Kugelmass: Tell me your story of how you came into nuclear.

Emma Redfoot: Emma Redfoot received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon with the view that climate change is the issue of her generation. While she was in school, she spent six months living on a permaculture farm in Ecuador as an ecotourism intern. She also lived in Cusco, Peru for six months doing research on volunteer tourism, but didn’t see the scale of impact she wanted to see. Redfoot saw that energy was the fundamental thing that allowed people to empower themselves. There was a correlation between energy consumption and the increase of every standard of living, including women’s rights, longevity, health care accessibility, and education accessibility. At this point, Redfoot knew she wanted to study energy, decided she wanted to be an engineer, and started researching different energy topics, leading to her entrance into the nuclear engineering program at the University of Idaho.

7:09 - Nuclear Advocacy

Bret Kugelmass: Now that you are actively engaged in the nuclear space, where does your research take you?

Emma Redfoot: When Emma Redfoot visited the University of Idaho, she had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Shannon Bragg-Sitton. At the time, Redfoot was living in San Luis Obispo, California, home to Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Before they announced the closure, Redfoot met up with Mothers for Nuclear, an advocacy group comprised of environmentalists focused on telling stories of why they think nuclear is important for the environment. She participated in an effort to go door-to-door and get people to sign a petition to keep Diablo Canyon open and a nuclear advocacy march in San Francisco. After moving to Idaho, Redfoot went to another march organized by Environmental Progress in Chicago, where she noticed that there were a lot of students present. Redfoot wanted to organize the student voices and open it to people who had different reasons for advocating for nuclear, not just environmental. Redfoot wants to see people pull themselves out of poverty with the availability of energy.

14:02 - Nuclear Renewable Hybrid Energy Systems

Bret Kugelmass: What’s your main focus of research at school?

Emma Redfoot: Emma Redfoot’s main focus of research at the University of Idaho is on nuclear renewable hybrid energy systems, led by Dr. Shannon Bragg-Sitton. The University of Idaho is in Moscow, Idaho, but the nuclear program is in Idaho Falls. The Center for Advanced Energy Studies combines Idaho National Lab, University of Idaho, Idaho State University, Boise State University, and the University of Wyoming. Redfoot originally got really excited about advanced reactors, but realized working on hybrid energy systems allows existing nuclear to be competitive with natural gas in cutting edge ways and decarbonize other industries besides electricity. Emma Redfoot has been working on developing a model in the nuclear fuel cycle simulator, Cyclus. This simulator goes through the whole fuel cycle, from mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication, through the reactor, and onto spent fuel to show different tactics for the industry based on different goals. Different people can develop archetypes and facilities within the program to try out a different form of storage with new characteristics or based on region. Cyclus is very flexible and fundamentally passes material between different facilities that are bidding on those resources. This program would create an incredibly dispatchable source of energy and would decarbonize industrial processes, potentially at a lower price. It is hard to find good metrics to define energy. Even with levelized cost of energy, there are many different values brought in to compare research. FERC is looking at reliability, EPRI is working on reliability, and emissions should also be valued. These factors are not always included in levelized cost of energy. Redfoot suggested one risk assessment approach called analytic hierarchy process, which allows one-to-one comparisons of things, such as whether desalination is safer than hydrogen production with an attached value. Certain characteristics are considered, such as safety, grid reliability, and profitability, and weighed by metric, allowing one-to-one comparisons.

24:26 - How to Make Nuclear Competitive

Bret Kugelmass: Where do you see your nuclear hybrid energy system research going?

Emma Redfoot: Cyclus is a very flexible, open source tool written in C++ that has a growing user base in nuclear. The research being done at the National Labs, the Modelica model, has a thorough model of hybrid energy systems overall. Modelica has a series of differential equations that controls the fluid flow and is an open source language specifically developed for dynamic systems. It can thoroughly model each of the components and look at the thermohydraulics within it, which is something not built into Cyclus. Hybrid energy systems have the potential to make a big impact within nuclear. A big way to make nuclear energy competitive is to put a cost on carbon, which is currently a huge externality not taken into account. This can broaden nuclear’s product base so it is more stable, since it won’t be selling just electricity, but another product as well, heat. It’s hard not to be excited about hydrogen as a fuel source and uses for metals like titanium. Emma Redfoot’s advocacy that she does is almost all surrounding support of existing reactors. The current fleet already produces 60% of the emissions-free electricity in the U.S. Keeping the existing industry alive can allow for advanced reactors to come into play. When nuclear reactors are close in the U.S., they are replaced by fossil fuel plants. Redfoot wanted to address energy poverty and light water reactor technology allows people to get access to energy without burning coal. Most people want to know they are leaving a better world for their kids. Nuclear advocacy is a long conversation every time and Redfoot aims to make nuclear more graspable for other people.

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