Ep 14: Mark Peters - Laboratory Director, Idaho National Labs
1:58 - Geology and Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get into the nuclear space?
Mark Peters: Mark Peters’ background is in geology and he received his PhD in geophysical sciences from the University of Chicago. Peters entered into the world of energy through nuclear waste disposal through his work at Yucca Mountain. One of the logical technical solutions for ultimate disposal of spent nuclear fuel is to bury it deep in geology. There are a variety of geologies that would isolate the waste for long periods. The U.S. policy was to converge on Yucca Mountain for the repository. They needed to understand how the water flows through the rock and if there are future opportunities for earthquakes, volcanic activity, or other disruptions. Nuclear energy plays an important part in protecting the planet going forward, in mitigating climate change and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.
5:10 - Capabilities of Idaho National Laboratory
Bret Kugelmass: What was next after your geology work at Yucca Mountain?
Mark Peters: Working at Yucca Mountain got Mark Peters into the laboratories and has been with the National Laboratories for most of his career, early on with Los Alamos National Lab and a two year assignment with the Department of Energy. Mark Peters had a group leader position at Los Alamos, but started into leadership positions when he moved to Argonne National Lab. At the end of his tenure at Argonne, Mark Peters was the head of the Energy and Global Security directorate. He aspired to be a lab director somewhere and his roots and background in the energy space were in nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is first and foremost the highest priority at Idaho National Lab (INL), leading Mark Peters to become the lab director. INL started post World War II as the National Reactor Testing Station. Throughout their history, 52 reactors have been built, tested, and demonstrated at the lab. A lot of reactor technologies, such as molten salt reactors, liquid metal cooled and high temperature gas reactors, are based on concepts through about in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. There has been a lot of improvement in terms of how they are built that will help with the economics, specifically small and modular, and bringing in more materials can last longer and in tougher environments. The ability to think about how a reactor will be manufactured as it is designed could expedite the design, construction, and operation cycle and save money. Mass producing these with advanced manufacturing can affect economies of scale, since nuclear technology has a high capital cost. Modeling and simulation transforms the way nuclear reactors are developed. Instead of building a reactor and testing it to almost failure, the performance can be modeled in a computer to shorten the innovation time to market, such as qualifying a fuel. Because of the history of the site, Idaho National Lab (INL) can do things at scale, but they do a lot of modeling and simulation and have a lot of test reactors and facilities that are used for their own use, other labs, and universities. World class facilities attract world class people, but it’s all about the people.
12:09 - INL’s Partnerships in Innovation
Bret Kugelmass: What’s creating the new sense of excitement and enthusiasm in the nuclear industry?
Mark Peters: The promise of advanced reactors and a large component of the community thinks a lot about protecting the environment and minimizing greenhouse gases. Small modular reactors (SMR) can produce electrons and other products, such as hydrogen. There are a lot of applications emerging now that are becoming more real than they were previously. Idaho National Lab (INL) starts with nuclear energy as the primary focus, but also thinks about what the 2050 integrated energy system looks like, which could see coordination between a lot of nuclear and renewables. INL partners with other labs, universities, and industry. If the U.S. is going to maintain leadership, the U.S. must reestablish a nuclear industry and INL plays an important part. As industry innovates new technologies, INL’s people and facilities need to be more available to industry to allow partnerships. An entrepreneur with an idea for a reactor and a design in a computer can go to INL, who can help fabricate, develop their fuel type, test it, and build small mock-ups of the reactor concept. You can incubate an idea from nothing and take it all the way to deployment using the labs.
16:49 - Energy Research & Development
Bret Kugelmass: Why is it important that we facilitate R&D in the big picture of nuclear?
Mark Peters: R&D is an important part of competitiveness; the federal investment in research and development makes the United States so special. Federal government investment leads to prosperity and competitiveness. The U.S. National Lab system is the envy of the world, and many countries are copying the system. The current administration is actively talking to the Labs about how to do a better job with innovation and getting lab products out to the market. This doesn’t necessarily need a new policy, but it needs to be made a priority. Argonne National Lab has a lot to bring to the table related to batteries, lithium ion and beyond. The penetration of renewables relies on cost competitive energy storage on the grid. Idaho National Lab (INL) tests concepts and provides the parameters tracked in battery storage. Other labs are doing materials development and innovation for energy storage. There are 17 Department of Energy (DOE) labs that operate as a system. Their capabilities complement each other very well and some labs focus strictly on fundamental science. Other labs are more focused on direct impacts in the technology market, like INL. They compete on ideas, but partner effectively. Labs are inherently multidisciplinary.
22:53 - Cybersecurity and the Smart Grid
Bret Kugelmass: What are some other energy technology trends?
Mark Peters: Smart grid can change what the future of the grid looks like and there are lots of disruptive technologies entering into the market. Mark Peters’ perspective is how to maintain security in a smart grid. With everything going digital, there are cyber threats introduced to the system and the grid. Those must be designed up front so they are more secure to cyber threats and that the system as a whole is more resilient. Twenty-first century systems are going to be more economic, more responsive, and allow more control over the systems, but they must be kept secure. There are scientists and engineers understand the integrated systems, and hackers are brought in who understand how to attack systems in order to find out how to protect it. The cyber field is moving very quickly and Idaho National Lab (INL) has to work creatively with the university and community college systems to think about how to train the next generation. The curriculums within those programs need to evolve. Mark Peters sees nuclear as a multidisciplinary field. Mark Peters is an eternal optimist and the pace of technology innovation is amazing, but it must be put out in the market thoughtfully. There is an opportunity to provide energy for everyone who wants it in a clean, secure, reliable, affordable way. It is a question of persistence and focus.