Ep 407: Nolan Hertel - Professor Emeritus, Georgia Institute of Technology
Ryan Howell [00:00:58] Welcome everybody, again to another episode of Titans of Nuclear. I'm Ryan Howell, I'll be hosting today. And we have with us Nolan Hertel, a professor from Georgia Tech. So, thanks for joining us, Nolan.
Nolan Hertel [00:01:11] You're welcome.
Ryan Howell [00:01:13] Just to kick us off, why don't you tell us a little bit about your past, where you grew up and what got you into nuclear?
Nolan Hertel [00:01:19] Okay, I grew up in a relatively small town in Texas called Kerrville, Texas, in the Texas Hill Country. Then I guess in high school, I was interested in physics and did well with math. And so, I went to Texas A&M, got a bachelor's and master's degree there, pretty much in traditional nuclear engineering. And then, I went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I got my PhD there. I worked with guys who mainly did neutrons. It was a great experience there.
Nolan Hertel [00:01:56] And I'd say my current interest went strongly towards neutron dosimetry radiation. Dosimetry radiation protection was kind of... I spent some time at Pacific Northwest National Lab in the late '80s, and that kind of set me on a direction to do computational dose stuff. So I have background there and in shielding. I don't do reactor physics. I can understand what they're talking about, but that was my choice not to do those things.
Ryan Howell [00:02:28] All right. So what kind of stuff were you doing at PNNL then?
Nolan Hertel [00:02:31] At PNNL I worked with the Dosimetry Group and we were looking at... At that time, the International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements had come out with new quantities to use for instruments. And so we were delving through those and modeling sources they calibrated with to see what they should be reading to simulate those responses. I did a lot of Monte Carlo work in that setup.
Ryan Howell [00:03:01] That transitioned you into the modeling side, then?
Nolan Hertel [00:03:05] Yeah, that's when I got into doing a lot of the modeling side. And that's carried through. If you use American National Standard 6.1.1 to convert from neutral intensity to dose, you're using numbers that I helped calculate as well as I was on the group that formed that standard. Also just recently, about two years ago, ICRU released its new operational quantity recommendations. I co-chaired that, and so a lot of my numbers are in there. If I really wanted to brag, I'd say probably if you convert from neutron or gamma ray field strength to dose, you probably use numbers that either helped generate or helped select.
Ryan Howell [00:03:57] Very neat.
Nolan Hertel [00:03:58] But that's a rather small audience.
Ryan Howell [00:04:02] Yes, yes. No, that sounds like a lot of fun. Any other passion projects throughout your career?
Nolan Hertel [00:04:10] Well, it's interesting and I like to tell young people this. Sometimes things that you think are negatives in your life turn out to be something you can actually use. And in a technical sense, I was made the Director of the Georgia Tech Research Reactor on the same day that the president told me at Georgia Tech... He told me, "I sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying we're going to decommission it." So jokingly, I said, "I've never been there when the reactor on light was lit.
Nolan Hertel [00:04:43] And so as a result of that, if you follow decommissioning, I like to jokingly say there's only maybe 100 people who do actual decommissioning and they're always working for a different company the next time you bump into them. But as a result of what we did there, I've done a fair amount of consulting over the last 20 years, looking at calculating radioactivity levels in the parts as they tear it apart. In fact, I'm involved in three such things right now.
Nolan Hertel [00:05:14] The idea is we know that we haven't calculated the absolute truth, but we're giving them an engineering estimate of what should be, say, in the stainless steel. And then they can say, "Here's how we're going to box that up to minimize waste cost and what we may have to be careful of when we go start cutting and chopping things out." So, that kind of a default has become a passion. But my biggest passion, really, was measuring neutrons over the entire 40-something years of my career.
Ryan Howell [00:05:49] Yeah, that's fantastic. Is that something you're continuing on? I know you're partnering with Oak Ridge National Lab. Can you tell us a little bit about that work?
Nolan Hertel [00:05:59] Yeah, I just came back from there. Well, in 2013 I became what we call a Joint Faculty Appointment. Oak Ridge National Lab has seven university partners, and each of those have a streamlined approach to have faculty members appointed jointly, which can mean they can pay you zero and don't expect anything from you, or they can get up to a significant amount of your time. And so, I did computational dosimetry there until about two years ago. And then, we've been doing some neutron measurements to basically better calibrate their dosimeters.
Nolan Hertel [00:06:36] So what we'll do is we'll make a measurement with a system that will give us a crude neutron spectrum, convert it to dose, and then they'll put their dosimeters on a slab phantom to replicate the backscatter from the body. And then, we'll see how those are. And usually if you have a really good measurement of the actual neutron dose, the dosimeters overrespond. And so, you can reduce your dose of record.
Nolan Hertel [00:07:04] And that was a big thing. We did that at a couple of power plants too, which is giving students who want an opportunity to go into containment at a PWR during power. They should have let me go in because, what the oldest person should take dose, right? However, they were so excited and they would only let four of us in, so I got to sit in the waiting room while they had all the fun. But those are things that people have done to better calibrate their dosimeters for use in the actual fields that they work in. You know, we have laboratory sources, but those may have different energy dependence, which could lead to an overestimate of the dose that we read on these dosimeters.
Ryan Howell [00:07:48] So, what facilities are you using then, up at Oak Ridge? What do you work with most?
Nolan Hertel [00:07:53] Well, we've gone to several facilities like the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center, where people handle things that may give you neutrons from alpha reactions with oxygen. So it's like, if you have a solution with curium in it or something. So we've done a few measurements there where they've put together californium, extracted californium. We've done some stuff there. Somebody had a DT neutron generator, so we went to that facility and made some measurements.
Nolan Hertel [00:08:24] We also made some measurements placing neutron source, where suddenly you look and say, "Oh, there's a little seam in the concrete. Oh, well, neutrons are actually coming through." There are many seems in the concrete, but there's actually some low dose coming through. So, principally we've done that and then calibrated the system with their calibration facilities with some known sources.
Nolan Hertel [00:08:44] So I have a few more. May 31st is my last day of work at Georgia Tech. June 1st is my first day of retirement. I have to say it correctly for them. And starting after 30 days, I can work part-time again for Georgia Tech. So, there are still a few places to make neutron measurements that they wanted to look at. So probably in July, I'll dust off the equipment if I can find it and go back up there for a couple of weeks.
Ryan Howell [00:09:21] That's fantastic. Congratulations on the retirement and it's great to hear that you're still going to be playing in retirement.
Nolan Hertel [00:09:30] Well, I say I am not a strategic planner. And so, when people say, "What are you going to do?" I say, "Well, I'm going to move back to Texas, eventually." That may be four months. It might be a year. My wife has plans to move back sooner, so it will probably be more like four months.
Ryan Howell [00:09:49] Yes, yes. Very good. Any plans to get hooked back up with Texas A&M when you're out there?
Nolan Hertel [00:09:54] I don't know. I think I have several opportunities here still doing shielding with people. And most of that can be done now virtually. They send me the plans and stuff; I can do that. Although it is good, sometimes, to look face to face with people. I'm not really crazy about teaching more courses, okay? If there are short courses some place, I'm happy to do that. But I'm probably not going to go back into a classroom setting, I don't think, at this time.
Ryan Howell [00:10:29] Sure, sure. So, tell us a little bit about something people might not know about the role nuclear energy and, specifically, some of your work in shielding and neutron calculations. How is that going to play a role in the energy transition?
Nolan Hertel [00:10:44] Well, I think with some of the small modular reactors, things are changing some. When you look at the molten salt concept... And I asked this question once to a group of students and got no answer. But I mean, things like delayed neutrons, right? So now you're pumping the salt around, whereas before... Say you have a uranium oxide fuel. Well, all that's trapped in the fuel, right? So, delayed neutrons are in the core. Well, now you're pumping that around. I said, "Have you worried about are you going to see neutrons in other areas of the plant that you normally only saw gamma rays?" So, I think there are interesting things.
Nolan Hertel [00:11:22] And then, I saw one design where it looked like people may actually go on the deck of the reactor while it's operating, which probably means a bigger neutron dose. I mean, currently at PWRs, you might go into containment. At a BWR, you never do while it's operating. PWR, but you don't ever take a direct look down at the pressure vessel. So, there are neutron fields there. So, I think that remains to be seen.
Nolan Hertel [00:11:49] Some of the things like portable reactors, or mobile... We should probably call them mobile, right? They can be moved. Like some of these three... And I don't know the terms. They call them micro reactors, right? Three, five megawatt electric. Say if you're going to move that, you're going to have to now think about, "Did I contaminate the soil? Did I activate the soil? If it was on a concrete pad, can I just load it up and move or do I need to take some care in what was left behind?" So, I think those are big things.
Nolan Hertel [00:12:29] The other thing, recently I've been doing shielding on electron beam machines, you know when you make Bremsstrahlung. So one of the companies here is a nondestructive testing company, and people are using 6, 10 megavolt machines, which I think is quite different than using 250, 450 kilavolt X-rays. So, more worried about putting them in shielded rooms. I've been doing some of that.
Nolan Hertel [00:12:58] And then, also the local company who does food irradiation. They have some unique problems. They actually have a food irradiator now operating in Mission, Texas and approved. And so, there are things like that which are a little bit... Some of the things are new to me. Not new to the world of physics, but I mean, the actual shielding of those facilities because they looked a lot different, say, than a typical accelerator setup where you have a gigantic shielded room and the beam comes in. And so, that's a kind of growth area, maybe, for me, if I keep doing something.
Ryan Howell [00:13:36] Yeah, sure. Let's dive into that a little bit, because I know you're a past President of the Council on Ionizing Radiation Measurements and Standards. And that's certainly for me, getting involved with that group was a broadening of my viewpoint and just how much the nuclear industry touches everything that we're doing as humans across health care, industrial sterilization, like you just mentioned, and everything we're doing with nuclear power.
Nolan Hertel [00:14:02] Right. I think that's a thing that we probably in nuclear engineering education don't count on our undergraduates enough. That, "Hey, accelerators are widely used for a variety of things." I like to point out to them, and I think this is still true... I can mention a brand name, can't I? They used to say that the ink was cured on the Eggo packages by electron beam. Then if you look at Georgia, in the paper industry, actually I think they use radioactive gas. I don't know whether it was xenon, I don't remember, quite... But I mean, to gauge the thickness of the paper as it rolls along. And so, there are all kinds of uses.
Nolan Hertel [00:14:45] Now, there are hundreds of jobs for bachelor's level nuclear engineers, but they need somebody who understands radiation interactions. So I always try to tell them, "You have the fundamental tools to do more things than reactors, you just haven't thought about them." And so, we used to teach a course here called Nuclear Sources and Applications where we tried to say, "Here's a brief look at accelerators. Here's what people use neutrons for other than to make fission in reactors. Here's what people use photon beams for." A lot of things like that.
Nolan Hertel [00:15:20] But curves really opens it up. If you see that, you're amazed at all the industrial uses because you're going like, "Oh, these guys are hiding away someplace where the rest of the nuclear engineering community rarely sees them, right?" But they work very strongly on a lot of industrial processes. One of the things a local company told me here is that they've been making X-ray cabinets, suddenly in big demand in California for sterilizing cannabis. Have you imagined that?
Ryan Howell [00:15:55] Extending shelf life of all things.
Nolan Hertel [00:15:59] There you go. So I mean, it's interesting as you meet people who don't quite fit into the power plant picture, the things that are being done that, say, the average nuclear engineer never thinks about it, I think.
Ryan Howell [00:16:12] Yeah, very innovative and novel ways of using radiation. So in your opinion, what's been the most significant discovery or breakthrough in nuclear technology over the course of your career? What is that and how do you think that's impacted the industry?
Nolan Hertel [00:16:33] Well, that's a hard one.
Ryan Howell [00:16:36] Lots of neat things have been going on.
Nolan Hertel [00:16:38] Yeah, there's nothing new under the sun though. But I guess in applications, I think particularly... And I've had some interactions with people, medical physicists. I think if you look at how things have progressed from an old medical physics, radiotherapy treatment to what they do now is incredibly fancy using microbeams shooting different directions. And then moving to proton machines and ultimately to carbon ions and things like that. I think that's kind of interesting.
Nolan Hertel [00:17:13] In fact, that's how I kind of got my start with my master's degree. I worked with a guy at Texas A&M who was treating for MD Anderson cancer patients in the Texas A&M cyclotron with high energy neutrons. That kind of died over the years, but now with these higher-LET radiations like protons and carbon-14 have some of their impacts. And I think a lot of this stuff like monoclonal antibodies, where we've tagged things that go to specific locations with alpha emitters, all of this is pretty exciting.
Nolan Hertel [00:17:50] I guess in nuclear engineering... I'm trying to think. Like, power reactors. Well, we eliminated the number of pumps, but that sounds kind of mundane. I think in general, the generic things we do have pretty much stayed the same. And it's kind of like, all of a sudden people are interested in molten salt reactors, but a lot of the first reactors were molten salt, the experimental setup. So, it's kind of like you go back to that.
Nolan Hertel [00:18:19] The other thing I find interesting, sometimes, is... There's this old journal called Nucleonics, written in the '50s. And if you go back in there and you look, you say, "This guy had a great idea, but they just didn't have micro and nanoscale electronics. They didn't have all the technology we do to interface that." And you say like, "Hey, that idea would now work." And you see, occasionally, somebody will pull one of those out and you'll say... And I'm thinking more about detection, radiation detection, that there were a lot of concepts back then.
Nolan Hertel [00:18:49] So the biggest thing... One of the biggest things is maybe more political. Suddenly, people like us. I lived through all those decades, you know, of Chernobyl. I started at the University of Texas, and I was there like a year or so and then there was Chernobyl. And so, we actually did a lot of public relations stuff where we would go to even elementary schools and talk about how reactors work and things like that. And then, we kind of went through a cycle where everybody was against nuclear power. Now they see it as one of the major solutions to climate change. I know that's not a technical change, but that's an amazing change in attitude among the average citizen.
Ryan Howell [00:19:44] Yeah, that's definitely been a great shift for everybody. I certainly feel that nuclear is going to be helping us get to net zero and beyond, so that's fantastic. Has that impacted your work at all? Did you ever see any public perception or pushback with trying to find funding throughout your career or anything like that?
Nolan Hertel [00:20:03] Well, yeah, there were lean years, I think. When I was at the University of Texas, I was there for 14 years before I came to Georgia Tech. I probably should've have left 10 years earlier than I did, but I won't go into that discussion. It was a rather small group of faculty. But I worked on the Texas Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority. So I got some insight into waste disposal. Not high-level waste, but low-level waste. And I think in the lean years, I kept that going and then did some things.
Nolan Hertel [00:20:41] After 9/11, suddenly we became interested in "Can we scan people who might be contaminated and decide this person is going to get a big dose, so let's do something? This person can go home, take a shower, and probably be okay even though they have some internal contamination." So, we got a fair amount of work done for about 10 years with the CDC on how do you have people walk through portal monitors, stand in them for a minute, and determine whether they're contaminated or not and back calculate some numbers. Those were kind of the lean years.
Nolan Hertel [00:21:20] And then what you do is you find yourself old, suddenly, right? You don't know this is happening when you're a university professor because I hung around with kids who were only in their '20s for four years, right?
Ryan Howell [00:21:31] Time flies when you're having fun.
Nolan Hertel [00:21:34] And then you go like, "Oh, well." At the later stages of your career, they're going like, "Well, we need to give young people funding." So there's always this challenge. Particularly in the area I'm in, it's not like overwhelming. Had I been, maybe, a more a mainstream reactor physicist, the last 10 years would have probably looked a lot better. I mean, it doesn't look bad. I did a lot of good things that I enjoyed and got paid to do them. So, it was fine in that sense.
Ryan Howell [00:22:03] Yeah. You talk a lot about looking at decommissioning and you worked a little bit in the low-level waste disposal. What do you think the outlook is for decommissioning, especially if we're entering into this next phase and putting a lot of new small reactors online? What do you think is going to happen there?
Nolan Hertel [00:22:23] Well, I assume most of the existing power plants... And I guess what we've seen is if there's more than one unit at a power station, it's economically viable. I think we've lost some, like Kewaunee Nuclear Power Plant, because it's one unit. And I think you can economically operate if you have more than one unit because you can double-use the crews, I guess. So, I don't know. But I guess Palisades Nuclear Power Plant, Holtec seems to be saying, "Hey, let's get that loan from DOE and restart." The governor of Michigan seems to stand behind it. So, I think the big ones will still be there unless they are just totally outdated.
Nolan Hertel [00:23:09] I think probably what can happen with small modular reactors is... Say, 30 years ago we built a reactor, or more. We didn't really do a chemical analysis of the steel, like how much cobalt-59 is in the steel, which actually drives a lot of the dose rate you're going to get when it's over. And I think now we have the opportunity as we build these things to say, "Let's characterize really well what we put in and then the modeling that people can do will be much more accurate." So, we'll have a better idea, although I guess the old pros who've done a lot of this for the companies have some idea in their minds what the rate is going to be. I think that's an opportunity there.
Nolan Hertel [00:23:58] I know a lot of these things, the refueling on some of them last a lot longer than typical. So, I think everything's different in that dynamic. But I guess I don't see the nuclear waste ultimately going away. I do think we'll see kind of different, maybe, time sequence of when we get rid of things and how we get rid of them. You know, we're still waiting for that fusion reactor to come online. And I always get upset when people say, "Well, we don't make radioactive waste." Yeah, you do. It's just a different kind.
Ryan Howell [00:24:38] Yes, yes.
Nolan Hertel [00:24:40] I'll tell you an anecdote here. There's a guy I know who got his PhD in 1956 at the University of Texas at Austin. And I shouldn't say this; this will make fusion guys mad. And he actually did nuclear powered aircraft shielding. And he told me in about 1988, he said, "You know, when I graduated from the University of Texas in 1956 there was only one constant in fusion. And that is that in 50 years we'll have a fusion reactor that generates electricity. And that stayed constant the whole time through my career." And I'm going like, "Okay." But I think we're close. We're closer, I guess we should say.
Ryan Howell [00:25:23] Going to remain hopeful on that front. Hopefully these SMRs can take us through.
Nolan Hertel [00:25:28] Gives us something to shoot for, right? The energy of the sun, right? So, we're good.
Ryan Howell [00:25:33] Yeah. No, I'm at least excited. SMRs getting us through. I've heard the new fast reactors can actually take spent nuclear fuel and burn a little bit more out of it so we could potentially fuel the new generation of reactors with some of the older fuels. And hopefully, that'll be an extra stopgap to get us to the next level of fusion.
Nolan Hertel [00:25:55] Right. No, I think we'll ultimately get there. The question is will it look like anything like we're thinking of right at this moment? Maybe, maybe not. So, we'll see.
Ryan Howell [00:26:04] Yeah. Well, you said you work with a lot of students, so I'm sure you get this question a lot. But what advice can you give to someone starting out in the nuclear industry based on your experience and perspectives? What would you tell someone?
Nolan Hertel [00:26:21] Well, the current generation may not stay in a job as long as I did, okay? And people in my generation, okay? And they may move around a lot. But at the same time, I like to tell them, "You've got this starting place." And they say, "I'm not sure whether I should take this." I say, "Look, you go there, you work two or three years. If you don't like it, you've got like 40 years left to work. And you'll learn something that'll help you." So, I think one thing is to recognize the first train ticket may not be where you wind up, and to learn what you can there.
Nolan Hertel [00:27:00] There's another local company that did dry storage containers, and people would say, "Well should I work there?" I said, "Well, yeah, if you go there, you're going to do criticality. You're going to do shielding. You're going to do stuff like center of gravity calculations for the containers. There's no other place where you can do all these things. And then, you can move on, somebody wants you." But I think the real thing is to look at, "If I don't like it, I'm still young."
Nolan Hertel [00:27:33] And I get the same thing for people who go like, "Well, I'm thinking about joining the Navy, the nuclear Navy." And so what, that's a six year commitment. I say, "Okay, so you're 28. You've got a lot of things going for you and you've got some things going for you that the guys who graduated with you don't. You've been commanding people. You've been managing people, and that's an asset."
Nolan Hertel [00:27:55] So I think... Not to lock in like "what I do next," not to get too anxious about "what I do next is going to be what I do forever." And particularly, I think if you go on to graduate school, you're going to say, "Is my thesis going to be the only thing I ever do?" Well, hopefully not. Hopefully, you get way beyond that. So, I think that's a piece of advice so they don't get so anxious about choosing between three or four options.
Ryan Howell [00:28:27] Sure. That's fantastic. And certainly, that's been my feeling being in the nuclear industry. I think the last time you and I ran into each other was at a conference in South Africa. So I always tell people nuclear can take you all around the world. Yeah, yeah.
Nolan Hertel [00:28:42] Well, and this goes back to my upbringing. I never dreamed I would... I went to Mexico when I was in high school, once. And probably, I've been to innumerable countries. I've been to two of the secret cities in Russia because I was in the Department of Energy Russian Health Studies Program. Now, we were highly monitored. They wouldn't let us spend the night in town. We stayed in Tomsk at some sort of resort outside of Ozersk. But I met a lot of people. And I think that's one thing. You go around the world, you meet people and they're interesting and we all get along on the personal level, regardless of how our governments are standing off and doing things to each other. So, I think it's opportunities, yeah.
Nolan Hertel [00:29:32] I guess the other thing to tell them is nuclear power is a global industry. I used to work with a guy at the University of Texas. At that time, besides the US, France was where all the real... France and Japan were where the big actions were in nuclear power. And he'd tell them, "You should learn French." I think there's a certain amount of truth that I should be looking around the world to see how we fit in. And that's a unique thing, I think, about this compared to some of the other industries.
Ryan Howell [00:30:09] Sure, definitely. Well, yeah, you've had quite a long career; you've been a lot of places. Can you tell us a few of your favorite stories or some of the crazier things that you've been a part of that have been fun and interesting?
Nolan Hertel [00:30:26] This again from a small town boy's background. I tell my wife, "If I write my memoirs, I'm going to entitle it, I Fell Down On Three Different Continents." Because I fell down in China, I fell down in France, in Poland, of course, in the US. Not that I fall down a lot, it's just like I look back on those. So, those are kind of interesting.
Nolan Hertel [00:30:56] I don't know about weird things. I guess some of the interesting experiences when we went to Ozersk. It's like the 007 movies where you see the two fences and dogs between the fences. And we'd drive up there and they'd come on board, take all our passports and look at them, and they're armed. But it wasn't what it was, say, 20 years before, because the dogs are kind of sleeping under the trees and stuff like that. And so, it was kind of a total different thing to be watched.
Nolan Hertel [00:31:29] I don't know, just going places. And I think for me, one of the big things is the Europeans are much more interested in measuring dose as closely as they can because they've set their dose limits much lower. And so, I feel like it's weird that I probably had more contacts in Europe that know what I do than people in the US, a rather a small group.
Nolan Hertel [00:31:59] But as President of the Health Physics Society, in 2018, I went to China for 11 days. I was able to bring my wife and they paid for her once I got her a ticket. And we went there and did some sightseeing, and that was really interesting. But I fell down there. And this kind of funny. We had a hostess who was taking us around. There was some sort of wedding band playing outside because there had just been a wedding at the hotel. And so, I was going to go out and I said, "You two wait here. I'll go out and take a picture of the band playing."
Nolan Hertel [00:32:37] So I went out there, and when I went out there was a lot of dust on a marble slab and I fell down and hit knee first. So, it took me a long time to come back in, and the woman who was with my wife was just really worried that something happened really bad, like I was abducted or something. I don't know what it was, but that was a challenge. I should be able to come up with better stories than that, but anyway, that's kind of it.
Ryan Howell [00:33:10] No, no, that's been great. Getting around the world, getting to meet people. Like you said, you meet a lot of interesting people. But I love that, like you said, everybody is kind of... Geopolitics aside, we're all interested in the science and can really communicate on that level and connect on that level. That's fantastic.
Nolan Hertel [00:33:33] Well, one other thing that comes to mind is I've been to Hiroshima maybe five or six times. My father, it actually turned out that he went into Hiroshima 30 days after they dropped the bomb. I mean, he was just a Chief Petty Officer, so it wasn't anything nuclear. But he never told me that. So, I read his diary after he left and he said he went into town and he bought stamps at the post office. And I'm going like, "Well, surely they sold US personnel stamps."
Nolan Hertel [00:34:05] And then I realized when I walked around the town where they show you where the post office was at, the post office shut down for one day and reopened the next day after the bomb was dropped. Windows were blown out. You're standing there and saying, "Hey, 75 years ago, my father stood at this very location, but he never told me." Then I understand that he bought the stamps as a souvenir. And so, it's interesting going around the world. Things happen; you bump into people that you never thought you would meet. And sometimes they have a strong connection to a similar background, so that's been the exciting part, I think, of my career.
Ryan Howell [00:34:49] What else do you think we can do to further the nuclear industry? What steps can we take to spread the word? I know there's a lot of excitement right now and a lot of energy need, especially in Europe. But what things can we do to spread the word?
Nolan Hertel [00:35:03] We've always said this, but I think if we could just speed up the process of building plants. And maybe that happens with things maybe being manufactured in a factory with SMRs. But I mean, just like Plant Vogtle. Three is now online, I think Four is getting ready to go online. But, what?A bunch of years after we... It was a long time period that was scheduled, and it's even longer now. And in a sense, the Southeast is in great shape, I think, because of its dependence on nuclear energy.
Nolan Hertel [00:35:37] But I think if somehow we could... Well, lower costs, obviously. But I mean, if we can go to a much shorter time period where people don't say, "Oh, yeah, we're getting hit big time by the Public Utility Commission to pay for the interest on this plant." So, I think there's a financial side that comes with this that we have to... And I guess with standardized manufactured designs, that should help in that regard.
Nolan Hertel [00:36:13] I think to, we probably need to preach a little bit more about actual radioactive releases from nuclear power plants of all types. Years ago there was an old study that coal-fired power plants spit more radioactive material up the stack than a nuclear power plant did. I think that's something that people don't know.
Nolan Hertel [00:36:43] And high-level waste, right? We've seen that diagram. Well, here's a football field. We'll take all the high-level waste and encapsulate it, how small an area it takes up. And let them know that we have good engineered systems to take care of it. So those, I think, are biggies from my perspective. There was one other, but hey, I'm old enough. It slipped my mind, so it doesn't matter.
Ryan Howell [00:37:17] No, that's good. It was very good. So, definitely want to spread the word and get people excited about it. And certainly speed of implementation, I think, would help for sure.
Ryan Howell [00:37:27] Well, we're coming close to our time. I don't know if you want to add anything else. We certainly like to end with casting a vision for nuclear energy to the future. So, what do you think energy around the world will look like in the short-term and far-term?
Nolan Hertel [00:37:47] Well, it seems to me like small modular reactors and especially things that are maybe sub-200 megawatt electric, that there are now remote locations... And I think, Alan Walter, in one of his books did an analysis on health care versus salary. And it's all tied to energy production. So a lot of the remote places in the world where we don't want to run gigantic transmission lines, right? And we already have a transmission line problem in certain parts of our country. It makes sense to have small reactors. So, we go out there, and then maybe they don't have to be tended to for 15, 20 years. And I see that developing.
Nolan Hertel [00:38:30] And I know that particularly in Canada, they think about Indigenous people up closer to the Arctic Circle. Well, let's go drop a 20 megawatt, 30 megawatt electric, basically, closed system there, and then we only have to run local lines and stuff like that. So, I was surprised a couple of years ago when I was on a review team for endowed professorship in Canada that they were really thinking strongly in that direction, that SMRs were really good for those remote regions where you don't want to run transmission lines.
Nolan Hertel [00:39:08] I think the whole system can change somewhat. And then I guess the other thing we see in the US that's kind of interesting is we can shut down the coal-fired power plant and we can relocate multiple modules and use already existing cooling water, I assume transmission lines. They may need some upgrading. But I think that's a distributed source.
Nolan Hertel [00:39:30] Years ago, one guy kind of got on me about this. This is like about 35 years ago. He said, "Well, you know the problem with nuclear power is it's all centralized. It should be distributed." And so, we now live in an era where, hey, it can be distributed. I also, tongue-in-cheek say, "You want electric charging stations along the tens of thousands of miles of interstate highway? There you go. Drop a micro reactor every 200 miles or something like that." I mean, there are all kinds of concepts, I think, that are now open for how we can distribute and get things in locations that before was a major task with getting the electricity there afterwards.
Ryan Howell [00:40:16] Yeah, very, very interesting. So, actually dropping power plants in remote locations to bring power and empower those local communities. I love that.
Nolan Hertel [00:40:27] Yeah, and there are places you can think of where we now no longer need massive transmission line setups. I mean, we probably don't want thousands of reactors in the country, but I mean, there are locations you can easily think of that would work pretty well that we could drop a small system in there.
Ryan Howell [00:40:50] Fantastic. Well, anything else you want to add?
Nolan Hertel [00:40:54] No, thanks for this, and sorry it took so long for me to connect.
Ryan Howell [00:41:01] No, no, it's been certainly great to have you, Nolan. It's been great to catch up with you, great to hear everything that you've done. Thank you for the many years of service in the nuclear industry, and we certainly look forward to seeing you around in your retirement.
Nolan Hertel [00:41:15] Okay, well, it's been fun. You know, when you go to a retirement party for faculty members, and we had one... They don't say, "You're retiring." They say, "Well, what are you going to do for the next stage in your career?" I hadn't thought of it like that. But I hope I don't immediately ride off into the sunset. But I mean, it'll be a slow ride.
Ryan Howell [00:41:37] Yes. If I know anything about nuclear, once you're in, you're in. And it certainly sounds like it's been a passion of yours. So, I'm sure we'll see you around.
Nolan Hertel [00:41:46] All right. Thanks, Ryan.
Ryan Howell [00:41:47] Thank you very much for your time, Nolan.