Ep 159: Shane Johnson - Deputy Assistant Secretary, Reactor Fleet and Advanced Reactor Deployment, DOE
Bret Kugelmass: What drew you into the nuclear space?
Shane Johnson: In the late 1970’s, the accident at Three Mile Island occurred and Shane Johnson saw it as an opportunity to pursue a lifelong career in nuclear energy. At the same time, Duke Power Company was preparing to build the Perkins Nuclear Power Station near his home in North Carolina and the oil embargos were striking the U.S. Shane Johnson graduated from North Carolina State University in 1984 with a nuclear engineering degree. In 1985, Johnson participated in the start-up of the Catawba Nuclear Plant Unit 1, including hot functional testing and bringing the plant up from a non-critical status, to initial criticality, and finally full power capability. As a junior engineer, Johnson took instrumentation readings and collected data from control panels. Johnson was able to become familiar with these procedures at the university test reactor during his time in school. Part of Johnson’s responsibility in his current role at the Office of Energy is to assist universities by providing new fuel, removing spent fuel, and providing grant opportunities for technology upgrades.
Bret Kugelmass: What was your progression from a young reactor engineer?
Shane Johnson: Shane Johnson worked in the general plant support group at Duke Energy for about 18 months, then transferred over to Duke’s nuclear safety analysis group. This group was responsible for running computer codes and running Chapter 15 final safety analysis accident scenarios. Chapter 15 provides a listing of all the design basis accidents for a nuclear power plant. These accidents are anticipated over the life of the plant, with varying frequencies, and are modeled on computers to show the plant could operate safely. Johnson left Duke to join the Department of Energy, known as the Office of New Production Reactors, which looked at design and deployment of a new, government owned and operated reactor for producing tritium in support of the weapons program. The program was shut down and Johnson transitioned into the Office of Nuclear Energy in 1992 as part of the facilities group responsible for the U.S. test reactors. Test reactors were used to test materials and fuel irradiation capabilities, but also for stepping up sodium fast reactor technology.
Bret Kugelmass: What was going through your head over the years as nuclear priorities get shifted?
Shane Johnson: The Department of Energy (DOE) looks at resources available and capabilities of facilities at hand in order to put ideas out for pursuing new technologies or test programs. The DOE went through the environmental procedures to make the case that the Hanford Test Facility in Washington State, which had been shut down for production. The proposal was for the site to house programs such as fast reactor research and development, materials production, fuel development for NASA, and tritium production. However, the decision was made to shut the site down instead of putting it back into operation. Today’s industry needs a facility like Hanford, which can test at higher energy levels than typical reactors. Shane Johnson was closely involved in the development of Generation IV reactors and commissioned a couple roadmaps for near term deployment, which led to Vogtle nuclear power plant, and technology, which involved international collaboration for new fast reactor technologies.
Bret Kugelmass: What was the Nuclear Power 2010 program?
Shane Johnson: The Nuclear Power 2010 program was part of the near term deployment roadmap developed for Generation IV nuclear development. The Department of Energy (DOE) needed to demonstrate that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) new 10 CFR Part 52 could be followed and predictably finish with a product. Part 52 allowed a future plant owner to make application for an early site permit to reserve the land for future development and also provided a combined construction and operating license. The DOE aimed to partner with the customer and utilities in the lead to help development and put through the combined license. Southern Energy picked up the Nuclear Power 2010 program to push forward with Vogtle Units 3 and 4 project, which was the first nuclear plant construction in the U.S. in over 30 years. Johnson believes the biggest challenge to the nuclear industry is perseverance. The DOE has decided to stick with the loan guarantees for Southern on these projects, showing that sticking to the plan is required for nuclear.
Bret Kugelmass: Are new nuclear companies thinking about how to reduce the time from plant build decisions to putting electricity on the grid?
Shane Johnson: The civil work required for the construction is the driving force in the time to commissioning for nuclear plants, not regulatory work. By reducing the footprint and material content of the plant, costs and schedule for earthwork and physical construction can be reduced. Advanced digital technologies can reduce the operating costs by limiting the number of on-site employees required for daily operation. Regulations require inspection and documentation of components on a regular basis, but advanced reactor designers are looking at how to automate the process. Shane Johnson is approaching 30 years in the Department of Energy, working in all parts of the program in some facet. Johnson aims to help policy leaders understand the value of nuclear, even beyond electricity. During day time, when renewable energy is higher, nuclear may provide surplus electricity; some current research projects are working on how to make nuclear work in integrated systems with renewables.
Bret Kugelmass: How do you keep track of all the new aspects of nuclear?
Shane Johnson: The Department of Energy (DOE) is committed to the success of nuclear and Shane Johnson sees cooperation in information flow between industry, the DOE, political leadership, and other stakeholders. The Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program was started as a response to the massive amounts of data collected from National Labs and applying it to new technology. The National Labs can help industry more rapidly commercialize nuclear technology. An auxiliary benefit to this relationship is the talent pipeline that comes from connecting the researchers, designers, and private sector individuals. The ability to move jobs across nuclear energy benefits the industry and brings relevancy to the National Labs.
Bret Kugelmass: What do you see coming next in nuclear?
Shane Johnson: Shane Johnson remains very optimistic about nuclear energy and believes it is here to stay in the U.S. There will be continued issues with contraction of the existing fleet, deregulated parts of the country, and economics. However, the nation’s university nuclear engineering programs have never been stronger. The private sector and the investment community is starting to put value on nuclear that was not present twenty or thirty years ago. The Department of Energy (DOE) wants to be an ally to the nuclear industry.