Ep 257: Steve Nesbit - Former Director Nuclear Policy and Support, Duke Energy
Over 35 years and counting in the nuclear industry (0:54)
0:54-3:00 (Steve discusses his long career that covers the US Navy, nuclear power sector, and consulting)
Q: Can you please introduce yourself?
A: Steve Nesbit is the president of LMNT consulting, and prior to starting out his consultancy, he spent 35 years working with Duke Energy in multiple job roles. His first introduction to nuclear came as a student at the University of Virginia, where he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degree in nuclear engineering.
Steve initially planned to serve in the nuclear navy, but after spending some time as a midshipman, Steve decided the submarine job wasn’t his ‘cup of tea’ and moved on to work in the civilian nuclear power industry.
Steve’s final job role at Duke Energy was as the director of nuclear policy and support. He was responsible for developing company policy positions related to nuclear power, and interacting with industry and government groups on used fuel management and related issues. This role also saw him frequently interact with several environmental and anti-nuclear groups.
The end of the nuclear resonance (3:00)
3:00-4:30 (Steve describes the periods after 2009 that hit nuclear energy the hardest)
2009, a period that Steve says many still regard as the peak of nuclear energy in the USA, Duke Energy (Steve’s former employer) had planned projects to build new nuclear plants but signs of caution and a slowdown was already being noticed due to economic reasons, an overall reduced demand for electricity, and cheap natural gas.
Then there was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, which was a huge blow to the expansion of nuclear power and led to the distrust of nuclear power by the general public. Steve remains excited for the future of nuclear energy, pointing to advancements in technology with SMRs (Small Modular Reactors), advanced reactors, and non-electricity producing reactors.
Nuclear back in focus (6:35)
6:35-9:30 (The role of climate change, carbon emissions, and other factors in bring nuclear back into the conversation)
Q: What are the primary drivers in the renewed interest in nuclear energy?
A: Steve mentions that some environmental groups like Clean Air Task Force and Third Way had seen the potential of nuclear power to provide clean energy as a remedy to climate change, long before the utility industry stepped into the conversation. This dramatic change in approach by utilities and power generators has made them recognize the unique ability of nuclear energy to help meet commitments of reduced CO2 emissions.
New technologies and new energy from young people are other factors that Steve points to as major drivers in nuclear energy attracting attention and funding. Steve also recognizes the role the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) plays in revamping its regulatory structure for new nuclear plants with advanced reactors.
Yucca Mountain, the MOX fuel project, and run-ins with anti-nuclear protesters (9:45)
9:45-22:44 (Steve runs through the projects he worked on while at duke energy that had the most impact on himself and his career.)
Q: What major projects did you work on at Duke Energy?
A: Steve led Duke Energy’s efforts related to the use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in its nuclear power reactors as a part of the Department of Energy project to dispose of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons. Steve remains proud of his involvement in the project, even though it ultimately stalled and didn’t reach a favorable conclusion. Towards the end of the cold war the National Academy of Science did a study in 1994 and recommended things that could be done with surplus high enriched uranium and plutonium. This study led to the MOX fuel project using surplus plutonium, which is not as easily converted to nuclear fuel as uranium but can be done and has been done in France, Germany, Switzerland and a few other European countries. The MOX fuel project ran from 1999 to 2008, with Steve serving as the project manager representing Duke Energy.
This project led to a few run-ins with anti-nuclear groups including Green Peace between 1996 and 2005, which were deeply opposed to the project, even though the main aim was to get rid of nuclear weapon materials. Steve sees the environmental community as 2 halves, one is theologically opposed to nuclear power and there is not much that can be done to change their stance. The other half are those that understand the need for clean energy and are open to any source of energy that can safely and practically meet those needs.
In addition to the MOX fuel project, Steve worked on other Department of Energy initiatives: the New Production Reactor Project, 1990 to 1992; the Yucca Mountain Spent Nuclear Fuel Disposal Project, 1992 to 1996; and the Centralized Interim Storage Facility Project in 1996.
Steve worked in Nevada for 3 years on the Yucca mountain project, which went on for a few decades before being terminated, alluding the tendency of nuclear projects to run over budget and behind schedule; a trend that Steve says is common in the industry (a day after the recording of the interview the US government cut funding to Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository).
“Nuclear projects take a while and are expensive…” A cautionary tale that Steve says needs to be remembered in future nuclear projects.
Nuclear energy, a solution to a social justice issue (19:40)
Steve believes nuclear is not the only long term solution to climate change and recounts his time working with Bill Lee, who was the CEO of Duke Energy; a man who Steve describes as a true visionary. Bill looked at nuclear from a global perspective and saw that half of the global population at the time did not have access to electricity, and knew that people would not be satisfied living like that when they know of the incredible benefits of electricity, which is available in abundance to large portions of the world. Because of this, Steve sees this as a social justice responsibility to spread energy access to all parts of the world. The current option is burning of fossil fuels, which has negative effects on the environment and contributes in large parts to climate change. The situation now is that there are other options including renewables that have a large part to play and it is not always realistic to have nuclear plants in some situations but nuclear will have a large role to play in the low carbon future.
Spent fuel management at Duke Energy (22:34)
22:34-31:50 (Steve discusses his time leading the spent fuel management division at Duke)
Q: What were the unique challenges that came with working with the spent fuel division of Duke Energy?
A: “Nobody likes the trash-man, and we were the nuclear trash-men.” These were Steve’s opening words to the question and he says he ‘stumbled’ into the field while at Duke. Steve also describes this as a rewarding and challenging area to be involved in.
When the government cut the Yucca Mountain project, which was meant to be a central location to deposit spent nuclear fuel, this put massive strain on the nuclear industry as an alternative wasn’t in place. This meant companies like Duke had to store their spent fuel for much longer than expected, incurring additional cost in the process.
At the same time John Kessler with the Electric Power Research Institute started up a collaborative group called the Extended Storage Collaboration Project and began researching alternatives to safely store the spent fuel up to decades and centuries, and manage the aging and integrity of the canister that the spent fuel is stored in.
Steve still believes that a long term solution is needed to the issue. When asked to predict how long it’ll take the industry to find a proper solution to the matter, Steve shared a quote from a Danish physicist who came up with the atom model that we use in elementary schools: “Predictions are difficult, particularly when it involves the future” – Niels Bohr
Optimism for the future (34:27)
34:27- (Steve shares what he is most excited about for the future of nuclear energy)
Q: What are you most excited/optimistic about in nuclear energy?
A: Steve points to the different applications of nuclear energy as what makes him the most optimistic for the future of nuclear energy. Moving nuclear away from solely power generation will make the technology more appreciated, with applications like hydrogen generation, steam for industrial applications will go a long way in the push to decarbonize the industrial and transportation sectors.
Small Modular Reactors is another developing technology that Steve looks forward to in the future of nuclear, that and the medical applications of nuclear technology.