Five Americans in the advancement of nuclear technology
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The Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi famously said that the development of nuclear energy would lead to changes that “revolutionize our way of life.”

Although nuclear energy did not always provide the perfect answer, experience over the past 75 years since Fermi split the atom has shown that it remains a powerful force for economic growth and environmental health.

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As we confront the possible dangers of climate change, we should consider the value of nuclear energy, without which we might be be unable to reduce carbon emissions to safe and acceptable levels.

Fortunately, the use of nuclear energy is increasing, especially in Asia, where air pollution from coal burning has become unbearable. According to the World Nuclear Association, nearly 450 nuclear plants are producing electricity in 30 countries, with 60 more plants under construction and another 511 plants either planned or proposed. But the numbers tell only part of the story.

Also interesting are the people who are navigating a path toward greater use of nuclear energy in the United States and overeseas.

Here are five Americans – all educated as nuclear engineers -- who are making a difference:

Kristine Svinicki is chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the U.S. fleet of about 100 nuclear power plants and sets the gold standard for nuclear safety worldwide. An engineer with a knack for energy policy, Svinicki spent more than ten years as a Senate aide focusing on nuclear non-proliferation, science and technology. She was appointed to the NRC by President George W. Bush, then appointed to a second term by President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaNumber of refugees entering US drops by half under Trump Former Obama intelligence official: Russian hack ‘the political equivalent of 9/11’ Trump notes 'election meddling by Russia' in tweet criticizing Obama MORE, and recently chosen to head the NRC by President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKennedy considering retiring from Supreme Court: reports Ninth Circuit gives green light for much larger travel ban UK Labour leader has ‘message on the wall’ for Trump MORE.

Svinicki is expected to lead an effort at NRC to remove regulatory impediments to new reactor development, as the first applications come in for licensing small modular and advanced reactors. Ensuring that uncontested NRC public hearings do not delay the start-up of new plants is likely to be high on her agenda.

No one can lay greater claim to the growing interest in small modular reactors (SMRs) than Jose Reyes, technical director of NuScale Power, an Oregon-based nuclear start-up company. An expert in passively-cooled safety systems that can automatically shut down a reactor in the event of a malfunction, Reyes is co-designer of an SMR that would generate 50 megawatts of electricity. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering NuScale’s design for safety certification, the first in what is expected to be multiple applications from nuclear companies seeking NRC approval for SMR designs.

Built in a factory, and then shipped by truck or railroad to a nuclear site, the SMR would be more affordable than a large nuclear plant that produces 1,000 megawatts or more. With SMRs, as many as 12 modules could be placed in a cluster to generate 600 megawatts.

Maria Korsnick is president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, whose primary mission is to get nuclear power the recognition it deserves. Before joining NEI, Korsnick was senior vice president of Northeast Operations for Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear utility, overseeing operation of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland and the R.E. Ginna and Nine Mile Point 1 nuclear plants in New York State. Korsnick aims to increase understanding of nuclear energy’s economic and environmental benefits among policymakers and the public. Korsnick is taking on this challenge at a difficult time for the nuclear industry. Since 2015, six safe and efficient nuclear plants have shut down, and utilities have announced that another eight plants will be closed in the next few years. But Korsnick is tackling the problem head on, enlisting support for nuclear power in the new administration and Congress. Her goal: to help maintain existing nuclear plants and open the way for developing and deploying innovative reactor technologies. 

William Magwood is director-general of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency. A graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Magwood got his start as a scientist with Westinghouse, then became manager of nuclear programs at the Edison Electric Institute. Later he was appointed director of nuclear energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, a position he held for seven years. In 2010, he became a NRC commissioner, where he was known for his dogged commitment to excellence in nuclear regulation.

Today, as head of OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, Magwood has become a leading voice in support of fostering the use of nuclear energy around the world.

Sama Bilbao y Leon is associate professor and director of nuclear energy programs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the largest public university in Virginia. In 2007, there was no nuclear engineering program at the university level in Virginia, even though the state is home to a large nuclear infrastructure, managed by Areva, a national accelerator facility, NASA, the nuclear Navy, and Dominion, which operates four nuclear power plants. Bilbao y Leon, then a nuclear safety analysis engineer at Dominion, created the nuclear engineering program at VCU and taught the first course.

Thanks to Bilbao y Leon, the VCU nuclear engineering program is now on the map.  Today the nuclear program has seven professors who cover the full spectrum of nuclear research and has the country’s only Ph.D. program that combines mechanical and nuclear engineering.

Accomplishing what is needed to boost the use of nuclear energy will take diligence and patience. The time was never more ripe for construction of a new generation of nuclear plants. Energy planners then will have a safe, clean and reliable source of electricity built upon the foundation that Enrico Fermi laid 75 years ago. 

Dr. J. Winston Porter is a national energy and environment consultant located in Savannah, GA. Earlier, he was an assistant administrator of the U. S. EPA.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.