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Nuclear Power in 2050

Understanding Tomorrow's Nuclear Energy lecture series

Jan. 18, 3:30-4:30 p.m.
Stewart Center Fowler Hall
Presented by Dr. Kathryn D. Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy in the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy

Recorded Presentation

The Understanding Tomorrow’s Nuclear Energy lecture series hosted by Purdue University and Duke Energy is welcoming Dr. Kathryn Huff, who will present “Nuclear Power in 2050.”  

In this talk, Assistant Secretary Huff will provide a potential vision for the future of nuclear power globally and will describe what the federal government, particularly the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE NE), is doing today to bring that vision into reality by 2050. This work includes laying the groundwork for peaceful nuclear power to help the U.S. reach net-zero emissions by 2050, for securing and sustaining both the front and back ends of our nuclear fuel cycle and for expanding international nuclear energy cooperation. This talk will highlight the DOE NE mission, vision and programs contributing to these goals as well as the opportunities and challenges ahead. These challenges and opportunities include a need to mobilize bold private capital investments, scale-up a skilled workforce, revive and invent critical supply chains and underpin it all with processes and policies that consider equity and justice.

Post-lecture summary

Dr. Huff believes that in 2050 it will be possible to replace all fossil fuel assets with advanced nuclear power technologies.

But this doesn’t mean that advanced nuclear power plants will displace coal plant workers. Dr. Huff explained that operating nuclear power plants requires a lot of the same skills as operating coal plants.

She noted that nuclear power plants contribute millions of dollars in tax revenue in addition to making it possible to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

A recent study by the Department of Energy found that more than 80% of retired and retiring coal sites in the U.S. are suitable for new advanced reactor technologies. These new technologies could potentially give a community a 92% increase in tax revenue and 650 more jobs over their former coal plant operations.

Today’s nuclear engineering students will play a valuable role in this workforce, especially as the current workforce retires. “Keep your skills in nuclear energy. The world will thank you,” she said.

Dr. Huff pointed out that new, advanced nuclear reactor technologies could serve a range of communities because they come in a range of sizes, from a few megawatts all the way up to more than gigawatts. This versatility would allow utility companies to better adjust their electricity output from nuclear power to match demand.

“We’re hoping that we’ll see communities interested in developing reactors in locations that would otherwise be unable to support larger power plants,” she said.

Advanced nuclear reactors would also help address supply chain issues that have impacted the construction of today’s reactors. Dr. Huff says that the Department of Energy “would like to be building reactors more like airplanes than airports.”

Small modular reactors, which have compact designs, can be built like this. “You want reactors to be coming off the factory line just like a 747. It should be highly regulated and well controlled. But that kind of economy of scale happens at the factorization of the construction of nuclear power plants, which is only possible really at the scale of small modular reactors,” she said.

But even with the promise of advanced nuclear reactor technologies, it will be necessary to keep all existing nuclear power plants operating. “If we are going to double nuclear capacity in the United States by 2050, it needs to start with growing, not shrinking. We cannot afford to lose any of our existing clean energy infrastructure,” Dr. Huff said.

More about Assistant Secretary Huff

Before joining the Department of Energy, Dr. Huff was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she led the Advanced Reactors and Fuel Cycles Research Group. She was also a Blue Waters Assistant Professor with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow in both the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium and the Berkeley Institute for Data Science at the University of California – Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 and her undergraduate degree in Physics from the University of Chicago. Her research focused on modeling and simulation of advanced nuclear reactors and fuel cycles.

She is an active member of the American Nuclear Society as the past chair of both the Nuclear Nonproliferation and Policy Division and the Fuel Cycle and Waste Management Division, and she was the recipient of both the Young Member Excellence and Mary Jane Oestmann Professional Women’s Achievement awards. Through leadership within Software Carpentry, SciPy, the Hacker Within and the Journal of Open Source Software, she also advocates for best practices in open, reproducible scientific computing.


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