Dr Kathryn Huff, recently appointed the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) assistant secretary for nuclear energy, discussed her priorities for the nuclear sector in a lengthy interview published on DOE’s website.

“We need to maintain the existing nuclear fleet and enable light-water reactors to sustain our carbon-free transition,” she said. “We also need to build out advanced reactors. I think we have a lot of programmes that target that, both from the R&D side but also in demonstration and deployment, particularly through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Of course, none of it will be sustainable unless we put sufficient attention towards our spent nuclear fuel challenges and ensure that the government is making progress on its commitments to manage it responsibly.”

She advocated consent-based siting for an interim storage facility, making it possible to remove used fuel from the sites where it had been “abandoned” relying on past experience and also international experience.

On the subject of energy security in the wake of the Ukraine hostilities she said: “Nuclear power provides a clean option that also has some energy security associated with it. By being a highly dense energy source that's refuelled very seldomly, we have an opportunity to bring up that supply chain in such a way that it's robust, it doesn't require constant attention, shipments, pipelines etc… We recognise now that we have, over the last many years and decades, allowed other competitor nations to play a role in the supply chains for our fuels, including nuclear fuel, and this is an opportunity for the United States to bolster the security of those supply chains for us, as well as our democratic allies.”

As to ensuring uranium and enriched uranium supplies, Dr Huff said the Energy Secretary was promoting “a really important endeavour — a uranium strategy tiger team that the Office of Nuclear Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration are working together on.” The tiger team “is focused on enabling a strategy that can give a comprehensive look at where our fuel cycle supply chain stands and how the DOE can bolster it”. She stressed the need for a plan. “If Congress decides to appropriate funding and authorities to do so, we have a plan to help encourage our existing commercial nuclear fuel cycle suppliers to stand up new capacity and enable our fuel supply chain.”

Asked what is the biggest challenge facing nuclear energy she replied: “In the United States, we have lost a lot of capability to build big complex engineering projects on time and on budget. I do think that this is a moment for us to seize an opportunity and demonstrate that we still can do this. The investors and financial interests that are ready to put dollars on the table for our clean energy transition, they need to see some predictability in those timelines and budgets and I think that's an opportunity that nuclear really could hold in its hand if we can see these new demonstration projects come through as expected in a predictable way.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes more than $2.5 billion to support the demonstration of two advanced reactors in the US and at least one nuclear-hydrogen demo project. Dr Huff said these “are the future of the industry”. She added that technologies being demonstrated in the USA “create the opportunity for the second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-of-a-kind to be built, not only here in the United States, but elsewhere with our democratic partners interested in expanding their nuclear capacity”. For nuclear and renewables to work together on a clean energy grid, “hydrogen is going to be absolutely necessary”.

Image: Dr Kathryn Huff, US Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy