Evolving Nuclear Power and Its Role in Decarbonization with Westinghouse’s Dr. Rita Baranwal

In this episode, host Lincoln Payton speaks with Dr. Rita Baranwal, Senior Vice President at Westinghouse Electric Company, who leads the company's work around its AP300 Small Modular Reactor. She discusses with Lincoln the growth of small modular reactors (SMRs) as a pathway to growing nuclear power adoption, the rigorous regulatory framework surrounding nuclear plant deployments, and the critical role that this power source can play in the decarbonization journey. 

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Nuclear energy is a low-carbon source of electricity that has been playing a vital role in the global energy mix for decades. Today, there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 33 countries, providing about 10% of the world’s electricity. While the nuclear energy industry has faced an array of challenges over the last few decades – including plant closures due to competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources, as well as overall safety concerns – nuclear technology remains a key part of the decarbonization puzzle.

In this episode, host Lincoln Payton speaks with Dr. Rita Baranwal, Senior Vice President at Westinghouse Electric Company, who leads the company’s work around its AP300 Small Modular Reactor. She discusses with Lincoln the growth of small modular reactors (SMRs) as a pathway to growing nuclear power adoption, the rigorous regulatory framework surrounding nuclear plant deployments, and the critical role that this power source can play in the decarbonization journey. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Dr. Baranwal addresses common safety concerns regarding nuclear power, and emphasizes the significant improvements made in safety and technology over the years. She discusses “walk-away safe” designs and the importance of continuous innovation and collaboration with regulators to ensure success.
  2. Westinghouse recently launched its AP300 SMR technology, more compact reactors that can serve in a wider range of applications, from powering data servers and hospitals to serving military needs. The flexibility and scalability of SMRs make them appealing to communities, states, companies, and countries looking for clean energy solutions, especially where the need for “baseload power” is coming in smaller increments than nuclear has typically been sourced for..
  3. The nuclear industry takes immense pride in its rigorous training programs and there is heavy focus on continuous education and the collaboration between operating plants, utilities, and organizations to ensure a well-trained workforce. Dr. Baranwal also discusses the exciting potential for remote operation of microreactors, opening up new possibilities in industry applications.



Narrator: On this episode of The Decarbonization Race…

Rita Baranwal: Back when I was working at Bettis, I had the opportunity to go visit a nuclear navy shipyard. It was at Newport News, and I was able to stand inside of the compartment where the reactor was going to go on an aircraft carrier, the U.S. Ronald Reagan was being constructed. 

I remember looking up several stories, realizing that the little bit of fuel that I was working on back in Pittsburgh was going to help power this behemoth of a ship and defend my country. It was really almost a turning point for me in my career that this is what I want to do for the rest of my career, use this energy density that’s in this little bit of uranium, and the fuel for good.

Speaker 1: Nuclear energy is a low carbon source of electricity that has been playing a vital role in the global energy mix for decades. Today, there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 33 countries, providing about 10% of the world’s electricity. However, the nuclear energy industry is facing some challenges, including plant closures due to economic factors such as competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources, as well as overall safety concerns. Despite these challenges, nuclear energy remains a key source of low carbon electricity. 

In today’s episode, host Lincoln Payton speaks with Dr. Rita Baranwal, senior vice president of AP300 small modular reactors at Westinghouse Electric Company. Earlier in her career, she spent 10 years with Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory working on advanced materials for the United States Navy’s nuclear fleet. In 2019, was appointed as the assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy in the US Department of Energy, where she shaped policies and initiatives to advance nuclear energy in the United States. 

She speaks with Lincoln about the critical role that nuclear energy can play in the decarbonization journey, the rigorous regulatory framework surrounding nuclear power, ensuring safety, and driving ongoing improvements. Her extensive experience and passion for advancing nuclear technologies continue to drive innovation in nuclear technology and further its role in the energy transition.

Lincoln Payton: Well, hello from The Decarbonization Race. This is Lincoln Payton, the CEO of Cleartrace Technologies welcoming you back to a new season. I think the season’s going to be great. We have a wider variety of Cleartrace voices you’re going to be hearing from this season, and particularly important, an amazing lineup of super interesting, impressive speakers. 

We start with one of the best, I have to say. Delighted to have today Dr. Rita Baranwal, who has a really distinguished career and a very, very formative position today in the world of nuclear, an area that as we look for decarbonization, still occupies perhaps an interesting space, but let’s start the demystification and I think the road to proving an essential, very essential global component. Dr. Baranwal, Rita, welcome, very pleased to see you here.

Rita Baranwal: Thanks for having me. Looking forward to our conversation.

Lincoln Payton: Absolutely. I’m going to truncate your impressive resume introduction because it’s so long and I’ll throw you some of the facts as we go along so that you can talk about them. Right now, Rita is a senior vice president, leading the advancement, the development of Westinghouse’s AP300 small modular reactors. Phenomenally important for what I think is the future of the nuclear world. 

The other billing I’ll give you right off the top is immediately prior to this, Rita was the assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy in the DOE, the US Department of Energy. From 2019 to 2021, nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate, fantastic, to perform in that role leading the office’s efforts to promote research and development on both existing and advanced to come nuclear reactors. 

Rita, first of all, tell me how did you get into this space, long career, which we’ll touch on a couple of them. How did you start into this space? Maybe let’s take it back before the very impressive educational background because clearly, a very strongly technical element to what you do, where did you grow up and what made a young woman want to be in the nuclear world?

Rita Baranwal: I grew up in Ohio, born and raised there, and I was always interested in science and math. I was good at it and had a keen interest in. I applied to colleges that had good engineering programs. Freshman year, I toured a material science and engineering department and I saw a scanning electron microscope and I fell in love with it and I said, “What is that and what can I pursue that will let me use that machine?” They told me it’s a scanning electron microscope. I know it’s very geeky, but that was kind of my foray into material science and engineering. 

I went on to pursue that at MIT, got my undergraduate degree and really enjoyed working in a laboratory. I applied to graduate school, went on to get my master’s and my PhD in material science and engineering. My dissertation work at University of Michigan actually focused on synthesis of nano powders from a chemical route. 

Back when I was applying for permanent positions after graduate school, a headhunter had approached and I took the bait and they connected me with a laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the U.S. that it’s called Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, but what they do is design, develop, and help maintain in some aspects nuclear reactors for the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers and submarine fleet. What they were interested in was the work that I had been doing at Michigan to apply it to different materials and nuclear fuel for advanced applications. 

I thought, “This was great.” It’s really important to me and has been throughout my career to speak to students, middle school, high school, college, about opportunities because for me, it truly was being exposed to a possibility and an opportunity. If students don’t necessarily have that experience, how can we expect them to enter the energy industry, especially the clean energy industry and especially the nuclear industry.

I did really enter the nuclear industry almost by chance, but it was really based on my materials expertise. I spent about 10 years working at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, developing advanced materials for the US Navy’s nuclear fleet, and then I moved on to work at Westinghouse. There, I was responsible for our materials and fuel rod design group, again, kind of playing on my materials expertise, got promoted a few times.

Then, right before I left Westinghouse, the first time, I was in a role as director of research and development technology development for the company. There, we launched some really wonderful technology including what is now called our eVinci Micro Reactor, and we can talk about that in a moment as well. 

I left Westinghouse to go work for Idaho National Lab, and my role there was to launch a DOE initiative called GAIN, Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear. What we did was connect US private technology developers in the nuclear space with the National Lab complex in the United States so that those technology developers could commercialize their technology faster by leveraging the expertise that was at the National Labs, using the facilities at the national labs, and relying on some historical data that had been generated by the National Lab complex. 

In those three years with my team, impacted over 120 different entities, and as you already mentioned, I was nominated by the president to then serve as the assistant secretary in the US Department of Energy. I’m serving as assistant secretary for nuclear energy, and I firmly believe that it was because of that impact that I had had with those various different entities in my prior role, was very, very honored to have myself nominated, but then to be confirmed as well was a thrill, a very interesting experience to serve in the government. 

When that administration ended, political appointees traditionally moved on, so I moved to serve as the chief nuclear officer at Electric Power Research Institute. It’s now just called EPRI. Then, the opportunity to serve as the chief technology officer at Westinghouse came up. I was really privileged to be able to come back to Westinghouse serve in that CTO role. 

Then, just this May, we launched our small modular reactor, AP300, and I’m very, very privileged to be able to lead that effort and it’s a thrill to be able to talk to you today about what’s happening in the nuclear industry.

Lincoln Payton: It’s a fantastic story and marvelous to hear because first of all, it’s got that very smooth and very successful interaction between public and private, which is so great. As you’ve been doing that, you’ve been raising a family and everything else as well, so busy times, but let’s talk for a second about Westinghouse, because obviously, that figures strongly in your story. 

You were there, you went away, you came back from the government side of things. They really are synonymous with the development, the sophisticated development of the nuclear reactor. I know a little bit, but they really were at the origin, the genesis of some of the pressurized water reactor work. Is that correct?

Rita Baranwal: Right, right.

Lincoln Payton: How have they fared as a corporation, because I know that it’s been up and down with the vagaries of the nuclear world. Where are they now in terms of development, maintenance of what they’ve done in the past? What’s the balance of the mantra within the company?

Rita Baranwal: We are a company that is over 9,000 employees strong. We have employees all around the world. We have dozens of facilities. We operate three fuel fabrication facilities that makes us very unique in the nuclear industry. We have a fuel fabrication facility in Columbia, South Carolina, in Vasteras, Sweden, and in Springfield in the UK. We very proudly are responsible for about 50% of the technology in all operating nuclear power plants around the world today. 

Westinghouse has a very rich history in this industry. We have weathered some storms, if you will. We have very successfully, in my opinion, come out of bankruptcy over the past few years and are again, in my interactions with customers and potential customers around the world, are viewed as a technology leader in the nuclear industry.

Lincoln Payton: Unquestionably, and congratulations to you and all your colleagues for that, because something as cutting edge, there’s bound to be changes and moves and waves of opportunity and challenge, and really, Westinghouse has come through with a name that is synonymous with quality in this space. 

Let’s get to it then. Nuclear, first of all, where are we today in the world, the US not talked about overly because there’s still some stigma around there, which we’ll talk about head on in a second, but how many nuclear plants, how important are they to the world, to the US today, and how are they operating? Is it satisfactory? Are there challenges to the existing footprint, the existing fleet globally? How do you look at that, Rita?

Rita Baranwal: At the moment, about 10% of the world’s electricity is generated from nuclear power. In the United States, that number is higher, it’s about 20%. With the push, and I would say the right push, the appropriate push for the energy economy to move towards a cleaner energy economy, nuclear is having its moment. I think it’s great. I think it’s a very exciting time for the industry, and this technology can absolutely help states in the United States, countries around the world, communities all over the globe meet their decarbonization targets. 

We’ve heard about the success that renewables are having with respect to being deployed, being deployed relatively cost effectively because of, I would say, the subsidies that are helping prop up that success and renewables can help achieve decarbonization targets to a point. Several studies actually have shown that you can get there about 80% with renewables, but the remaining about 20% needs to be supplied with firm-base load technology and nuclear can provide that. 

It’s really wonderful to see that communities are starting to realize that they do need some nuclear in their energy portfolio. At the moment, we’re talking about electricity. If we start to talk about decarbonizing the transportation sector, that really opens up a lot more opportunity for nuclear power, that is kind of a secondary conversation that we should be having as well.

Lincoln Payton: Yes, very, very. You touched on a couple of points there. I’m going to drill into. First of all, on the transportation sector, let’s just go with that for a second, the U.S. Navy has been using nuclear power for a long time. Again, I think we all know it, it’s not very advertised, is that a potential for transportation on a more broad manner for the nuclear industry to go in that direction?

Rita Baranwal: It is one option. What’s interesting is back when I was working at Bettis, I had the opportunity to go visit a nuclear navy shipyard, and it was at Newport News and I was able to stand inside of the compartment where the reactor was going to go on an aircraft carrier, the US Ronald Reagan was being constructed. I remember looking up several stories realizing that the little bit of fuel that I was working on back in Pittsburgh was going to help power this behemoth of a ship and defend my country. 

It was really almost a turning point for me in my career that this is what I want to do. This is what I want to do for the rest of my career, use this energy density that’s in this little bit of uranium and the fuel for good. While the technology that’s used by the Navy’s nuclear program is slightly different, absolutely, that was actually what helped launch the civilian nuclear program in the United States. 

The technologies there, one could actually, and I do say the original SMRs were in the submarines, if you will, so that technology has actually been demonstrated and deployed for decades. 

Lincoln Payton: Yeah, very often the way and so much technology, actually. Military and defense applications do, for obvious reasons, lead the way. Now, flicking back to one of the other points you made there, very interesting one, when we look and very much the focus of the decarbonization race, we look at the greening of power supply. You are an enthusiast for renewable energy, for green energy, and you see nuclear as a component in that array. Is that a fair way to say how you with all your technical backgrounds see the rollout?

Rita Baranwal: I would say I’m an enthusiast for nuclear energy and I appreciate that it must compliment a sector that is going to be heavily populated with renewables.

Lincoln Payton: Very well put. That’s great. I’m an advocate, obviously, for us managing carbon very carefully. I also look at the energy equation globally, and I think frankly, there’s almost no solution without a significant nuclear involvement there, particularly for baseload supply when you have the intermittency of some of the other options. Very cool. Very exciting. 

Let’s go back really to rudimentary questions here. Nuclear reactors, how do they work? We’ve got the most technical wizard in the US on the Zoom here. How does it work? We all know that there’s a fuel and it produces, let’s say in this case electricity, what is the base very simply process for people who may not have expertise here and how has it changed from those first reactors that Westinghouse may have produced quite a few years ago, quite a few decades ago now, to what you’re looking at going forwards?

Rita Baranwal: Let’s start with the fuel source. It’s uranium. Uranium is a fissionable material, and once that fission reaction starts, you get knock on effects. The one atom bombards another and it creates more and then it creates more and it creates more. That reaction creates heat. Let me talk about the reactors that are most popular today. That heat is then used to heat water. That water creates steam, and that steam then turns a turbine, which creates electricity. That ladder part is familiar to a lot of folks that turbine spins to create electricity. 

What’s unique is that earlier part of the description that it’s nuclear fissioning that’s creating the heat versus the burning of coal, for example. That’s really the reaction in a nutshell. It’s not, in some cases, it is rocket science because we are developing a reactor to go to the moon, but again, different story.

Lincoln Payton: Very well put. I wanted just to level set that for everybody because as you rightly said, the backend of it, which is basically heating steam turbine, is not dissimilar to many other ways of generating power. Now, let’s focus on that basic fishing element, the big elephant in the room, which is safety. That’s a great carbon-free process when it’s well controlled, general public concern about that. They’ve been the couple of highly publicized nuclear events over the decades. 

Why should people not be concerned and what has changed or maybe not changed, but what is there that makes you, with all your knowledge and expertise, very comfortable in the safety and security, whether it’s on a ship, whether it’s in a landmass, why are you comfortable that this is a controllable, manageable risk?

Rita Baranwal: One, the nuclear power sector is one of the only sectors, I think it might be the only sector in the energy space, that is fully regulated cradle to grave. From the start of the fuel, to how we handle disposition of used fuel, it is fully regulated. As you talked about some of the incidents that have made worldwide news, every incident has resulted in additional regulations, additional safety requirements, additional design requirements. Those designs that were parts of those events are no longer designed and deployed. We’ve applied lessons learned and made improvements. 

Our AP300 and our AP1000 designs are called walkaway safe. The incidents that occurred at Fukushima would not have occurred had they been using AP1000 or AP300 design technology. The fuel also, we have made improvements dramatically over the years as new materials have evolved, as new technology has evolved. 

We continue to, while the operating reactors are operating well, they’re operating fine, it makes sense to add improvements to not only the fuel, but the operating technology where it’s appropriate to improve the efficiency and to improve the operations, which results in better output for the reactor, and then certainly better profits for the operator as well.

Lincoln Payton: Again, I’m putting my man in the street hat on, very easy for me to put on, walk away technology, what does that mean exactly?

Rita Baranwal: That means that you don’t need any human interaction. You don’t need any backup diesel generators for up to 72 hours, and in that 72 hours, then that allows you to develop the plan and accumulate the resources that you would need to go and address any sort of situation should it occur. 

Our technology is licensed for that. We designed for those extra safety margins and we’ve applied lessons learned from past history, past designs, and made all of those improvements in our current designs.

Lincoln Payton: Fantastic. I warned you, I was going to say to you, well, there’s this not in my backyard sentiment about nuclear energy. I said, “Well, how does that apply to you and your family?” Are you comfortable with it being in your part of the world?

Rita Baranwal: I’m very comfortable with it. Beaver Valley is operating not more than a few miles from my house. The original nuclear power plant shipping port is also only a few miles from my house. I’m very comfortable. We’ve lived in South Carolina where actually more than half of the electricity generated in the state is generated from clean nuclear power. I’ve actually leaned up against used nuclear fuel from a submarine in a cask. While my children might tell you otherwise, I seem pretty normal as a result of it. 

I have no qualms about it. I would not work in an industry that’s not safe. I have a family to look out for and other concerns. I would not work in an industry that is not safe. I feel very comfortable. That doesn’t mean that it dispels everybody else’s concerns. I’m happy to continue talking about it, but the safety margins that we design into our technology are very robust, and it starts with the fuel, and then we continue to layer that on as we go outwards to what’s called the shield building of the reactor.

Lincoln Payton: Thank you for saying that. I must say, I think there is a little bit of an education process here that would benefit the general public, the famous man in the street, because when you look statistically, records are really very good and you look at the advances, it’s very encouraging. 

One more topic before we get onto the new technology and the small modulars approach and where and where the industry and where Westinghouse is going, and that’s the regulatory world. You touched on it. You mentioned it. Clearly, very present in the whole process, very quickly, for you, where is the balance on the regulatory side now, because clearly, you want to have very, very good controls? You also want to have a reasonable time to market, to be able to get things instituted and done. Are we in a good spot in the US globally, or does the regulatory line need to evolve and move?

Rita Baranwal: We’re getting there. I would say that the regulatory authority in the United States, which is called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has made great strides towards ensuring that new designs are approved in a reasonable timeline. It’s been a bit of chicken and egg because there’s so many different technologies that are coming to the forefront that the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, needs to ensure that it has the trained staff in those respective technologies to review what’s called the design application, when it comes across their desk. 

The NRC also needs to be aware of when those applications are going to arrive because no company wants to hire somebody that’s skilled in a certain area and then have them sit around for three or four years waiting to do some work. It’s ensuring that, especially Westinghouse, we’ve worked with the regulatory body in the United States and others around the world, so it’s ensuring that you communicate early, you communicate informally, you communicate often that these are the timelines that we plan to submit content to you by, do you have any questions? 

For example, for our AP300 SMR, we have submitted to the NRC our, it’s called a regulatory engagement plan, so they know when they’re going to start getting bits of information, reports on certain parts of our technology, and give them opportunity to give us questions versus providing them an entire design certification package, and then waiting for what could be hundreds of questions from him, and that delays the cycle of getting an approval. 

I would say the regulatory body is definitely making strides and their mission is, first and foremost, to protect the health and safety of the public. That is their first and foremost mission. I will not get in the way of them upholding their mission, but we need to work with them and to help ensure their success. That’s one. 

The second part is regulators around the world have their own regulations, but what we are aware is happening is that they are talking to each other and they are trying to maximize efficiencies. One regulator in one country may look at what another regulator has done on a technology and they may agree with maybe 95% of it, and then only say this extra 5% that you have to do for our nation is X, Y, Z. That’s another benefit in the regulatory arena, I would say, is that they’re starting to maximize on those efficiencies, and I’m hoping that our technology will be one of the beneficiaries of those efficiencies that we’re seeing.

Narrator: Today, there are over 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 33 countries, providing about 10% of the world’s electricity. The United States is the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy with 93 reactors operating in 28 states. 

Nuclear power plants in the US provide about 20% of the country’s electricity, and they are a key part of the nation’s clean energy strategy. Even with challenges due to plant closings, social perception, and safety concerns, nuclear energy remains a significant source of low carbon electricity. In fact, many countries are continuing to invest in new nuclear power plants and have a growing interest in developing advanced nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors. 

China is the world’s leader in new nuclear construction with over 20 reactors currently under construction. Other countries building new nuclear power plants include India, France, Finland, Russia, Poland, and South Korea. As Rita mentions, countries around the world are looking at multiple used cases for nuclear power technologies, including surprisingly on the moon.

Nuclear power has been proposed as a way to provide a reliable source of energy for lunar bases and other operations, and can be used to produce oxygen and water on the moon, which would be essential for a sustained human presence there. 

Nuclear fuel has a much higher energy density than other types of fuel, such as solar cells or batteries, which means that a nuclear power source can provide the same amount of energy as a much larger and heavier solar or battery system. Despite all of nuclear’s challenges, the International Energy Agency reported that over more than 50 years of nuclear plants, operating, nuclear power has avoided around 70 GT of CO2 emissions globally by reducing the need for coal, natural gas and oil. That fact continues to drive interest in nuclear power as a fundamental lever for decarbonization.

Lincoln Payton: In terms of other players, we’ve talked about Westinghouse and clearly a leader, and I’m not so much talking corporately but more nationally, because it’s such an important resource that this tends to be very nationally backed. What other countries are out there moving forwards on nuclear power?

Rita Baranwal: There’s many countries, right? If you look at the UK, they just launched a competition called the Great British Nuclear. The UK, Canada to our north. Poland is building new nuclear. Other countries in Eastern Europe, including Czechia, Slovenia, Slovakia. If you look to the Nordic countries, Sweden, Finland, there’s great interest around the world. 

Japan is bringing its power plants back online. I just came back from Australia, and while there is a federal ban on nuclear power, there is a movement to lift that prohibition because Australia is realizing that renewables will get us almost all of the way there to meet decarbonization goals, but we need a sliver of baseload power. There’s hope there as well.

Lincoln Payton: That’s great. Again, and as you say, and if the regulatory side and the commercial side can really get together, that steps forward can be quite considerable. The waste product from the fuel, how do we manage it? What is it? Is that changing? You mentioned that when it’s treated, you’re quite comfortable with it. Where do you see that going?

Rita Baranwal: Let me start with a little bit of context. If 100% of my lifetime use of electricity were all generated from nuclear power, the amount of waste that I would create in my entire lifetime, let’s assume I lived to mid-70s or something, 80s, the entire amount of waste would fit into this mug. It’s not a lot of waste that we’re talking about first. Also, that would be a huge assumption because not 100% of my electricity is generated from nuclear, so it’s going to be even less than that. 

That said, the other image I want to share with you is since the 1950s, the waste that has been created from nuclear power in the United States, if it were all put on a football field, that volume would only be 10 yards deep, a football field and 10 yards. It’s really not a lot. That said, that used fuel is being stored safely in casks on the utility sites where it was generated across the country, and it can continue to do so for the lifetime of those plants. 

The ideal solution is a permanent repository. We don’t have that in the United States at the moment, but the government is going through what’s called a consent-based citing process where they are entertaining communities that are going to raise their hand and say, “Yes, we’ll take it,” because there are financial incentives with that. That process is underway in the United States.

In Finland, they are developing a deep geological repository. That option exists globally for used fuel, and then, there’s always an option outside the United States for countries that want to pursue it, to recycle the fuel. France does it, Japan does it, and in that sense, you can reuse the fuel once it’s recycled. Westinghouse is actually developing a technology in our lead fast reactor technology that we hadn’t talked about just yet, but that can actually use once used fuel. Thereby, minimizing the amount of eventual used fuel that needs to be stored.

Lincoln Payton: Is it fair to say, with your background and technological expertise, you are comfortable with the used fuel equation right now, and it sounds like there is progress still being made on that with the ability to reuse and recycle. Is that fair?

Rita Baranwal: Yes, that’s a fair statement to make. Also, there is progress being made for permanent storage of used fuel in the United States. It’s definitely progressing well around the world, but when we talk about the US, there’s still opportunity for progress.

Lincoln Payton: Let’s get to the thrilling new stuff coming section, which is what’s your focused on, I think, in a big way right now? I’m going to call them the newer, smaller, agile generation of reactors and the way they’re working. How do you look at them and why is it like that? Why have we gone from the traditional, very large, very substantial moving to frankly a more almost microgrid mentality of a nuclear generation? What are they? What’s the theory behind it, and then what’s the practical outcome? I know there’s a couple of different models that we will touch on.

Rita Baranwal: Sure. Let me start with first, our large gigawatt scaled reactor, AP1000 is very much in demand. There are four currently operating in China. There’s one currently operating in the United States with the second one soon to come online. Then, several more have been ordered around the world in Poland and other places. There’s definitely interest in our AP1000 technology. 

Our AP300, and by the way, the AP stands for Advanced Passive, our AP300 technology, that reactor is a derivative of AP1000. It’s just smaller, and the output is 300 megawatts. It’s based on designed, licensed, constructed and operating technology, which is fantastic because that means that there’s not really many changes except that we’ve shrunk some of the components and definitely shrunk the footprint. 

The reason why communities, states, companies, countries are looking at SMR technologies in general, is several fold. It could be that they are a community that’s new to nuclear and they don’t want to jump in into nuclear by deploying a gigawatt of capacity. That’s one reason. The other could be they’re very familiar with nuclear. They have existing nuclear power plants in their regions, but they just want a few hundred more megawatts of output. It’s the output that they might need. 

The other could be that they don’t want the price tag at the moment that’s associated with a gigawatt of output, and a 300 megawatt reactor is much more palatable for them. The reasons vary, but the SMR concept is getting a lot of attention, and I would say, there are two key drivers for that. One is the challenge of decarbonization. Communities are realizing that they need to have some foreign base load power in their energy mix for them to meet their decarbonization targets and the other is energy security and energy independence. 

Nuclear can provide that energy security, it can provide that energy independence, and it allows for communities to be self-reliant. Nuclear can provide a solution to those two challenges. We’re seeing a resurgence, a very favorable resurgence of attention to nuclear. It is a wonderful time for this industry. I’ve talked about SMRs and our larger scaled AP1000. If I jump to the micro reacts, which is only five megawatts of output, that’s a great interest to several types of communities. 

One is remote and islanded communities that currently might rely on expensive diesel being either shipped in or trucked in. It’s of interest to applications such as data servers, hospitals, mining operations. It’s of interest for military applications. There’s a lot of diverse interest in the micro reactor concept. We are also working, at the moment, we have a project with NASA to look at deploying eventually micro reactor for fission surface power on the moon. There’s a lot of different applications. 

What Westinghouse, as a company, because it’s been in business for decades, knows is when you approach a potential customer, potential client, it’s what are you looking to solve? Then, let’s talk about our portfolio of products that can help solve that, because a gigawatt is not going to work on the moon at the moment. We can hope, but at the moment, that won’t work on the moon. You have to deal with other challenges, including launching it to get to the moon. Understanding what our customer’s needs are and then providing solutions is something that Westinghouse is very good at.

Lincoln Payton: Unquestionably and very exciting time. What’s the level of sophistication in operating these plants? You talked about island economies, so to speak. If a micro reactor goes into a place like that, what’s the level of skillset needed to operate and maintain and manage?

Rita Baranwal: One of the things that the nuclear industry prides itself on is the training programs that we have in the industry. There are training programs that operating plants and in utilities have in their midst. There are training programs that Westinghouse provides or participates in. There are training programs provided by independent organizations as well. The training is available and can be part of a package for a new reactor deployment. 

Specifically, for micro reactors though, we are actually considering a remote operation option, and so we’re working with the regulator on making sure that that’s a possibility because that’s very new, but because it’s so small and because of you picked up on some of the places that we want these reactors to be operating, remote operation is a possibility. The technology is there. 

That’s not an issue. It’s a matter of making sure that we address all of the concerns for the regulator, address all of the concerns for security, and then we’ll go about it that way, but at the heart of it is, the training is provided just like we provide training in the United States for our nuclear navy officers, sailors, submariners, we provide and can provide training for those that operate the nuclear power plants around the world. 

Once it’s provided, it’s not a one and done. It’s a continuous training process because one, is for refresher, the other is to make sure that any new technology updates and whatnot that staff are updated on.

Lincoln Payton: That’s great. It’s a wonderful, sophisticated skillset to be evolving and growing. When you look forwards from that background, what does the next few years hold for you? If we extrapolate five years from today, what do you want to look at and say, “Yup, I achieved that,” or “I’m doing this,” or “I’ve moved on to do that?” What are the forward milestones that you are thinking about?

Rita Baranwal: I would say the main one is that we are well on our way to deploying our AP300 SMR. We just launched it in May, so there’s a bit of a runway before we get to what’s called first nuclear concrete, but several years time from now to know that we are well on our way to connecting an SMR to a grid, would be very, very fulfilling to me. 

Then, beyond just Westinghouse, I would say, to see communities that are new to nuclear, be it states, countries, or industries that are new to nuclear, embracing nuclear for all of its clean energy benefits, would be another huge, huge aspiration for us to have achieved in five years time.

Lincoln Payton: Super, super positive and exciting and tangible objectives, which is great, can really, really make a difference. Thank you very much. First of all, congratulations on achieving so much in your very specialized and interesting industry. Congratulations on the great family, and thank you very much for sharing with us your thoughts around this challenge and opportunity.

Rita Baranwal: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Narrator: Thank you for joining us on The Decarbonization Race. For more resources to help you lead the pack in the most important race of our lifetimes, visit cleartrace.io/podcast.