Will US Nuclear Energy Policy Boost Metal Supply Chains?

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There has been quite a lot of press lately regarding President Obama’s nuclear energy policies. Since MetalMiner regularly reports on energy developments we had the opportunity to catch up with Mr. Randy Gounder, Vice President and General Manager of TW Metals Nuclear Materials Solutions. Due to the unique (and rigorous) requirements of the nuclear industry, TW- Nuclear Materials Solutions is a stand-alone division after having obtained an American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Quality Systems Certificate (QSC) in February of 2008 which allows the firm to certify and supply ASME compliant materials to the nuclear industry. We asked Randy to comment on various aspects of the US’s ability to build nuclear reactors (after all, we haven’t built a new reactor in over 30 years) and more specifically, get Randy’s insight into the metals supply chains that support this industry.

MM:  What can you tell us about the metals used in these nuclear reactors? How much has changed from 25-30 years age when the last nuclear plants were built?

RG: In the current operating plants, most of the same original metals are used due to the way the plants were licensed. Using new metals would require a license amendment. The newer plants have significant history of the effects of radiation on materials and will be constructed with more modern materials. In addition, many materials will have restricted chemistries to lower residual radiation once they become used during the operation of the plant. Those that construct nuclear plants will find it easier to work with suppliers who have the capability of supplying older, newer and restricted chemistry materials.

MM: Do you think “mini reactors” are viable? It appears as though 3 power plants have expressed interest in using them. The WSJ had a recent article on these reactors. Are you aware of them and do you think the industry will move in this direction because of cost?

RG: These types of reactors will have a place in the future and definitely a lot of government money is being spent on research as well as other companies investing in their designs. I believe the public will need to get comfortable with the coming wave of new nuclear reactors before people would consider putting a mini-reactor in their back yard.

MM: Some have raised the concern that a lot of the nuclear plant expertise in the US is no longer here (after all it has been 25-30 years). Where does that expertise lie and does America have the skills sets necessary to re-build the country’s nuclear energy program?

RG: Many of the people in the industry I have known for the past 25 years have retired. Going to nuclear shows, I see that people with nuclear experience are in great demand. Anyone can read the specifications but the interpretations of the specifications and how to work to the specification requires nuclear industry experience. I believe the industry that has supported the nuclear power industry for the last 30 years is adequate for the first few plants and that as experience is gained, the American industry will quickly ramp up with new companies entering the market and hiring the people who have gained experience from the first couple of plants.

MM: Some have pointed out that nuclear reactors rely on ever more global supply chains. Moving beyond the materials required during the build phase of a reactor, do you have some thoughts on the global nature of the supply chain?

RG: The rest of the world has been building reactors while the United States has sat back due to public perception issues. Therefore, many companies around the world are better positioned to make some of the large key nuclear components. As we have met with many new companies getting qualified to supply nuclear components, most do not understand the qualification and certification process for materials used to make nuclear components. We are working with many companies right now to help them get certified starting materials for their qualification projects and first nuclear orders.

MM: Skeptics point out that nuclear still won’t happen in the US. Can you provide some insight as to how likely a nuclear energy program will get off the ground?

RG: The United States nuclear program must move forward. Many other growing countries like China and India are moving ahead at full steam because they realize that having reliable and economical base load power is key to support factories and generating a growing economy. Think about starting to build a country with almost a clean sheet of paper. They are putting in the most efficient and reliable power and building state of the art factories around these power plants. These countries will have a tremendous advantage over the United States in a couple generations unless we move forward with the same type of aggressive plan.

–Lisa Reisman

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