Dr. Kathryn Huff is the U.S. Department of Energy’s new assistant secretary for nuclear energy.

She was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month and takes over a $1.7 billion R&D portfolio for the Office of Nuclear Energy (NE). Prior to her confirmation, she served as a senior advisor to Secretary Jennifer Granholm and was NE’s principal deputy assistant secretary.

Dr. Huff steps into the role at a crucial moment for nuclear energy as the industry looks to maintain its existing fleet, deploy advanced reactors, and address key issues with its infrastructure and supply chain.

She recently sat down with us to share her priorities for the office, thoughts on the challenges ahead, and her perspective on nuclear’s future role in the nation’s clean energy transition. 

Q: DOE is requesting $1.7 billion in FY23 for the Office of Nuclear Energy. What are your top priorities in managing the office’s R&D portfolio?

A: We need to maintain the existing nuclear fleet and enable light-water reactors to sustain our carbon-free transition. We also need to build out advanced reactors. I think we have a lot of programs 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.

Q: During your time as the principal deputy assistant secretary for NE, you spearheaded the restart of the consent-based siting process for federal interim storage facilities. Why is this an important step forward? 

A: The federal government is responsible for managing spent nuclear fuel and the industry has paid a mil per kilowatt-hour for a very long time to support that endeavor and I'm a big fan of living up to your commitments. By making progress toward consent-based siting for an interim storage facility, we can take on the responsibility of removing that spent nuclear fuel from the sites at which it's been abandoned. But broadly, I think this is a start that has a lot of roots in processes that have succeeded elsewhere. I think by leveraging a consent-based strategy for siting these facilities, we have a real chance of succeeding this time and we can rely on the things that we've learned before, as well as what's been learned internationally about making these sites work.

Q: Prior to your confirmation, you were advising the secretary during Russia's invasion in Ukraine. How has this conflict impacted civil nuclear programs both at home and abroad?

A: The images coming out of Ukraine over the course of the last few months have been deeply impactful and distressing. As a democratic nation, we should be concerned for the safety and security of all democratic nations ... One of the key components of this is energy security. Nuclear power provides a clean option that also has some energy security associated with it. By being a highly dense energy source that's refueled 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 recognize 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.

Q: U.S. sanctions on Russia could impact the nation’s ability to acquire enough enriched uranium for the current fleet and new advanced reactor demonstration projects. What is DOE doing to ensure they can help meet this fuel demand?

A: The secretary has stood up a really important endeavor—a uranium strategy tiger team that the Office of Nuclear Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration are working together on. That 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. Our goal here is to ensure that, in the very near term, we have 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.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge for nuclear energy right now?

A: 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.

Q: DOE’s new Civil Nuclear Credit Program is accepting applications to support the continued operation of U.S. reactors. How impactful can this program be?

A: This program is absolutely critical. Nuclear power provides half of our nation's clean electricity and it is the single largest source of our clean electricity. We cannot allow these plants to be economically at risk because we failed to recognize their important contributions to our clean energy system, to our firm energy capacity, and our energy resilience. Once a nuclear plant closes, it can be very hard to start it back up again, so we really just cannot allow them to close in the context in which we need them.

Q: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also includes more than $2.5 billion to support the demonstration of two advanced reactors in the U.S. and at least one nuclear-hydrogen demo project. How important are these projects to the future of the industry?

A: The two demo projects and the hydrogen demonstrations are the future of the industry. As we look at those technologies being demonstrated here in the United States, they 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. If we want to enable nuclear and renewables to work together on a clean energy grid, hydrogen is going to be absolutely necessary. Heat plus electrons is a great way to create hydrogen and can be an excellent demonstration of what's possible with nuclear.

Q: Advanced nuclear will be in the clean energy conversation at several high-profile international events this year, including the Nuclear Power Ministerial and Clean Energy Ministerial that will both be held in the U.S. What role do you see for nuclear energy in global efforts to combat climate change?

A: This is a fantastic moment for the United States to reclaim global nuclear energy leadership. We're really in a position to lead in the conversations, the bilateral and multilateral engagements that will come out of these meetings, and in the incentives that we can see broadly for energy security and the carbon transition worldwide.

Q: You also helped create a new funding line in the congressional budget for nuclear R&D at U.S. universities and colleges. What does this mean for the university research community moving forward?

A: There is nothing more important to me personally than education. Making sure that this university R&D line has its own particular place in our budget, really highlights its importance and enables us to think critically about bigger problems and to enable bigger solutions. It's really going to enable bright ideas to come out of the university. Those ideas can be picked up by the national laboratories that can bring those bright ideas and creative high-risk, high-reward concepts into fruition and then the industry can pick up the down-selected ideas from the national laboratories. This is how innovation should work and making it its own line really enables us to focus on that and think bigger.

Q: As a professor, what advice would you have for those who might want to join a STEM field and what are some of the opportunities available within NE for those interested in pursuing the nuclear field?

A: This is a great time to join nuclear energy. It's not only in a growth period right now but, because of the bimodal distribution of ages in nuclear energy, there are a lot more positions open in nuclear energy spaces, whether it's startups, national laboratories, or here in DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. We have opportunities where folks are retiring today who have incredible expertise that you can learn from. So, my advice is definitely to get into it whether it's as a nuclear engineer, as a communications specialist, as a policy maker, or even a social scientist. It should be clear the role that nuclear energy can play and I hope folks can find a role for themselves in that space.

Dr. Huff received her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison 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. Prior to joining DOE in 2021, Dr. Huff served as a professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was also a Blue Waters assistant professor with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Dr. Huff 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. 
 

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TRUNZO: Hi, this is Alisa Trunzo with the Office of Nuclear Energy and I'm here with Dr. Katy Huff, our brand new assistant secretary for nuclear energy. Welcome back, Katy.  

HUFF: Thank-you.

TRUNZO: We're super excited to talk with you today. I think everybody kind of wants to know what's on Dr. Huff's mind as you transition into this role. First up, I think what everybody kind of wants to know is what are your top priorities in managing the office's R&D portfolio? We've got a big budget request upcoming in Fiscal Year '23. We've requested $1.7 billion. So, everybody wants to hear what you're what you're focused on.   

HUFF: I agree. I think these priorities are the hot topic right now and for us it's, we need to maintain the existing nuclear fleet, keep them healthy, and enable light-water reactors to sustain our carbon-free transition. We also need to build out advanced reactors, and I think we have a lot of programs that target that, both from the R&D side but also in demonstration and deployment, particularly through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Of course, I do think that 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 responsibly the spent nuclear fuel.  

TRUNZO: Well, since you brought up spent nuclear fuel, in your time as the principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy, you spearheaded the restart of the consent-based siting process, specifically for federal interim storage facilities. Why is this an important step forward for us? 

HUFF: Well, first of all, it's our responsibility. The federal government is responsible for managing this spent nuclear fuel and the industry has paid a mil per kilowatt hour for a very long time to support that endeavor and so I'm a big fan of living up to your commitments. By making progress toward consent-based siting for an interim storage facility we can take on the responsibility of removing that spent nuclear fuel from the sites at which it's been abandoned. But broadly, I think this is a start that has a lot of roots in processes that have succeeded else where and I think by leveraging a strategy that's a consent-based strategy for siting these facilities, we have a real chance of succeeding this time and we can rely on the things that we've learned before, as well as what's been learned internationally about making these sites work. 

TRUNZO: Prior to your confirmation, you were just advising the secretary as a senior advisor to Secretary Granholm at a really important time, in particular, during Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. How has this conflict impacted the civil nuclear programs here at home as well as globally? 

HUFF: Well, I think you know, first of all, it's been really stunning to see the images coming out of Ukraine over the course of the last few months have been deeply impactful and distressing. As a democratic nation, we should be concerned for the safety and security of all democratic nations. In the events that we've seen, I think we should be worried about the future of our democracies being secure. One of the key components of this is energy security and I think the biggest and most important component here is that nuclear power provides a clean option that also has some energy security associated with it. By being a highly dense energy source that's refueled very seldomly, we have an opportunity to you know bring up that supply chain in such a way that it's robust, it doesn't require constant attention, shipments, pipelines etc. But, we do need to bolster that supply chain. You know, we recognize 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.  

TRUNZO: So, since you mentioned the supply chain, U.S. sanctions on Russia could really impact the nation's ability to acquire enough enriched uranium for the current fleet, as well as for new advanced reactor demonstration projects. What is DOE going to do to ensure they can meet the fuel demand? 

HUFF: The secretary has stood up a really important endeavor—a uranium strategy tiger team that the Office of Nuclear Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration are working together on. That 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. Our goal here is to ensure that in the very near term we have 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. 

TRUNZO: I’d like to turn a little bit to the existing fleet, which is so important to our clean energy goals. DOE’S brand new Civil Nuclear Credit Program is now accepting the first round of applications to support continued operation of U.S. reactors. How impactful do you think this program could be? 

HUFF: This program is absolutely critical. Nuclear power provides half of our nation's clean electricity and it is the single largest source of our clean electricity and given this, we cannot allow these plants to be economically at risk because we failed to recognize their important contributions to our clean energy system, to our firm energy capacity, and our energy resilience in this nation. Once a nuclear plant closes, it can be very hard to start it back up again, so we really just cannot allow them to close in the context in which we need them and more nuclear to meet our climate goals.  

TRUNZO: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also includes more than $2.5 billion dollars to support the demonstration of two advanced reactors in the United States and at least one nuclear hydrogen demo project. How important are these projects to the future of the industry? 

HUFF: The two demo projects and the hydrogen demonstrations are the future of the industry. You know, as we look at those technologies being demonstrated here in the United States, they 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. We're really in a place too where long-term, high-quality energy storage can really be enabled by hydrogen production and a hydrogen economy, which only the government really has the power to stand up significant infrastructure like that and this is the infrastructure of the future. If we want to enable nuclear and enable renewables to work together on a clean energy grid, hydrogen is going to be absolutely necessary. A demonstration that incorporates nuclear can also potentially leverage the incredible, unique, high-heat capacities that nuclear power can enable. Heat plus electrons is a great way to create hydrogen and can be an excellent demonstration of what's possible with nuclear. 

TRUNZO: As you're talking about advanced nuclear and different applications for nuclear energy, nuclear is on the agenda to be in the clean energy conversation at several high-profile international events this year. That includes the Nuclear Power Ministerial and the Clean Energy Ministerial, both being held in the United States this time around. What role do you see for nuclear energy in the global efforts to combat climate change?  

HUFF: This is a fantastic moment for the United States to reclaim global nuclear energy leadership. We're really in a position to lead in the conversations, the bilateral and multilateral engagements that will come out of these meetings, and in the incentives that we can see broadly for energy security and the carbon transition worldwide. If the United States can reclaim that leadership, these venues: the Clean Energy Ministerial, Nuclear Power Ministerial, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s General Conference, and even COP 27, all places where these messages can be communicated by a leading entity like the United States and our ability to lead in this way and lead the conversation, really can't be understated. 

TRUNZO: Turning a bit more toward home, you helped create a new funding line in the congressional budget for nuclear R&D at U.S. universities and colleges. I'm sure that your experience as a professor and in academia helps you have a great perspective on this, but what does this really mean for the university research community moving forward? 

HUFF: There is nothing more important to me personally than education. Making sure that this university R&D line has its own particular place in our budget, really highlights its importance and enables us to think critically about bigger problems and to sort of enable bigger solutions. I think we're in a position now where, with the legislative requirement that we try to reach up to 20% of our R&D funding directed towards that university directed line … you know, to the maximum extent practical, this can allow us to really, underpin the future workforce, whether it's at universities and colleges or you know, even community colleges and trade schools. We're in a position to make sure that the future is bright and that lots of folks are encouraged to do nuclear engineering degrees and nuclear energy-related degrees in research. It's really going to enable bright ideas to come out of the university. Those ideas can be picked up by the national laboratories that can bring those bright ideas and creative high-risk, high-reward concepts into fruition and then the industry can pick up the down selected ideas from the national laboratories. This is how innovation should work and making it its own line really enables us to focus on that and think bigger.  

TRUNZO: There's so many opportunities and exciting things going on in nuclear right now, but what do you think is the biggest challenge?  

HUFF: I think the biggest challenge for nuclear energy right now is to ensure that when we build a new project it's on time and on budget as much as possible. Here 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 because the investors and financial interests, 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.  

TRUNZO: So you're brand new stepping into this role but looking toward the future, what accomplishment would you really like to be known for? What legacy do you want to leave behind here at DOE?  

HUFF: It’s critically important to me, that very broadly, I be seen as a trusted scientist leading some engagement for communities to realize a clean energy transition. That seems very broad but, you know, I think, in this moment, it's engaging communities and bringing them along with us towards an energy transition that's going to be absolutely critical for all the changes we need to make well beyond nuclear and so I'm lucky to be in this position as a nuclear engineer and I hope that that can engender some trust in those communities and help me to guide them towards the energy future they want.

TRUNZO: And, because I know this is near and dear to your heart. As a professor, what advice would you have for those who want to join a STEM field and what are some of the opportunities, specifically within nuclear, for those interested in STEM careers?  

HUFF: This is a great time to join nuclear energy. It's not only in a growth period right now but, because of the bimodal distribution of ages in nuclear energy, there are a lot more positions open in nuclear energy spaces, whether it's startups, national laboratories, or here in DOE Office of Nuclear Energy. We have opportunities where folks are retiring today who have incredible expertise that you can learn from. So, my advice is definitely to get into it whether it's as a nuclear engineer, as a communications specialist, as a policy maker, or even a social scientist. You can be involved in this nuclear energy growth period and I really think, getting of a lot of education, understanding the challenges ahead of us, it should be clear the role that nuclear energy can play and I hope folks can find a role for themselves in that space.  

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