Q&A: Acting Assistant Secretary Dr. Kathryn Huff Shares Her Vision for the Future of Nuclear Energy

Source: DOE NE | Release | June 24, 2021

Dr. Kathryn Huff is the new Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary in the Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Over the past 5 years, Dr. Huff leveraged her physics and nuclear engineering background as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s a dedicated advocate of nuclear energy and brings her extensive knowledge of modeling and simulation of advanced reactors and fuel cycles to the Department.

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Dr. Kathryn Huff is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy.
Office of Nuclear Energy

We recently sat down with Dr. Huff to hear her vision for nuclear energy and its role in moving our nation toward an equitable clean energy future.

Q: How did you become interested in the nuclear field?

A: I have always been an excited, curious person, even as a child. In high school, I had the opportunity to enter the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science. The program allows high school-aged students to withdraw from high school, enroll in a college STEM curriculum, and live on campus at the University of North Texas. As an early undergraduate in this program, I was eligible for summer laboratory research experiences for undergraduates. Accordingly, I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory and worked at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center where I ran some of my very first nuclear physics simulations. It was my first job, my first interaction with the Department of Energy, and my first experience with nuclear science research.

That experience as a research undergraduate student was very impactful. It led me to a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago where I was reintroduced to the importance of nuclear power and nuclear energy in general. The university has a series of courses focused on big problems in the world and one of them was energy and energy sustainability. I ran the numbers with faculty like George Tolley in that class, by the end of my senior year I was convinced that I should be a nuclear engineer. So, I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school where I earned my PhD in Nuclear Engineering.

Q: How does your background and experience align with this role?

A: This role is multifaceted and deals with diverse institutions, universities and national laboratories, all of which I am very familiar. My experience as a student researcher at various national laboratories has provided me with firsthand knowledge and insight on the innovative work being done to support advanced nuclear technology.

As an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I developed a robust research group in modeling and simulation of advanced reactors and their fuel cycles. Through this work, I supported graduate students in various ways, including funded grants from NEUP [Nuclear Energy University Program]. Additionally, I have worked with companies to advanced reactor designs.

Throughout the years, my work has crossed many areas that NE supports, including advanced reactor multiphysics, nuclear fuel cycle analysis, hybrid energy system analysis, used fuel management and scientific computing. My background in open-source software has shown me the importance of openness and transparency. I believe both are essential in government, in this role, and especially in a climate ambitious Biden-Harris Administration.

I am very much aligned with the Administration’s direction to pursue clean energy research development, demonstration and, in the words of Secretary Granholm, “deployment, deployment, deployment.” The secretary finds joy in the thrill of completing things, as do I, and I look forward to nuclear completing some things very soon.

Q: Is nuclear a priority for DOE and the Biden-Harris Administration? What role can it play in the transition to a clean energy economy?

A: The Administration believes that we must prioritize activities that preserve the existing fleet of nuclear reactors, deploy advanced reactor technologies, and expand nuclear energy to markets beyond electricity if we intend to meet our ambitious carbon reduction goals. Nuclear can play a role in the transition to a clean energy economy by fundamentally enabling our nation’s targets for clean, carbon-free electricity as well as non-electric energy markets. We have the potential to decarbonize many industrial sectors in the United States and abroad.

Q: What would you say are your top priorities?

A: First and foremost, the preservation of the existing fleet in the United States is essential to our climate goals. Second, the deployment of new advanced reactor types will underpin our continued leadership in nuclear technology and our needed direction in the context of climate action. Finally, this is only possible if DOE makes progress in the context of an energy- and environmental-just consent-based siting approach process for interim and eventually permanent spent nuclear fuel storage.

Q: The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to developing solutions to the challenges of climate change. Can you talk about environmental justice and the influence that will have on decisions made by the Administration?

A: Environmental justice will have a significant influence on a myriad of processes and approaches in the Office of Nuclear Energy. Approaches to spent nuclear fuel management will be guided by an environmental- and energy-just approach which targets enthusiastic consent from communities taking on any nuclear fuel storage facilities. Additionally, as we deploy advanced reactor technologies, recognition of the role that communities play in both generating and consuming power, as well as living alongside such devices will be an important part of DOE’s role in deploying those devices and supporting their markets.

Preservation of the existing fleet supports energy access and sustains good-paying clean energy jobs. We hope to continue to enable those benefits by supporting the continued operation of the existing fleet while simultaneously paying particular attention to the environmental and community impacts those reactors have.

Q: There’s seems to be a big push for demonstration and especially deployment of advanced reactors. What current or future developments in advanced nuclear technology are you most excited about and how can DOE support bringing these next-generation reactors to market? 

A: I love all advanced reactors equally and am a huge fan of all reactors that improve upon our existing designs. For example, I’m particularly optimistic about advanced fuel types like TRISO [TRi-structural ISOtropic] particles which promise an extraordinary level of robustness to many advanced reactor concepts. I am extremely confident that DOE is already supporting bringing next generation reactors to market through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which supports deploying a variety of extraordinary reactor concepts. Most notably, ARDP will support two demo awards leading the way toward real demonstration and deployment. DOE will additionally help to ensure a streamlined supply chain of the nuclear fuel needed to support next-generation reactors.

Q: The Biden-Harris Administration is eager to restart the consent-based siting process, and for the first time since 2009, the Office of Nuclear Energy has been appropriated money to move forward with a siting a federal interim storage facility. What does this process look like to you?

A: Following the Blue-Ribbon Commission recommendations, I hope to collect information initially from communities to help us provide resources and information so that they can develop a notion of their own levels of consent and enthusiasm. Once those communities identify their level of interest in a federal interim storage facility in their community, I hope that we can identify a location willing to take on interim storage of the spent nuclear fuel currently waiting at various sites around the nation. It’s time for DOE to finally take title of that fuel and consolidate it into a single well-managed location.

Q: You have a background in advanced modeling and simulation. Can you talk about how far we’ve come in this area and the impact it will have on deploying new reactors?

A: While the bottleneck in advanced reactor simulation was once computational power, it is now human effort in advanced modeling and simulation, like the work being conducted in the NEAMS [Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation] program, other programs across the laboratory system, and in universities across the nation. New tools have capabilities that allow us to tightly couple physics, such as neutronics and thermohydraulic for reactors, which are truly tightly coupled during operation—allowing us to more accurately model and simulate the kinetics and dynamics inside those devices to advance the licensing process through computations.

Q: With your background in teaching, can you talk to the STEM aspect of this field and the importance of engaging students in the nuclear sciences?

Dr.Huff and students2018

A: Nothing is more important than education for STEM development in our nation and, in particular, for the future of nuclear energy. As we think about the next-generation of nuclear reactors, we should always be simultaneously thinking about the next-generation of nuclear reactor operators, designers, and innovators. As a university professor, I recognize the fundamental role that interdisciplinary education plays in attitudes, as well as exploration and creativity. Nuclear engineers can learn a great deal from our humanities counterparts and vice versa. I think as we look forward to a more integrated energy system approach, I hope that we also look toward more interdisciplinary curriculum, outreach and education that encompasses the kinds of insights that we can get from other fields.

At the core of education is the health of the university system. Some of the university research funded by DOE has led to advancements in next-generation nuclear reactors. Collaborations between universities, national laboratories, and industry have resulted in successful partnerships and drive innovative nuclear technology. In DOE-NE, I hope to enable universities to come up with wild and crazy ideas that can be subsequently transferred into environments like national laboratories and nuclear energy startups to become deployable.

Overall, it’s an extremely exciting time to be involved in nuclear energy. We have not just a role but an essential role to play in fighting climate change and reducing carbon emissions. If we all work together, we can make it happen.

Dr. Huff received her PhD 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. 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.