Kathryn Huff’s path to a career in nuclear energy started in rural Texas, passed through some of America’s top universities and now she plays a leading role in the Department of Energy’s Office (DOE) of Nuclear Energy. In this recent conversation hosted on Argonne’s Instagram channel, Huff discusses how she discovered the field of nuclear energy, the role of the DOE national laboratories in the future of nuclear energy, and how nuclear intersects with DOE’s energy justice priorities.
Huff is the principal deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Argonne: What made you want to be a scientist and what was the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] path that led you to this position?
Huff: I was born into it. My parents are both mechanical engineers. My upbringing was really centered around books and tinkering and exploration of machines and ideas. That led me to be a really curious person. I was curious about how our energy system works.
I grew up in a very rural place, which enabled me to have freedom to tinker and explore. I ran out of math to take in my very rural high school in Bellville, Texas. I was lucky to join the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, which is a public magnet school. There, [instead of attending] junior and senior year of high school, you go to the University of North Texas and take their math and science curriculum.
At the University of Chicago I majored in physics. At that point, I was really excited about nuclear energy. The University of Chicago has this great history in nuclear fission and the nuclear fission chain reaction.
The university taught me that nuclear energy could really be the key to carbon-free energy. I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and got my Ph.D. in nuclear energy, did a postdoc at Berkeley and spent five years as a faculty member.
Argonne: We were able to speak with the DOE’s Deputy Director for Energy Justice and Secretarial Advisor on Equity Shalanda Baker on the topic of energy justice. How can we think of energy justice in terms of the development and deployment of nuclear energy?
Huff: Isn’t Shalanda Baker just amazing? We’re extremely lucky in the administration to have people like her.
[We] need to think about procedural justice. How are disadvantaged or underrepresented communities included in the process for decision-making, around siting or development of a technology? [We also need to think about] historical injustices and — potentially through reparations and other kinds of activities — one can take a community that has been harmed in the past and make sure they’re benefited in the future.
While there are a lot of struggles with identifying the inequities here, the Department of Energy, for example, has over a dozen working groups on energy justice. We are interested in the EJ40 [the Justice40 plan stating that funds] need to be going to communities that have been harmed by energy systems in the past. All of those working groups have lots of different pieces: EJ40-related things, equity-related identity issues, siting issues and development issues.
There are just so many that I couldn’t possibly list them here. The Department of Energy is looking very broadly at all of them. I think you’re going to see them in the processes and procedures, as well as the public engagements that the Department of Energy is going to be starting up in the near term. Hopefully, you’re already seeing some of it.
Argonne: What role does the national lab system play in terms of developing technologies and working with partners to deploy nuclear innovations?
Huff: That final step in the technology readiness innovation pipeline is a really complicated and interesting one with such history. Our national lab system, having been born out of the Manhattan Project, is now a big and broad system of a myriad of different national laboratories. We have this breadth of infrastructure that’s capable of bringing those ideas into [technology readiness for the commercial space]. Some technologies are too risky for companies to attempt on their own. Or they’re too capitally intensive to do the kinds of experiments that would support regulatory needs.
[With nuclear], it can be very hard to set up and get a license to do the experiments that you need to commercialize the technology. The national laboratories have that set up [already].
Examples include technology innovations through the advanced reactor system. Many of the advanced reactors of course — in our broader understanding of Gen 4 [Fourth Generation] reactors and next generation reactors — were drawn up on paper at Argonne, built out at [Idaho National Laboratory] and commercialized.
We’re looking at a next generation of all of that with the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. We’re supporting a bunch of advanced reactor designs from the Department of Energy that originated conceptually in the national laboratories and the universities. Through collaboration with the national laboratories, companies are bringing those reactors to fruition.
It takes a lot of engagement from [the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission]. It also takes support from the national laboratories and the Office of Nuclear Energy. Without those partners, it’s really impossible for nuclear innovations to be brought to fruition.
Argonne: What do you spend the most time thinking about?
Huff: First and foremost, if we intend to transition to a carbon-free future, we must keep the existing nuclear reactors online. The second is we must deploy these advanced reactors so that the next generation of nuclear scientists can deploy the next generation of reactors and see the next generation of carbon free technology.
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