The Future of Energy: An Interview with Michael J. Brisson
For the July/August 2023 issue of Standardization News, I spoke to Michael J. Brisson about energy standards. Brisson is technical advisor for the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL), and he has also contributed to ASTM International through his work with several committees and as a past member of the board of directors. During the conversation, Brisson spoke about the state of nuclear technology and some of the challenges and opportunities facing the power supply. Addressing exciting developments like advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), microreactors, and fusion power, Brisson also spoke to the role of standards as we look toward the future of energy.
What do you see as the role of standards in the energy world? What are some of the key areas and issues surrounding energy standards?
Standards have always had an important role to play. Focusing on examples from the committee that I’m involved with, nuclear fuel cycle (C26), we have a number of fuel specifications and are developing new ones even as we speak, such as for high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU). There are differences in the international community – such as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) definition of HALEU – and the subcommittee on fuel specifications is working to harmonize these as much as possible. Other examples that are less obvious than fuel specifications are analytical chemistry standards that are used worldwide. Some of the C26 standards go back 30 or more years. The importance of those is to make sure that whether an analysis is being performed in the U.S., Europe, Asia, or elsewhere, the results are going to be the same or comparable. It’s getting everyone to agree on a methodology so that there is consistency worldwide. It helps with marketing. It helps the U.S., because we know what the requirements will be in other countries if they’re adhering to a particular ASTM specification. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does a lot of safeguard and security work. It’s important for them to know that they can rely on analytical results that are coming from laboratories that are adhering to ASTM standards.
There are many discussions happening right now about what the future of energy will look like. From your own experiences, what do you see as some of the interesting issues facing standardization?
Thinking again in terms of the nuclear industry, we are seeing a pivot away from really big reactors to more of a modular approach. Small modular reactors [SMRs] can be fabricated at one location, transported, and installed at another. That approach helps with consistency, helps with costs, and helps with controlling waste that is generated. This is a whole new field where standards are going to be needed. You’re going to want the components of SMRs to be consistent. They may use different fuels, and some of them have different fuel designs. Standards will support the pivot from the standpoint of making sure that we have a harmonized approach to SMRs.
Beyond that, there are microreactors, which are even smaller. Microreactors are a concept where you build it, put it on the back of a truck, take it to a place that doesn’t have good connections to the power grid, and plug it in. That community gets power from it for X number of years, and you just shut it down when it’s at its end of life. The microreactor is seeing a little less development, but the gleam is in the eyes, so to speak. Standards are the way to make sure those technologies are going to be marketable, with consistent materials and methods of construction. All of that helps the global community. Again, if folks know that they’re adhering to an ASTM standard, they will know certain things about how it was built, what the materials of construction are, and the quality that goes into them.
It sounds like we are seeing a lot of interesting development.
It’s an exciting time for the nuclear industry to say the least. The DOE has mentioned recently that nuclear is an important bridge. We’re going to lose fossil fuel plants. There are 200 gigawatts of power that will need to be replaced between now and 2050. They are hoping it will be replaced by some form of nuclearbecause renewables can’t get you all the way there. Fossil fuels are going to retire faster than the renewables can be built. There needs to be a bridge.
Fusion power is also another area where there is excitement. How do you see that factoring into the energy supply, and do you see standardization playing a role in its development?
In December, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) had a big event where they achieved fusion ignition. That helped to prove the concept, which is the next big thing on the horizon. Fusion is going to have the same sorts of issues that SMRs are in terms of needing standards development. You need a certain level of maturity of the technology before you can write standards around it. It’s still pretty experimental at this point. The need is going to be there if we want to commercialize fusion, and hopefully it is going to supplant a huge amount of the power grid.
You have also been active in organizing ASTM conferences and symposia, which is another important area of our members’ work. What do you see as the value of participating in those sorts of activities?
The symposia I have been involved in have tried to focus on: “Here’s what’s new, and here are the standardization needs around what’s new.” That’s the role that ASTM conferences and symposia play. We have these events so that we learn what the research is and can discuss: “How do we translate that into standards that will help the global community?”
You have been very active as a member of ASTM International, including serving on the board of directors. What led you to become involved with ASTM, and what do you see as the value of participating in the organization’s work?
I first got involved in 2005. My work was initially focused on air quality. At that time, there were needed test methods that we didn’t have. I got involved, and one thing led to another – that’s probably what a lot of people would say. In 2005, I did not have a vision of being on the board of directors. I was just trying to see what was needed and how I could help. As I got more involved, I continued to see the value that ASTM brings to the global community in terms of standard ways of doing things so that everyone understands and comes to consensus on what’s the best approach for a particular thing. I guess folks liked the way I led meetings, and it just snowballed from there. It’s been a rewarding experience.
Michael J. Brisson is technical advisor for the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL). He has been an active member of a number of committees and subcommittees, and currently serves as first vice-chair of the committee on nuclear fuel cycle (C26) and vice chair technical of the committee on air quality (D22). He also served on the committee on standards and ASTM’s Board of Directors.