These are challenging times to be in charge of 11 nuclear reactors at six stations in the State of Illinois. One might think all times would be challenging given that responsibility and Exelon Nuclear Senior Vice President of Midwest Operations Bryan Hanson (BSNEEP, ’88) would not disagree.
“It’s a great career but not for the faint of heart, certainly,” Hanson says. “These reactors obviously run 24/7. My weekends and holidays are most often disrupted but it’s a fascinating job.”
The reason current times are more challenging is due to the shifting landscape of power production and transmission. Nuclear energy represents 20 percent of U.S. energy production. It is consistent, reliable base-load power and yet it must compete with inexpensive natural gas and other energy sources under a host of changing regulations and regional incentives for renewable energy.
“It’s affecting the plants in the Illinois market as well. “As you can imagine, there is a heavy flow of wind power from the Midwest running through Illinois, through our switch yards and power lines to the Chicago markets and elsewhere,” Hanson says. “It’s causing some of the economics to be challenging for some of our nuclear plants as well. It’s why we are absolutely committed to safe and reliable operation. We have to look at different levers we can utilize to make sure the economics remain positive. Our view of things is that we certainly are not going to chase the commodity markets with near term changes in the fluctuation of power for long term investments in nuclear plants. We’re in this for the long run and committed to these investments.”
Hanson’s career started with Commonwealth Edison and grew with the company as he took advantage of opportunities and Exelon became a world-class operator of nuclear power plants.
Although, given the current economic environment, it does not seem likely any nuclear reactors will be added to the grid in most of the United States, there is a rebirth for nuclear in regulated regions in the south. The Tennessee Valley Authority will bring a 1177 megawatt unit online in 2015 and site work is nearly complete in preparation for two 1200 megawatt reactors at Southern Nuclear Operating Company’s Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Georgia.
Hanson serves on the Department of Engineering Physics advisory board here at UW-Madison and encourages students to get into the field.
“What I tell the students is that nuclear is not going to go away. It’s not like we can pick up our plants and move them somewhere. There might be a few that are hit with the economics like Dominion’s plant in Wisconsin, but it’s an energy source that is here for the long term,” Hanson says. “We continue to find new uses for energy and as the market grows prices for natural gas will eventually increase and nuclear will come in favor again.
It’s a stable job environment and there will be more retirements in the next five years than there have been in the last 15 years so we’ll be looking for talent from the university. Hiring is up with most nuclear utilities so it’s a great career to get into.”