Scott Vance – Energy Northwest
After 12 years as a contract nuclear engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy, Scott Vance wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when his contract ended. He certainly didn’t expect he’d become a lawyer.
But, when a former classmate from MIT kept asking him to join the law firm where he worked, Vance decided to give it a try. The firm had clients in nuclear energy, so he worked with attorneys to help them understand the technicalities.
Despite his initial hesitation, he found himself fascinated by the laws regulating his field and started going to law school at night. Now, over 20 years later, he’s the vice president for corporate governance and general counsel for Energy Northwest.
“My dream was always to be a nuclear engineer and I didn’t want to give that up, so to be able to be involved by applying my legal expertise is very rewarding,” Vance says. “Like engineers, lawyers get to solve problems, which I enjoy.”
Based in Richland, Washington, Energy Northwest is a consortium of public power utilities providing 100 percent carbon-free energy to its members throughout the state. It generates power using hydro, solar, wind and nuclear energy, and is currently looking to expand.
It currently operates one nuclear plant, the Columbia Generating Station, which produces 1,200 megawatts of energy and serves approximately one million people.
A game changer
For the past several years, Energy Northwest has been working to add an advanced nuclear reactor to the grid, which Vance says will be more sustainable and reliable than energy produced by wind and solar. It will be one of the U.S.’s first commercial advanced nuclear reactors.
Energy Northwest is working on this with a nuclear reactor and fuel design engineering company that is developing a high-temperature gas cooled advanced reactor as well as a unique fuel design. Vance says Energy Northwest is driving toward the project being completed near the end of this decade. He and the team are currently working to secure financing.
“We provide energy at cost, so we need upfront funding so there’s no burden on the ratepayers,” he says.
The Xe-100 advanced reactor will be built near the Columbia Generating Station and each module will provide 80 megawatts of energy, which will serve approximately 60,000 homes. It’s being developed to be replicated, Vance says—up to four reactors can be used together for a total of 320 MWe serving nearly a quarter million homes. They can also be constructed with fewer units and used at different sites throughout the state.
“If successful, it will result in operations for generations that make sense economically and politically,” he says. “If we’re going to truly move away from carbon-emitting electricity sources, we need a game changer.”
Speaking up for safety
When speaking with Vanguard in February, Vance was hoping to soon start working on the licensing application process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Before it can develop the advanced nuclear reactor, Energy Northwest needs to prove that the equipment won’t have an adverse impact on people or the environment. According to the company’s website, the Xe-100 reactor is “meltdown proof and walk-away safe,” because of its robust encapsulated fuel. This means the fuel cannot become so hot that it melts and becomes uncontrollable. And the reactor is safe under any accident scenario without the need for human intervention because it will eventually shut down on its own.
Safety is crucial in the nuclear energy and engineering world, Vance says. Companies are required to maintain a “safety conscious work environment,” which is a term used by the NRC to describe an environment where employees feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of retribution. When Vance was hired at Energy Northwest, the company had recently been through a long process of investigating employee claims that they did not feel comfortable raising issues.
When new allegations of employee discomfort arose after he joined the company, Vance started by working with outside counsel to investigate this and then worked to change management styles and attitudes. Using experience from previous jobs, he participated in training all managers in their legal obligations and all employees on the variety of ways they can report issues.
He also made sure the company’s governing board grasped the importance of having a transparent and safety conscious workplace, and helped the board develop a process for handling concerns that were reported to it.
“My desired legacy is to make sure employees know their concerns are valued and that they can freely express those concerns,” Vance says. “People working in plants will be the first to see issues, so we want to hear from them.”
Power to the public
Vance’s passion for nuclear engineering started early as he was growing up in Idaho. He earned his bachelor’s degree in general engineering with a focus on nuclear from Idaho State University. Then, in 1988, he earned his master’s in nuclear engineering from MIT.
After his contract with the DOE ended, Vance spent seven years as an associate at the law firm his friend recruited him to—Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw, Pittman in Washington D.C. While there, he earned his J.D. from George Mason University – Antonin Scalia Law School in 2005.
From there, he took his first job that fully combined his two passions. He became a nuclear licensing attorney for the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2007. The public utility provider serves Tennessee as well as parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. In 2013, Vance was promoted to associate general counsel, nuclear, a role he held for four years before starting at Energy Northwest.
The work he’s done over the past several years has been some of the most rewarding, he says. In addition to working on the first-of-its-kind advanced nuclear reactor, he says it feels good to provide cost-effective power options to people.
“Electricity is something people expect to be there,” Vance says. “I believe in public power and the public provision of energy to communities. It’s a noble thing to pursue.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring II 2023 Edition here.
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