Dr. Rachel Slaybaugh “It’s an exciting time to be in nuclear engineering.”

During the Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase, there was a terrific conversation about a growing level of excitement among university students who are studying nuclear engineering, among more established members of the nuclear community and among other people who are passionate about helping to save the world.

Some of that enthusiasm stems from the fact that nuclear energy is a well-proven [virtually] zero carbon power source.

The now gray and increasingly wrinkled children of the 50s who came of age in the 60s, were taught to “duck and cover” as part of their indoctrination that civilization was going to end in a dramatic exchange of nuclear weapons. In contrast, Millennials and the children following them have been taught to believe that climate change is the existential threat to civilization as we know it.

Aside: I am working on some explanations about why I chose to frame the generational attitudes in that manner, but those theories are not the subject for this post. End Aside.

The conversation about the way that the rising generations view nuclear energy began when Mark Peters, Director of INL National Laboratory, asked Dr. Rachel Slaybaugh, assistant professor, University of California, Berkeley to talk about innovation from the perspective of her own research and work as a university professor.

Here are some of Dr. Slaybaugh’s memorable statements.

“As a professor, now is a very exciting time to be in nuclear engineering. The students in the program haven’t been around long enough to know that everything moves slowly in nuclear. They don’t know that yet. Nobody told them.”

“You have people who chose nuclear because they want to help save the world. They’re excited and giving them a way to both develop new technologies themselves so that we can have many ideas that can help us solve the economics problem is one of the ways to do it. But also getting them involved in such a way that the current knowledge is not lost. Plugging into the GAIN initiative, making sure they can understand what’s going on with the current fleet, how do we transition… They’re very excited; there are a lot of ideas.”

“It’s no longer the case that we have to stay with LWRs. There’s an opportunity and a fresh perspective that are combined in an environment where people are really serious about nuclear because people are finally getting serious about the environment.”

“They’re finding out about things like establishing these national innovation centers, maybe nuclear incubators, using existing mechanisms like the NEUP program to really ensure that there is support for that innovation.”

“There’s a lot of excitement. The more you see companies across the range of size and scale, I think it inspires people. So they know that there are really innovative projects happening at GE, but they also see Transatomic and UPower [just renamed as Oklo, but that announcement came at about the time Dr. Slaybaugh was speaking] and in the middle they see NuScale. There are places across all of the stages of development, so for anybody’s interest in personal [financial] risk there’re really exciting places to go at all stages.

Dr. Slaybaugh’s commentary stimulated an interesting discussion among others on the panel [three of whom are roughly my age – that is children of the 60s who came of age in the 1970s — and Simon Irish who is about 10 years younger] that is worth highlighting.

A full transcript of that conversation is below the embedded video.


Steve Kuczynski: Just a follow on comment. We’re seeing the same thing within the existing fleet of operators. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not having folks from our organization just wanting to know more, wanting to get involved, say how can I get involved with that. So we’re going to see more of the existing nuclear community that’s operating the existing fleet reaching out even further to the universities, developing further partnerships and promoting this future that we can potentially have. So it’s just not in the academic world. It’s also in the existing fleet of operators that’s really picked up here in the last year.”

Simon Irish: I’d like to comment on the demographic character of support these days for nuclear energy. I think it’s got quite a clear character to it. The younger generation is much more inclined to support nuclear energy, existing nuclear energy and also advanced nuclear than the older generation. And this is, I think pertinent. So when a trend is established with that type of profile associated with it, that the generations coming through have a much much stronger support and advocate for a certain technology, a certain policy position, you don’t really want to get on the wrong side of it because it will be an inexorable increase in pressure.

Dan Reicher: I think that’s an important point. Carol talked about bringing all of the stakeholders to the table, John talked about how to be a true partner and Rachel just mentioned not having the same old habits. And another part of innovation is trying to get ahead of the concerns that folks, in a sense, on the other side, are going to raise. Trying to be innovative in that process. You know, safety, waste, proliferation.

I think we’ve got to think about… We’ve got to anticipate that a lot of that is going to be raised and take a smarter approach to addressing those things in the US. That’s in the regulatory context, that’s in the investment context, that’s when it comes to government spending there’s going to be a big debate. We do have a new generation of folks who are interested. We have a new generation of technologies. I think we have to take a more innovative approach to dealing with what are going to be the inevitable concerns that people are going to raise.

Carol Browner: I think that is very encouraging to hear what Rachel and what Simon have to say about the new generation. When I talk to younger people, if they watch The Simpsons or played Sim City, they may have a preconceived notion. People who’ve watched it are laughing because there was a very specific message being delivered there [Emphasis added.]

What I find, to make this super simple, is this is a carbon-free source of energy. And we have to begin there. Because — Rachel, I see you nodding your head — I do think younger people care deeply about the climate change issue. And so that speaks both to the existing fleet and why we need to maintain it and also need to build on top of that.

To Dan’s point, we all probably have children of varying ages. My children get their news in a radically different way than I do, even today, and than I ever did. And I think engaging in a stakeholder conversation — taking advantage of social media — will be hugely, hugely important to bringing those people — er younger people — into this and keeping them in the debate. Again, I think it’s not impossible because they care so deeply about climate change.

My view might not be universally held, but I believe that people who were small children in the 1960s and came of age in the 1970s or early 1980s have always been a bit confused about energy issues. We lived through two impressive leaps in the cost of oil and gasoline where prices increased by a factor of two or more in the space of just a few months. Some of us noticed the negative impact those leaps had on the economy and employment prospects.

We saw that nuclear energy was growing rapidly. In most school systems, “duck and cover” drills were a thing of the past because civil defense spending had dropped to nearly zero. There was a sense of resignation brought on by the successful propagation of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD); if governments decided to use the bomb, we were all going to die anyway.

Then we watched nuclear energy development stop. We were told it was because of “the environmentalists”, or because of Three Mile Island/Chernobyl, or because the costs were out of control, or because projects lasted far longer than expected. We learned that everything moves slowly in nuclear energy. Many who entered the profession in the optimistic times before 1979 left to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Those of us who remained positive about the technology are happy to learn about the excitement in the universities and among the more flexible thinkers in the operating fleet. Those like Carol Browner and Dan Reicher, who have been converted from a position of opposition, are also pleased to find that there are good people to befriend “on the other side.” They are not lonely or isolated because their former “friends” who remain opposed will no longer talk to them.

As Simon Irish noted, “So when a trend is established with that type of profile associated with it, that the generations coming through have a much much stronger support and advocate for a certain technology, a certain policy position, you don’t really want to get on the wrong side of it because it will be an inexorable increase in pressure.”

One more important concept to remember – innovation is not just about inventing new physical technologies. As inventions begin to save the world, they need innovative thinkers in financing, business model creation, product development, marketing, project management, regulations, and competitive strategies. We will truly have a nuclear renaissance when the excitement at the universities leaks out of the nuclear engineering labs and spreads throughout the campus.

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