Feeling Upbeat about Nuclear Technology’s Future

I feel better about the prospects for new nuclear technology development today (April 21) than I have for several years, based on the four conferences in four different U.S. cities I’ve attended over the past several weeks.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance - Future of Energy 2016

Bloomberg New Energy Finance – Future of Energy 2016

My travel calendar has included Washington, D.C., for the Nuclear Industry Summit / Nuclear Security Summit, New York City for the BNEF Future of Energy Summit, Atlanta for Nuclear Energy Insider’s International SMR and Advanced Reactor Summit, and Annapolis for a Technical Meeting on Nuclear Energy and Cyber Security sponsored by INMM and American Nuclear Society.

I’ve traveled from my base in south-central Virginia by train and automobile, skipping the planes that many busy journalists prefer in their continuing effort to minimize the time invested in gathering reportable information.

I view travel as an observational experience opportunity. My trips have reinforced my understanding that there is a vibrant population of interesting and interested people living outside cities. The majority of that population experiences and understands energy consumption in a way that is entirely different from those of trendy urbanites.

International Advanced Reactor and SMR 2016 - Atlanta, GA

International Advanced Reactor and SMR 2016 – Atlanta, GA

We live in an energetic country that is gradually, but visibly recovering from nearly a decade of economic stagnation. Construction crews are busily moving dirt, concrete, steel and lumber, even in places outside of the Washington, D.C., beltway.

Electric cars, which are a legitimate item of growing interest inside urban areas where distances are short, pollution is a problem and stop and start traffic is the norm, are virtually undetectable in suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

Pick-up trucks are both very popular and growing in size. I’ve seen increasing numbers of large SUVs, vans, RVs, boats and a dizzying array of tractors, four wheelers and large motorcycles on dealer lots, parking areas and in yards and driveways.

Awareness of those facts of American life allowed me to engage in a number of useful exchanges with people who seem to believe anointed energy gurus.

I’m referring to the people who frequently repeat the pitch that the relationship between prosperity and energy use has been permanently altered and that the wind and the sun will eventually provide all of the power we need, with “cheap, clean natural gas” as the only bridge fuel required to arrive at that future utopia.

Many of the hard-working people who have spent their careers in the traditional nuclear industry appear to have bought into the notion that the country has an overabundance of energy sources, that “the public” doesn’t like what they do, that there is no future (or financial reward) in pressing for more nuclear energy, and that it’s time to retrench and erect defensive barriers to attempt to protect as many existing assets as possible.

A few young and ambitious people are convinced that there is a bright future in renewable energy, especially in solar and wind. They often don’t have any thoughts about nuclear energy other than the “fact” that it’s “too expensive to compete.”

Washington Monument through cherry blossoms

Washington Monument through cherry blossoms

Their opinions are buttressed by the heavy publicity associated with the high cost of Hinkley C, the stubborn messaging from the top that the project has to move forward and succeed in order to prove that nuclear energy has a future, and the increasing drumbeat of op-eds—often from industry spokespeople—proclaiming that the value of nuclear energy isn’t recognized by the market.

That last message generally ends with a plea for more subsidies to enable nuclear plants to make a decent profit in a market skewed by generous subsidies to competitive energy sources. That plea, which might sound logical to some, grates with those who dislike taxes and fees that seem designed to benefit corporations and their stockholders.

The reason that my trips have energized me and resulted in a growing sense of optimism is that they gave me the opportunity to engage with hundreds of young and young-at-heart people who are excited by the prospects of a future enabled by increasing use of nuclear energy.

Many of them, despite the advice of energy industry stalwarts, have decided that atomic power is the best available technology to address a number of problems that they’ve been told to either ignore or accept as inevitable.

The atomic optimists that I’ve met are convinced that climate change is a real problem that needs near-term, but effective action. They believe that temporarily low fossil fuel prices are an opportunity that will enable lower cost building programs for plants that might be ready to operate just in time for the next high price cycle in the hydrocarbon market.

Leslie Dewan of TransAtomic Power Giving Firestarter Talk at BNEF Future of Energy 2016

Leslie Dewan of TransAtomic Power Giving Firestarter Talk at BNEF Future of Energy 2016

Some of them are proud to be part of teams—like TerraPower, NuScale, Terrestrial Energy, X-Energy, TransAtomic and mPower—that have developed technological fixes that will go far in addressing the obstacles that have slowed nuclear power plant deployment during the past several decades. Others are interested in joining or supporting those growing teams.

I’ve had lengthy conversations with current regulators like Deborah Jackson, deputy director of advanced reactors at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and deeply experienced former regulators like Dave Matthews, who headed the agency’s division of new reactor licensing, and Jeffery Merrified, a commissioner from 1998-2007, who are diligently working towards adjustments in current processes that, if adopted, will smooth and straighten the path for licensing advanced reactors.

Those changes, which are often in the form of better interpretations of existing regulations, will enable evolved versions of light water reactors or reactors using refined versions of technologies like high temperature gas reactors, liquid metal cooled reactors or molten salt reactors that have been developed and proven at demonstration scales during the seventy years since the Atomic Age began.

I’ve heard Ashley Finan from the Nuclear Innovation Alliance and Clean Energy Task Force describe the recently issued report titled Enabling Nuclear Innovation: Strategies for Licensing Advanced Reactors.

That report contains valuable recommendations including the possibility of a staged licensing process with milestones that can be decision points for investors. One aspect of the report that make it more important is that its release coincided with the bi-partisan introduction of the Nuclear Energy Regulatory Modernization Act (S.2795).

John C. Dvorak with No Agenda producers in Sparks Steak House NYC Apr 5, 2016

Selfie with Dvorak and fellow No Agenda producers in Sparks NYC

A Senate clean air and nuclear safety subcommittee will be holding a hearing on that bill later today (April 21).

There is no doubt that the timing wasn’t a coincidence, but the result of effective, coordinated legwork. My statement is supported by reading the report and the legislation side by side and by personal conversations with several of the cited contributors and advisors.

Even though few of the new and improved reactors will be operating within the next ten years, growing interest and measurable progress might have an impact on fuel cycle sales as increasingly well-financed innovation leaders begin to take action to avoid the Westinghouse uranium market assumption errors of the early 1970s.

There is still plenty of work to be done. The path will be arduous, but exciting and rewarding for those who approach it with patience, dedication, technical understanding and open-minded acceptance of the fact that it’s possible to change the status quo.

Nuclear Industry SummitIt’s not easy to believe that there is light coming when the current situation seems dark, but it sure helps to notice the clues in so many venues and coming from such a wide variety of sources.

Yes, for once, I’m optimistic.

The above article was first published in the April 21, 2016 issue of Fuel Cycle Week.

Copyright 2016 by Atomic Insights LLC, all rights reserved.

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