Richard Lester’s “A Roadmap for U.S. Nuclear Energy Innovation”

Dr. Richard Lester, the Japan Steel Industry Professor and Associate Provost for International Activities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published a thought and discussion provoking piece titled A Roadmap for U.S. Nuclear Energy Innovation in the Winter 2016 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the quarterly policy journal of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, the University of Texas at Dallas, and Arizona State University.

Dr. Lester’s piece is both hopeful and challenging; he foresees the possibility of large contributions to our future energy supply from emission free nuclear energy, but he also notes the very real possibility that the United States will be a laggard instead of a leader in the field. Here is a paragraph that summarizes possibilities, his recommendations and the challenges that he sees in the future of U.S. nuclear energy developments.

This nuclear agenda is ambitious, but attainable. It draws on the deep strengths of the U.S. economy in entrepreneurial risk-taking, as well as on a series of remarkable advances in other scientific fields that can now be applied to the traditionally insular and conservative nuclear industry. It also draws on the still-formidable capabilities of the nation’s nuclear research and security complex. But implementing this innovation agenda will require a new political coalition capable of neutralizing the longstanding opposition of people for whom the biggest dragons to be slain are nuclear energy or the federal government itself. A failure to act will undermine U.S. climate goals. It will also compromise important national security objectives. And it will further disconnect the nation’s industry from a global nuclear marketplace that is likely to be worth many hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades.

Lester offers several prescriptions that might antagonize a few atomic advocates and describes timelines that seem almost depressingly extended compared to the recent pace of developments in new industries like smartphones, GPS enabled devices, and large, flat-screen displays. However, his projected timelines recognize realities associated with long-lived nuclear energy systems and the challenges of accelerating some of the testing programs required during new technology development.

As a supplement to his article, Dr. Lester provided the following slide listing the activities associated with four stages of innovation and rough estimates of the investment scale required.

Adaptation of a figure that appears in the book Unlocking Energy Innovation (by Richard Lester and David Hart), published in 2012. Used with permission.

Adaptation of a figure that appears in the book Unlocking Energy Innovation (by Richard Lester and David Hart), published in 2012.
Click to expand
Used with permission.

In some areas — like high temperature, TRISO coated particle fuel for gas cooled reactors — innovators can take heart from the fact that major proof of concept demonstrations have been completed and the required modern fuel qualification testing programs have been quietly pursued in a reasonably steady fashion for more than a decade.

Lester laments the current tendency of innovators to begin their research and development work in the U.S. and to then seek more accommodating regulatory regimes in distant lands.

My view is that this path is fraught with the kinds of hazards that generally accompany a “grass is greener somewhere else” attitude towards overcoming obstacles. Lester agrees and believes that it is worthwhile to offer suggestions for improvement here, even if it might be too late to attract some of the more established development efforts.

The U.S. owns all of the necessary tools, it simply needs to take some of them out of the bottom drawer, knock rust spots off of others, selectively sharpen a few, and connect others to a power source. We have knowledgable people, a large physical infrastructure, laws that protect intellectual property, a system that enforces those rules, well positioned tracks of land, an established power grid with multiple points of connectivity near consumers, and, perhaps most important of all, we all speak and write the language that is most commonly used to conduct international business.

Of course, we need to use internationally accepted units of measure, but that is a separate topic.

I think Dr. Lester would agree with my summary, but he is a more conventional engineer than I am. He sees political obstacles as less tractable than I do, and he gives people who tenaciously resist improving the overall nuclear regulatory and public acceptance situation too much benefit of the doubt for pure motives.

In private communications between us, he expressed doubts about the ability of nuclear energy supporters to build the kind of momentum needed to make substantial changes in such imposed obstacles as the “no safe dose” assertion and the notion that nuclear energy’s proven safety performance is good enough.

I believe we are on the cusp of shifting the discussion about radiation to one where people want to understand how to best use technologies that involve radioactivity while monitoring their doses and keeping them within reasonably safe amounts. When people realize how the mythology of “no safe dose” was invented and promoted and they understand WHY that happened, they will be far more likely to embrace atomic energy development. (See, for example, the very recently published short paper titled Leukemia and Ionizing Radiation Revisited.)

Large numbers of people will stop asserting that “nuclear power is too expensive” and instead push engineers, financiers, manufacturers, regulators, legislators, and project developers to use well understood techniques for driving down the costs of manufacturing and construction.

In many areas, innovation will not mean inventing new devices, but in finding ways to make devices better, more reliable, easier to manufacture, easier to inspect, and simpler to use. Moving from virtually handmade craftwork to series manufacturing often improves quality while dramatically lowering the cost and the sales price.

Designers and regulators also should be enabled to use improved technology to reduce active safety system requirements and perhaps reduce redundant containment barriers instead of being required to achieve ever smaller probabilities of harm. Better physical protection should allow dramatic reductions in security personnel instead of just being viewed as a security improvement added to the capabilities provided by the existing guard forces.

Lester also touches on an area in the following sentence that continues to disturb me.

They have captured the attention of utility executives, who have already been forced to adjust to the implications of a decade of zero electricity demand growth.

I continue to want to know why electricity suppliers have accepted the notion that they must adjust to zero demand growth. Why aren’t they out there doing what all competitive industries are supposed to do in a free market — tout the benefits of the product that they sell in order to encourage more sales? Why are electricity manufacturers allowing propane, diesel fuel, heating oil [virtually the same product as diesel], natural gas, and wood to supply markets where they have a better product that can provide better results to customers?

Innovators in other industries know that technological progress requires investments in capital equipment, infrastructure improvements and human knowledge development. Those investments are rarely made if future sales projections are flat or falling, but they are enthusiastically supported by the financial markets when sales are growing.

My advice to electricity suppliers on this issue is to quit whining and start selling.

Aside: Someday, I might get around to explaining what might appear to some to be a paradox — I’m pretty sure that the intensively promoted energy conservation movement has been used by the hydrocarbon establishment as a tool to discourage nuclear energy investments that would reduce their future sales. End Aside.

Finally, I’d like to quote Dr. Lester’s list of federal government actions that would help unleash a torrent of atomic innovation in the U.S. that will also benefit the rest of the world.

The role of the federal government should be to create an environment in the United States that could attract and encourage such groups. This would involve:

  • Providing sites and facilities at one or more national nuclear laboratories for testing, prototyping, and conducting precommercial demonstrations.

  • Opening up these capabilities to both domestic developers and qualified development groups based overseas.
    Aside: In a similar vein, the obsolete prohibition on foreign ownership of nuclear power plants should be eliminated. End Aside.

  • Providing adequate funding for the NRC to address the regulatory issues raised by innovative designs in a timely way.
  • Enacting administrative reforms that would establish a staged licensing process, with clear and well-defined interim approval milestones and increasing levels of review at each stage from pilot scale to full commercial deployment, allowing developers to take graduated investment risks.
  • Promoting organizational reforms at the NRC, most importantly by establishing a regulatory “skunk works”—a separate unit responsible for regulatory development and licensing of innovative nuclear technologies, with a small staff of highly capable experts dedicated to working out nuclear safety requirements collaboratively with nuclear developers. (This unit would preferably be located far from NRC headquarters and would surely attract some of the NRC’s best engineers).
    Aside: There are some terrific potential locations in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountain area of south central Virginia. End Aside.

  • Providing financial incentives designed to encourage a more decentralized strategy for nuclear technology scale-up, demonstration, and early adoption, with a greater role for interested states and regions and a new kind of partnership between the federal government, the states, and private innovators and investors.
  • Convening an International Nuclear Safety Evaluation, with the goal of establishing safety requirements for the next generation of reactors capable of achieving expected safety levels an order of magnitude beyond the level of today’s most advanced reactors.

If Dr. Lester’s Issues piece stimulates productive discussion and actions in 2016, it will indeed be a Happy Nuke Year!

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