A California-based correspondent shared the following vignette to a private email list early this morning.
An aside — had dinner with a Stanford biz prof teaching entrepreneurship. His 15 Chinese students were at the table too (big table). A few spoke English. One is international marketing head for China Nuclear Power Engineering Company — largest nuclear plant builder in their country. He said clearly that they plan to dominate the nuclear power market worldwide, just with present technology.
That triggered a response from me that forms the basis for the following thoughts. I’ve refined the rant a little; it still needs some additional work.
There is a key point in your vignette about the Chinese business students that needs emphasis:
plan to dominate the nuclear power market worldwide, just with present technology
From a practical business point of view, nuclear advocates have been a major obstacle to any effort to make near term gains in market share. Instead of refining the technology that we know and making it more and more competitive with an evolutionary approach, nuclear advocates squabble among themselves about the Next Big Thing.
Fossil fuel marketers love that idea. They have often encouraged it. Look at the history of the “fast breeder reactor” which captured essentially all government support in 1963. It also captured the attention of thousands of exceptionally bright people. That distraction lasted for the better part of three decades, during which many other battles were lost because of sharp-elbowed debates about the merits of that Next Big Thing.
Just when the fast reactor folks thought they had answered all of the questions and were ready to perhaps start capturing some actual sales, the ball was snatched away when the IFR project was halted in 1993.
Look at the squabbling that has been going on for the past six to eight years about the suggestion that all of nuclear’s problems could be solved by adopting the radically different LFTR or some other variant of molten salt. Even the most ardent supporters acknowledge that their concepts need at least a decade’s worth of development before being truly ready to begin building in any significant numbers. After the design work is completed, it will take a decade or more to get the supply chain into place.
In the meantime, how much capital will be invested in extreme hydrocarbon extraction techniques like hydraulic fracturing, oil sands mining, or deep underwater drilling? How many billions of tons of CO2 will be dumped into our common atmosphere, causing an uncertain level of climate disruption and a threatening change in ocean chemistry?
We have plenty of uranium and thorium to fuel thousands of LWRs. Their deployment will give us sufficient time to develop both fast reactors and molten salt reactors AFTER we capture a growing share of the world’s energy market and start making some real impact on hydrocarbon consumption.
By the way, once nuclear fission energy starts capturing market share with the machines that already have a developed supply chain, there might actually be a little money in the business available for investing in the Next Big Thing. When that happens, nuclear advocates could stop wasting so much time trying to beg pennies from the government.
My favorite current punching bag program is the $452 million that the government has promised for SMRs. Even that amount is spread over six years of appropriations risk. It is incredible to me how that tiny amount of money has caused so much distraction among people who claim to be industry “leaders.” It’s “decimal dust” in the DOE budget and completely invisible in the context of the energy industry.
Please do not misunderstand me; I am a huge fan of developing smaller reactors. In fact, a commenter here took me to task for my advocacy of small modular reactors (SMRs) and implied that I was not following my own advice by allowing myself to be distracted by the Next Big Thing. Since I like to “reduce, reuse and recycle” I will repeat my answer to his comment here.
Light water SMRs are not game changers, they are game expanders. Adding them to the mix is like hiring an excellent running back for a team that has a quarterback like Payton Manning or Dan Marino.
As the US demonstrated throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, building large numbers of small light water reactors at the same time as building large numbers of large light water reactors is eminently possible and even advantageous. The smaller reactors give parts suppliers sustaining business because they use exactly the same kinds of materials. The enterprise of operating smaller reactors is like the NCAA teams that supply experienced players for the pros.
Of course, we goofed up a good model by keeping the smaller reactors limited to the US Navy and telling all of the players that most of the information that they learned about those smaller reactors should be kept locked up in a very secret playbook.
I suspect that other leagues (Russian, Chinese, Korean, French) might learn from our mistake and make a different choice. It is generally good business to offer a larger line of similar products that can serve a wider variety of customer needs.
I’m fully aware that some readers get turned off by business competition discussions and sports analogies, but what the heck, I’m on a roll, so I will continue the mixing of metaphors in hopes that I can succeed in tweaking everyone into a response.
My own athletic experience has been in non-contact endeavors like swimming and sailboat racing where the only legitimate way to win is to practice and improve performance. Both of those sports have rules that make it unlikely for anyone to win by focusing on developing ways of slowing down the competition. (Of course, there are some participants in those sports that occasionally attempt to win using the Tonya Harding method of kneecapping the competition, but that’s rare, often unsuccessful, and certainly not legitimate.)
I think it’s great that the Chinese are working hard to get better at nuclear energy technology. Goodness knows that the world needs as much affordable clean energy as possible. In the same email thread as the one that stimulated me to write this post, there is a eye-popping, thought-provoking picture of a presentation slide that should wake people up to both the need and the opportunity for nuclear energy growth.
The best way for American companies to successfully capture a substantial portion of the world energy market using emission-free nuclear energy technology is to focus on our own strengths and weaknesses. We need to practice hard and sell what we know how to do well. We need to get better at the things that we do not do so well right now.
We became a strong nation by finding or making things that people wanted to buy and selling those things to the world. Mining and manufacturing are a valuable enterprises that provides useful, well-compensated jobs for a wide variety of people. I can testify from personal experience that working in a factory can be immensely satisfying; there is a good feeling at the end of the day when you can see the pallets of finished products from the day’s work piled up on the loading dock, ready to ship to happy customers.
Nuclear technologists need to bear down and focus on producing things that make a difference. We need to learn how to tell both our opponents and our advocates to “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” We have an important product to sell; it should be pretty obvious to many people in North America who are shivering under a polar vortex that an energy system that depends on energy conservation, “cheap natural gas”, wind and solar energy is not a great foundation for strength, prosperity or even comfort.