If you gather enough nuclear nerds and atomic geeks into a single location and include some talented professional communications experts, it’s possible to make a social media splash and capture attention – at least for a short period of time.
That is one of the lessons I learned yesterday while attending Third Way’s Advanced Nuclear Summit and contributing tweets that included the #AdvancingNuclear hashtag. It was a heady experience to see the volume of clever or informative micro blog posts (tweets) and to find out that we were near the top of the “trending” list.
By the end of the event, Suzy Hobbs-Baker, who was manning the event’s “Reactor Room” reported that #AdvancingNuclear had earned 7.5 million impressions and reached 1.5 million people. That conversation continues so the tally’s will expand over the next few days.
Aside: As an active #AdvancingNuclear contributor and conversation follower, I also learned a somewhat discouraging Twitter lesson. There are automated accounts that seize popular hashtags and add them to advertising or spam tweets that then contaminate a hashtag feed.
After deeper thinking, I guess that is simply a restatement of an old lesson – you get what you pay for. “Free” services can come with unexpected costs. End Aside.
Impressive event attendance
The room in the event space at the Newseum was at or slightly above the capacity limit. It was an impressive, invitation-only crowd that included Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Senators and Representatives (some of whom attended in person and others who came in via the screens), corporate CEOs, venture capitalists, high level career government service professionals, former NRC commissioners, the current NRC Chairman, university professors, philanthropists, non-profit leaders and thought leaders.
There was a palpable level of enthusiasm in the room, part of which was stoked by the knowledge that one of the leading companies, NuScale Power, had met its promised milestone of submitting a design certification application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of 2016.
Many of the people in the room were familiar faces; they’ve been at some, many or even all of the numerous meetings, conferences, summits and workshops on the topic of advanced and smaller nuclear that I’ve attended during the past decade.
I spoke to people from Lightbridge, Terrestrial Energy, GE Prism, Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, ANS, NRC, X-Energy, Nuclear Matters, The Clean Air Task Force, Bloomberg, The New Fire, Oklo, State Department, Global American Business Institute (GABI), INL, ANL and Third Way. I’m sure there were dozens of organizations with whom I failed to connect.
It’s obvious that interest remains high in the field, but the paths toward achieving real products are long, winding and littered with obstacles of various sizes and strengths. There are still action items that have been under discussion since advanced and smaller reactors entered the collective consciousness ten years ago.
Fortunately, though NuScale is the first project to hit an official milestone that shows definitive progress, there are numerous other projects that are taking positive steps and making real advancements towards their goals. It is also exciting to see growing political support that includes cost sharing programs, access to government owned testing and computer facilities, government material databases, efforts to streamline approval processes and a recognition that advancing nuclear technology plays into numerous American commercial and security interests.
How does the established nuclear industry feel about the people pushing for changes?
The established nuclear industry had a substantial presence at the event, with a kickoff speech by Chris Crane, the CEO of Exelon, the largest nuclear plant operator in the US, participation by the Southern Company, also a major operator and one of the two companies that is building large, third generation light water reactors in the Southeast U.S. and the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Maria Korsnick’s participation in the final panel.
They emphasized that there are many strengths in the current industry that need to be carried through to advanced nuclear energy developments, despite the current challenges to the fleet as a result of the flawed market designs in many service territories. U.S. nuclear plants have an impressive operating history with two decades in which the average capacity factor of the fleet was near or above 90%. Outage schedules are challenging, but regularly achieve new records in duration by practice, refinement and high quality workmanship.
The established nuclear industry can be a strong partner for the more entrepreneurial advanced reactor developers. They should not engage in fratricide or destructive efforts to find buses under which to throw their potential partners because they fear the competition that actually strengthens both.
Nick Irvin, Southern Company’s R&D Manager, Advanced Energy Systems, Research and Technology Management, explained why his company is so interested in both existing and advanced nuclear developments. They have a companywide mantra of feeling responsible for producing electricity that is Clean, Safe, Reliable and Affordable. All four are important. Nuclear energy is one of the few sources that has the potential to meet all of the key criteria for evaluating power systems. He concluded his remarks with the following statement.
“Nuclear energy is a key part of our future. We do not see any path forward that doesn’t echo that loudly. So if nuclear is going to be a key part of our future, are we going to embrace this idea of innovation and growth or are we going to stay put and rest on our laurels. Our country was founded by innovators, it would be an awful sad choice of ours if we decided to abandon that heritage when we have such great opportunity ahead of us.”
During her panel discussion, Ms. Korsnick addressed the “nuclear waste issue” that seems to come up in every political conversation about nuclear energy in a forthright, but creative way. She emphasized the value that advanced nuclear technologies can provide to the established fleet. She said “I would like to say that used fuel is future fuel, future fuel for some of these advanced technologies that we are looking at here today.”
Political climate implications
Not surprisingly, several of the conversations that I participated in or overheard were focused on speculation of policies that might be implemented and personnel that might be hired after key leadership positions have been filled. During one of the panels, a participant noted that he had not heard a single antinuclear comment from any of the leading figures in the Trump Administration. On the other hand, there have been few detailed pronuclear policies announced.
Several attendees at the event noted that the importance of advancing nuclear energy solutions is one of the few things that both major parties in the U. S. seem to agree on. There are numerous differences in the paths they have taken and the justifications they use to explain their current pronuclear positions, but there is a real and growing level of bipartisan support.
The days are long gone when politicians considered that expressing support for nuclear energy was a “third rail” that would result in defeat in the voting booths.
As one of the closing speakers, Senator Coons (D-DE) reminded the event attendees and the audience viewing via the live stream that Senators are open to discussions about technology and policy from people that they represent and whose opinions they respect.
“More than anything, we need your voice, we need your advocacy. Because what holds issues up on the prioritization list for Senators is hearing from folks they respect and value about things that are possible. Things that may not be widely covered in the press, things that may not be understood by most of our staff, but things that are a moment of opportunity and hopefulness.
I’ll close with a comment given by Jay Faison, the Founder and CEO of ClearPath Foundation. He told us that he had learned a few things as an entrepreneur and philanthropist with a deep interest in becoming a policy influencer in Washington. One is a phrase that is good for us all to keep in mind.
For those who support the need for nuclear energy technology development and deployment in the US, for whatever reason, the time is NOW. We need to move past anyone who attempts to claim it is “not now.”