Last week was one in which the words nuclear, energy and innovation came together in more places and in more contexts that in any other week I can readily recall.
On Monday, November 30, President Obama, President Hollande and several other world leaders introduced Mission Innovation, which is a non binding pledge by the leaders of 20 countries that together represent 80% of the world’s consumption of fossil fuels and CO2 waste production to double their investments in clean energy R&D over the next five years.
The aim to to enable the development and deployment of new ideas that can provide a world power system that is reliable, clean and affordable. Access to energy, energy security, economic development and addressing climate change goals are all included as measures of effectiveness. The announced menu of politically acceptable solutions includes nuclear energy.
In an move described as independent, but complimentary, Bill Gates and 28 ultra wealthy investors announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which is a network of private capital investors interested in funding the most market-ready projects that develop out of the government-supported research efforts.
The Breakthrough Energy Coalition will focus on early stage investment opportunities to provide angel, seed, or Series A capital to ideas with commercial promise that might develop fast enough to attract later stages of funding. Gates describes this kind of investment as patient capital that recognizes the high risk, high reward nature of early stage financing.
In a December 4, 2015 interview with The Hindu Gates said that the unreliable nature of the wind and sun make systems dependent on them inherently unviable as large scale energy solutions.
Projects that can be rapidly scaled to provide the largest amount of affordable energy to the broadest market will be favored in the selection process. The principals will be spending the next year developing investment evaluation processes, investment vehicles and building their network of investors.
They are encouraging decision makers to consider ways of ensuring that intellectual property rights are protected long enough to allow the potential for big returns on investment and are also lobbying to make sure that the private parties in the public-private partnerships that conduct research and development are allowed to keep the IP.
Aside: This is a facet of the discussion that needs greater recognition and understanding. I recommend proceeding with due caution before providing bandwagon acceptance. End Aside.
On Wednesday, December 2 four key climate scientists–Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Tom Wigley, Dr. Ken Caldeira and Dr. Kerry Emanuel–held a press conference in Paris to encourage environmental groups to overcome their entrenched opposition to nuclear energy, especially advanced nuclear energy concepts that have used experience and innovation to address longstanding complaints about conventional nuclear technology.
On Thursday, December 3, the Energy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Policy held a hearing on H.R. 4084, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.
The bill, introduced on Nov. 19, is sponsored by a bipartisan group of 21 representatives. The act is aligned with most of the initiatives announced during the White House Summit on Nuclear Energy. It encourages technology transfer from the National Labs to the private sector and the use of high performance computing and simulation.
It also tasks the Secretary of Energy with developing a mission need statement and a detailed plan for the development of a reactor based fast neutron testing facility. In SEC. 8. BUDGET PLAN the Act directs the Secretary to build three budget plans:
…The first shall assume constant annual funding for 10 years at the appropriated level for the Department’s civilian nuclear energy research and development for fiscal year 2016. The second shall assume 2 percent annual increases to the appropriated level for the Department’s nuclear energy research and development for fiscal year 2016. The third shall be an unconstrained budget. The 3 plans shall include—
(1) a prioritized list of the Department’s programs, projects, and activities to best support the development of next generation nuclear energy technology;
(2) realistic budget requirements for the Department to implement sections 5, 6, and 7 of this Act; and
(3) the Department’s justification for continuing or terminating existing civilian nuclear energy research and development programs.
Aside: I hope the plan includes an evaluation of the possibility of reviving the already built Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF). It meets the described criteria and should be able to on line quicker than any facility needing to be designed and built from scratch. End Aside.
The bill includes provisions to begin evaluating the possibility of establishing a National Reactor Innovation Center, perhaps at one or more of the National Lab facilities. Details of what the facility might include are sparse so far, but its stated purpose is to leverage Federal infrastructure, workforces and capabilities to minimize the time and effort required to construct and operate privately funded experimental reactors while providing reasonable safety for people working at the site.
Three witnesses were invited to testify at yesterday’s hearing — John Kotek, Acting Assistant Secretary, Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy; Dr. Dale Klein, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Texas; and Ray Rothrock, a former partner at Venrock and now a private venture capitalist who has invested in TransAtomic Power.
Kotek noted that his office is working on much of what the new legislation is designed to accomplish.
Dr. Klein noted that the legislation was moving in the right direction. He also noted that as the former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he believes that the NRC is capable of evaluating and licensing advanced reactors. He noted that regulators are always interested in credible data on which to base their decisions.
It wasn’t emphasized at the hearing, but it is vital for more decision makers to recognize that demonstration and test reactors are often the only way to obtain the needed data. Simulations are limited in their ability to replicate reality without verification by comparison to physical experimentation.
Dr. Klein also emphasized the importance of developing a fast neutron test reactor by describing how TerraPower needed to use a facility in Russia to perform fuel qualification testing.
During Mr. Rothrock’s testimony, he mentioned that he had been involved in the Venrock investment in Tri-Alpha Energy, a company that has been working for at least ten years on what they describe as a breakthrough in fusion.
Representative Grayson (D-FL9) spent his whole five minutes pressing the notion that the U.S. has not done enough work in fusion and that modern concepts like those that Tri-Alpha have announced show some real promise. He polled each of the witnesses.
I hope each of the witnesses were just being polite by agreeing that if the breakthroughs are real that fusion would be a “game changer” worth substantially more investment. Nothing I have seen or read has convinced me that controllable fusion generating stations will be providing power during the lifetime of my already living grandchildren.
In my opinion, nuclear fusion continues to be a huge distraction whose reasonably expected energy production characteristics of economy and waste production are not superior to those that are already proven on a commercial scale for nuclear fission.
People with strong interests in the hydrocarbon economy have been encouraging fusion expenditures since before I was born; they know it’s not a threat to their sales volume or political influence.
Representative Rohrabacher (R-CA48) expressed his strong interest in advanced fission systems that can recycle the fuel and produce far less long lived waste. He asked why we would bother to build any older designs that are less fuel efficient if we know how to build better ones.
Some of his Orange County constituents might have given him a more rosy picture of commercial readiness for advanced systems with recycle than is justified by reality. He should also consider the fact that if there are new technologies on the horizon that can use the leftover materials from light water reactors as fuel, there is no reason to stop building well understood light water reactors where they can be economically competitive.
Their leftovers might need to be stored for a while while the supply chain for the newer technologies is scaled up, but eventually, the strategic stockpile of material will be accessible for them to use when ready.
I’m pleased to see that there is a growing wave of interest in nuclear energy innovation. It is the only really new energy technology that has been discovered in the last century.
We are still on the earliest ‘S’ curves of product innovations in a technological field whose theoretical limits are as much as a million times higher than those that limit hydrocarbon combustion.
In the next few weeks, I’m planning to write about ways to speed up nuclear innovation cycles by appealing to the competitive nature, large project management expertise, skilled work force and deep well of capital that already exists in the energy industry.
There is a big role for governments in the process, but my view of what that role should be will probably differ from yours.