I began my nuclear career as a submarine officer in the US Navy, so I have never really understood why a substantial body of people believe that all nuclear power plants have to be steady state behemoths producing at least several hundred megawatts of power. Ever since I got interested in taking some of my experience – not the technical details, mind you – into the larger energy industry, I have focused on the concept of building much smaller machines. It always seemed to me that the nuclear industry was ignoring some lucrative markets and a number of industrial lessons about learning curves, mass production, and factory quality control.
I have spent more than 15 years talking to people, writing, making formal presentations to potential investors, and trying every way I know to get the NRC to modify some of its processes to allow smaller systems a chance to breathe. There have been many people during that time that “get it” and agree that my concepts are sound, but so far most of them have been people without much money or desire to risk it in an effort to break down some of the thought barriers erected with the help of the established players in the nuclear industry.
In the past several months, however, it has become apparent that the idea of much smaller reactors is much more widely shared than many people in the nuclear industry imagine. I have watched as Hyperion and NuScale have received initial funding rounds from venture capitalists, found indications of renewed interest in small systems by Russian companies, and had the invigorating experience of being contacted by some people with access to large pots of investment dollars who want to hear more about how Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. might compete with those efforts.
We continue to dance with those potential investors – part of the problem is that I do not want to spend much time focusing on ways to erect barriers to entry. I have often been told – especially by my lovely wife of 27 years – that I am a bit naive about the ways of the world, but I firmly believe that there is plenty of money to be made by sharing the technical concepts underlying our system rather than locking up as many parts as possible with patents.
The world’s need for reliable, clean energy is simply too great to be met in time with just the efforts that can be overseen by a single team, even if that team gets enough resources. Building sufficient fission power generation to save the world – admittedly a grandiose goal that makes many people wonder about my sanity – is going to take considerable effort by multiple teams that can share ideas and connect parts from each other’s contributing systems. Most of the potential investors see great risk in putting in their money without many layers of protection from competition. They do not like when I tell them that I love competition and think that it simply provides real incentive for improvement.
Sometimes I wonder why so many US investors are so shy about competition – the trend these days seems to be to consolidate and monopolize market segments. That might be okay for the winners in the short term, but there are good reasons why that is bad for the overall economy and why many smart people over the years have worked so hard to eliminate trusts and monopolies.
Over at Energy From Thorium you can find a lengthy and well considered series of posts describing what Charles Barton calls the “Keys to Lowering Reactor Costs”. He has obviously been thinking about this for a long time, and he does a good job of detailing why he thinks that manufactured power systems – instead of site built power plants – will have significant economic advantages. There are a number of good ideas there and some pretty good discussions taking place. I encourage you to go over and participate.
(Confession – I am vain enough to hope you pay close attention to the first post in the series – Keys to Lowering Reactor Costs: Economies of Scale. I’ll let you figure out why.)