President Obama should task John Richardson with a mission similar to the one that President Dwight Eisenhower gave Hyman G. Rickover. Richardson is the current leader of Naval Reactors (NR), the organization that Rickover built. If directed, NR could begin a new assignment to show others how to manufacture complete nuclear fission power systems starting tomorrow. They could accept the assignment with the confidence that comes from accomplishing that task repeatedly for more than 50 years. The effort would be a nearly sure success and provide an emission-free energy option that would disrupt the current version of the Great Game.
My proposal has been influenced by thoughts triggered by several different talks and conversations heard at the 2013 American Nuclear Society Winter meeting.
During the President’s Special Session on the next 25 years of nuclear fission, Dr. John Browne, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, provided part of my inspiration with the following statement:
Browne: The people who really can make a difference are those people who can look across fields, collaborate across disciplines, who sometimes get real insights for major breakthroughs that can change fields or an industry.
John Rowe in 2011, at one of your ANS meetings, said, “Nuclear is a business, not a religion.” I certainly agree with that statement, and I know what he was saying. But I would say it’s also a science and we can’t forget that. Advances in science and engineering can and must improve the long term business outlook for nuclear. So hopefully all of you people who will be here in 2038 will be able to look back and be proud of your accomplishments that would have helped to solve the global problems that we face today.
To do so, I think you’re going to have to be bold and think big. Don’t be afraid that if you ask the what if questions they might allow you to actually take steps that you would not have foreseen five or ten years ago. As President Kennedy said in 1963, “There are those who look at things as they are and ask why, I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”
Another part of my inspiration came from Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, who closed her excellent talk with the following thoughts:
Eisenhower: The Intergovernmental Panel of the United Nations (referring to IPCC) concluded that the world is hotter, the seas are rising and that is unlikely to be occurring naturally. So we should stop continuing this debate and just do it. Isn’t it Nike that says “Just do it?”
We need to set about taking on the carbon issue again and getting climate legislation. I’ve had endless arguments with colleagues of mine who say “Oh it’s off the table.” Well, why? Get it back onto the table. I don’t understand. If it’s an issue of existential importance, why we wouldn’t all be making an effort to get carbon questions back onto the table.
The other aspect that I’d finally like to mention is the presumption that the only way to solve non-proliferation issues is to employ sanctions or force. I have to say again that I was privileged to be a part of that group of people — along with Sid Drell, I’m so happy to see you here today, Sid — and to recall the enormous amount of energy that went into our interactions with the Soviet Union — and then New Russia — precisely to ensure that that proliferation would not be a threat.
We had any multiple number of programs that actually worked. We had the ISTC, International Science and Technology Centers; we had Nuclear Cities; we had the CTR programs which I mentioned before, all of which actually changed the vocabulary and many of the best practices in the Russian Federation.
And, so I believe that the only thing that’s missing in this piece is leadership. It’s leadership that is attached to deploying a vision that is backed up by education, not only with the pubic but also on workforce issues and perseverance.
We need to get climate legislation back onto the table. And may I immodestly say, as a former member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, we need to get the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations through Congress.
Finally, let me just say that it has been a wonderful experience to be with you here today, to see the people receive their awards for extraordinary service, not only to this enterprise but also to the nation and to reaffirm the fact that Americans can do it. The only thing we are lacking is the certainty that we have it in us to do it.
Admiral John Richardson, the current director of Naval Reactors, followed Susan Eisenhower’s plea for leadership with a talk that reminded the audience of the contributions that Admiral Rickover made to the development of nuclear energy production technology.
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower determined that the best way to defuse growing tensions about the possibility of a nuclear war was to show the world that atomic energy could be much more usefully applied to create a peaceful world. He turned to a leader with an established team that had a proven track record. Eisenhower asked that leader and his team to demonstrate one way — of many possible ways — to build a useful, reliable nuclear power plant.
Admiral Rickover and his team at Naval Reactors accepted the task. They were fresh from their successful effort to develop and build complete power systems that were reliable enough to propel submerged submarines full of valuable American sailors for months at a time. They cooperated to adapt their knowledge and technology to producing a useful commercial power plant and provided America with the capability to design and build many more.
Starting in early 1954, Naval Reactors, along with many other corporations and organizations that had honed their technical expertise and teamwork as part of the submarine propulsion plant effort, completed the Shippingport power station before the end of 1957.
That plant, though its one-of-a-kind nature resulted in a unit cost that could not compete with the extremely cheap fossil fuels available in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s, showed utilities, vendors and financiers that nuclear fission was a capable alternative to fossil fuels. The design and construction effort provided a useful project on which thousands of people could develop new skills and knowledge and get paid while creating something of immense inspirational value.
Though it did not happen overnight, the technology — including the whole package of work force, materials, factories, processes, and procedures — developed as part of the Naval Reactors-led Shippingport project eventually led to a world-wide enterprise that gave the world a new power source.
Light water reactors have been producing the energy equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per day for the past 20 years. Though often overlooked, that contribution has been equivalent to finding another Saudi Arabia (10 million barrels of oil per day) plus another Angola (1.9 million barrels of oil per day) — but with less damaging environmental, economic, and political implications — to supply world’s energy needs.
It is a cliche to call an energy source “the Saudi Arabia of…” but within a couple of decades of its discovery, nuclear fission demonstrated that it has the potential to turn Saudi Arabia’s oil resources into a mere footnote. I believe that fission’s almost unlimited power production potential is a major reason why there has been such a focused, well-funded, relentless effort to oppose the development of nuclear fission power plants beyond their initially rapid deployment.
Other energy suppliers hate the idea of virtually unlimited clean energy supplies. The added supplies are going to force prices down for everyone; most of us think that would be a very good thing.
My determination to make the bold suggestion of tasking NR with being the leader in the development of small, module reactors (SMR) was solidified during the first session of the embedded topical on SMRs during ANS 2013. The SMR effort, which has incredible potential, is full of skilled technical people, but it requires skilled, experienced, focused leadership. It would be enhanced with concrete examples of success that can contribute both financial strength and industrial momentum instead of frittering the potential away in an endless series of meetings rehashing the same issues we have been discussing for at least five years.
Pete Lyons, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member and current head of the office of Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy, strongly disagrees with me. However, my interpretation of existing law is that NR has the legal authority to approve the design of nuclear power plants that can be used to power critical federal facilities and to supply some of their output to surrounding communities. NR also has the unique capability to review and approve the design of reactors that do not operate on a fixed site and, instead, can be used to propel commercial ships or produce power on floating barges.
Aside: Several years ago, I had the opportunity to ask a senior NRC regulator how they would respond if an applicant showed up at their door with a design for a power plant that did not have a fixed site. He had just given a talk about the site permit process that is a required part of the Part 52 licensing process. He told me that the NRC would start by asking NR for advice. End aside.
NR owns existing designs that can be adapted to civil use, it owns a training infrastructure that is expandable and replicable, and it owns refined operating procedures. It has access to a supply chain that could expand, and to a large number of experienced project managers that know how to achieve high quality production within cost and schedule.
Aside: I am fully aware that the Navy uses core designs that are not appropriate for civilian use. However, reactor pressure vessels are just “tea kettles” that can be loaded with an almost unlimited variety of cores. They do not have to be the kind of long lived core that the Navy has decided are best suited for ships; they can be low enriched cores that need more frequent replacement with systems designed to enable routine replacement. End Aside.
NRC regulators could shadow NR decision makers and learn new ways of ensuring nuclear safety. Thousands of people could be employed in jobs where they learn valuable skills that will ease the training burden on future SMR efforts as other designs get completed, licensed and deployed. Pragmatic financial analysts could watch the process, learn to trust the projections based on demonstrated success, and see that promises can be kept.
People would stop doubting that the renaissance would ever come. America could keep producing its wonderful, newly accessible treasure troves of oil and natural gas but not fritter away that resource in a burst of short-lived prosperity akin to the UK’s short, 20-year “dash for gas”. That dash, by the way, is coming to an end as North Sea abundance peters out.
If he accepts the modest proposal the President would make a big impact on our ability to reduce the risk of climate change and in building the prosperity that enables adaptation to whatever climate change is already inevitable based on the CO2 that has already been added to the atmosphere.
This admittedly bold suggestion cuts across many subject areas, even if there is really no new technology involved. Sometimes technologists forget that innovation and change in business models, regulations, and legal constraints can be just as important as inventing a new material.
PS – I want to make it clear to those who do not know me that I have a basis for believing that this vision is realistic. I served in roles of increasing responsibility up through Engineer Officer on submarines. I served on the Chief of Naval Operations staff in two assignments that gave me access to the financial details of the Naval Reactors infrastructure. I spent four years as the requirements officer for submarine and surface ship training and then 2.5 years as a requirements officer for ship and submarine maintenance.
I was a staff-level Commander, which meant that I was responsible for asking hard questions, putting together decision briefs, building spreadsheet models and learning deep details that the admirals were expected to know, but did not have the time to find themselves.
I’ve been on an SMR development team and know enough about the details of the challenges those pioneers face to believe that following through on this proposal would boost their potential for success. I’ve been a manufacturer and seen the economies of series production first hand. Finally, I am a self-employed writer who does not have to be concerned about upsetting my employer or my employer’s influential customers by making disruptive suggestions.
I know my limitations; I’m not capable of leading the effort, but I sure can be a cheerleader.
Why not just do it? What are the immovable obstacles that prevent success?