Perhaps it was the President’s expression of strong support when he announced that Southern Company would be the first company offered the opportunity to pay the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantee fees to support its well-vetted investment in 2 major electrical power factories in a jobs challenged rural area in northeast Georgia.
Perhaps it was the front page article in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, February 18, 2010 that announced that three large utility companies – Tennessee Valley Authority, First Energy Corp. and Oglethorpe Power Corp. – had signed an agreement with B&W to assist with their focused effort to obtain permission for commercial use of their innovative “new” reactor design – the mPowerTM.
Aside: The reason for the quotes on the word “new” in association with mPowerTM is that the genesis of the idea dates back to about the time that B&W built the power plant for the NS Savannah in the early 1960s. Over the intervening years, the company has periodically worked on the design in a focused project, only to put it back on the shelf when corporate decision makers determined that the time was not quite right for introduction. The company has also employed a number of engineers who have invested some of their own available time in refining and tweaking the design as they learned lessons from completing other innovative reactor and component projects. In nearly every field that I understand reasonably well, I have found that what seems like innovation or “overnight” success is built on a solid base of homework, thought, experimentation, failure, refinement and human effort that often dates back over decades. End Aside.
There is even a possibility that the final piece of information that motivated attendance was the Wall Street Journal article titled General Atomics Proposes a Plant That Runs on Nuclear Waste on Monday, February 22, 2010, on the morning that the meeting began. In any case the designated room at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel was packed with a standing room only crowd when I arrived for the NEI/DOE sponsored Small Reactor Forum. The room had a seating capacity of close to 200 people, and nearly all of them were full.
The forum organizers had assembled an impressive line up of speakers and panel discussions that would supply a vast amount of information in a short period of time. One of the more colorful speakers joked that the organizers must have been quite a bit younger or simply drank less coffee than many members of the audience – there were not many breaks in the schedule. Unfortunately, I missed the plenary session, but it included talks by Marvin Fertel, President and CEO of NEI, Dr. Peter Lyons, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, the Honorable Fred Hemmings, State Senator, Hawaii, and Craig Piercy, the Washington, DC representative of the American Nuclear Society.
I did arrive in time to hear Marvin Fertel answer a question from the audience about the current controversy regarding global warming, CO2 emissions, and man’s role in causing the problem. The questioner suggested that the nuclear industry should encourage the formation of another panel of independent experts to evaluate the data and implied that without resolving that issue, nuclear would not be very interesting to people. Fertel’s answer was worth repeating:
There is more than a cottage industry looking at CO2. The last thing that is going to bring credibility would be nuclear industry sponsored research. I think it will go its own way. But what I can tell you is that CO2 will not go away and that we will take action that will reduce emissions. If for no other reason than we are going to wean ourselves away from some fossil fuels out of necessity.
The other thing I can tell you from a nuclear standpoint is in this town there was an awful lot of interest in nuclear over the last year by some very prominent politicians because they wanted votes. In order to look at getting votes, they had to talk to us. And of course they were going to have to deal with their own constituencies that may not have wanted nuclear energy. And they had to talk to us on substance as opposed to emotion. By talking on substance, there was actually some progress made because they actually wanted to understand issues like waste and safety and nonproliferation and why you need loan guarantees.
The more you talked on substance the more you found that members of Congress don’t always do what you want them to, but they are not stupid and they understand a lot more about nuclear energy today than they did this time last year.
In a follow up response to the same question, Craig Piercy added the following pithy comment:
People like nuclear because of the quality of the power. You flip on and it works. Fuel is a small part of it and as long as you can be assured that you can get the fuel, it really makes sense from an engineering perspective. Because of that nuclear is going to continue to grow, even if there is not a binding movement on climate.
Nuclear energy is not the easiest topic to understand; it is not easy to put it in sound bites, but serious people who are motivated to listen because of its demonstrated ability to solve pressing problems can listen patiently enough to learn what they need to know. When I was serving as an instructor at the Naval Academy, we used to talk about “teachable moments”, which were times when our often distracted, but very intelligent students were more open to learning than usual. Good teachers and communicators recognize and take advantage of every one of those moments that become available.
Just a couple of years ago, there was little visible interest in small reactors, especially at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade organization that represents the interests of its members – who are mainly large electric power utilities and the vendors that supply them with components and services. However, a number of speakers made it abundantly clear that even large utilities are paying attention to some of the characteristics being discussed by the thinkers and leaders in the field, the ones who are doing the engineering, but most importantly, the ones who are thinking about the various business models, the market opportunities, the financial risk solutions, and the solutions to regulatory barriers.
Technology presenters included NuScale, B&W (mPowerTM), Hyperion (HPM), General Atomics (MHTGR, EM2), GE/Hitachi (Prism), Westinghouse (PBMR, IRIS). For most of the attendees, one of the more interesting sessions matched up a engineer leading a tiny division of one of the largest companies in the world – GE/Hitachi – with the CEO of one of the smallest, but most marketing oriented firms in the business – Hyperion. During the day I talked to people from both Newport News and Electric Boat – the shipyards that have assembled reactor propulsion systems for the Navy, from law firms, from DOE, from the NRC, from component manufacturers, from construction firms, and even from one or two venture funded reactor designers working on even more options.
Some may think that the field of smaller reactors is getting too crowded already, but there are dozens of tested concepts that are ripe for further development and deployment. Nuclear energy technology is still on the low flat spot of the typical technological ‘S’ curve; it is certainly well above zero but it is a approaching a rapid growth spurt after years of being held in check by a number of different, but weakening forces.
(More accurately, technology development is a series of S curves; nuclear is actually on the second or third of many potential deployment curves leading to spiraling advances that make increasing valuable use of that 2 million times increase in energy density over competitive fossil fuels.)
One thing that was clear to me – there were not many research scientists in the room. The people who attended this forum were pretty confident that they were building on a very sound and extensive base of existing knowledge that had been tested and proven over a number of decades to work. The vast majority of the Research and Development is complete; it is time for the next D in the technology cycle – Deployment.