By Jim Little
Would you be willing to continue investing in an established business with flat revenues, increasing costs while competing against an agile field of competitors who enjoy a market advantage of lower costs, quicker deployment schedules and the support of government subsidies and favorable public opinion? Should you stay the course and focus on addressing those challenges or divest? This is the stark choice facing the nuclear power industry today.
The Curves in the Road Ahead
The current situation that the nuclear industry is experiencing is best captured in the familiar “S Curve” graphic below illustrating the life cycle that many industries undergo beginning with birth, through growth, expansion and maturity and a potential decline when later facing factors such as obsolescence, substitute products or a changing competitive or political environment. If conditions do not improve, they eventually come to a point where a decision must be made to either continue on in a declining business, make changes or go in a new direction.
The Current Road Ahead Isn’t Straight – It Might be a Dead End.
There is great concern over the continued viability of nuclear power in the United States going forward. It is facing threats to its very existence, ironically at a time when its performance has reached its peak and when its value could most be appreciated with its carbon-free generation, reliability of supply, and economic benefit. The utility industry is facing some tough choices. Will nuclear generation continue or decline? Will the nuclear industry turn its attention away from new plant builds and extended-life operation activities and rather focus on decommissioning as evidenced by the plethora of recent conferences focused on decommissioning as the new market opportunity?
These threats are multi-faceted and are due to factors both external and internal. The external factors are well known by now – a disruption in the formerly stable power market created by imbalance between supply and demand. The supply side has been disrupted by an abundance of extremely low-priced natural gas produced through technological advances such as fracking and horizontal drilling and the rapid growth of increasingly cost-competitive renewables, sometimes supported by favorable government policies and subsidies. The demand side has been affected by the recent economic recession which suppressed growth in demand for power generation, already being tempered by improvements in energy efficiency.
The internal factors affecting nuclear are both existing and new. As no significant additions to the nuclear fleet have been made in many years, the fleet is aging and has required significant capital investment for upgrades and license extensions. Compounding this further are ever increasing regulatory requirements, the largest of which are those resulting from the events at Fukushima some six years ago.
One of the more disconcerting and difficult issues facing the industry is a loss of talent and experience right at a time when it is most needed to transfer knowledge to the next generation. The nuclear workforce demographic contains a large percentage of experienced talent reaching retirement age within the next five to ten years. With fewer people entering the industry, addressing the needs of the operating fleet will become more and more difficult and expensive. Further efforts to reduce costs by trimming workforces would only exacerbate the problem.
With revenues remaining flat, cost increases are significantly squeezing the profit margins of these operations. The financial outlook for nuclear utilities is bleak in an investment environment which rewards growth in revenues and profits. A number of utilities with nuclear units in merchant markets have recently announced decisions to decommission those units which are no longer able to sustain profitability. Utilities with units in regulated markets are likewise feeling similar financial pressures.
This situation was recently described to me by one nuclear utility executive: “From a shareholder perspective, how can I justify a recommendation to continue to invest in a facility when facing a forecast of declining returns while there may be other more profitable uses of capital?” So, should the default decision be to retire that unit and fund those efforts through its decommissioning fund; i.e. a “Nuclear 401(k)”?
There are no easy choices. While the logic may seem straightforward, abandoning even a single unit could have cascading effects and far reaching implications. This same executive explained his concerns further: “How does one retain and attract talent going forward when there is a signal that nuclear may not enjoy full support going forward?” The inability to offset talent loss due to retirements in the workforce can affect performance on the remaining operations, increase costs, and further accelerate the departure away from nuclear. With a downturn in the industry there are other outcomes such as the reluctance of students to enter the nuclear field, university decisions to pursue other programs of study, research budgets reduced and grant applications no longer being sought. There are a number of other issues; the loss of existing, stable baseload generation and economic impacts such as those being experienced in host communities such as Zion, Illinois, and Vernon, Vermont. From a national policy perspective, it directly impacts the largest source of carbon-free generation in the United States, currently 63% of the nation’s total carbon-free generation.
Lastly, for the industry, the departure from nuclear is likely irreversible once made in the U.S. as the current talent and knowledge base is the result of over 50 years of investment and development. The situation may best be described by Stephen Wright, a comedian who is a master of the art of irony: “I live in a house halfway down a dead end street. It’s one way.”
The Industry Drives On
Challenges aren’t new to the nuclear industry which, since its inception, has successfully addressed numerous challenges throughout the past five decades. With a culture based on a need for certainty and a search for excellence, it has focused intensely its attention “head on”. Over the past few years significant investments have been made in improvements with upgrades, upratings, and efforts to improve regulatory processes through risk-informed approaches among others. In response to the recent market conditions, it has undertaken initiatives on multiple fronts. Legislative efforts focused on political and community support have begun in states such as Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York highlighting the economic and environmental benefits of the nuclear facilities in those locations and the negative impact of early retirements opon communities and the need for the treatment of nuclear power on a level playing field with other competing sources of supply. Efforts are being made in the regulatory arena with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regarding the need to address the seemingly never ending increase in regulations without demonstrable need or benefit. A good example of progress in this area is the recent commission decision to uphold Exelon’s appeal for the NRC Staff to adhere to the cost-benefit analysis requirements of the Backfit Rule.
Under the leadership of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry has focused on internal issues with its cost efficiency initiative, Delivering the Nuclear Promise, which has an aspirational goal of saving one third of operating costs. Utility members are identifying cost improvements and sharing them with the membership in a series of efficiency bulletins for consideration and implementation. In the past year, the program has identified over thirty bulletins with a potential savings exceeding $650 million across the U.S. nuclear fleet. Not relying on this program alone, some utilities are taking direct actions to reduce costs by mandating fixed budgets and corresponding organizational streamlining and workforce reductions. The key question is whether these actions will identify enough remaining potential for improvements. Furthermore, will there be a sustainable benefit over the longer term to address future challenges not yet encountered? With a legacy focus on continuous improvement and efficiency, what’s really left to improve upon?
Did We Miss a Turn?
Faced with an uncertain path forward, these obstacles may seem insurmountable with success being elusive. Yet, there may be an option other than continuing to pursue a traditional method which uses robust, tried and true problem solving approaches. The answer might not lie ahead but along the side of the road already traveled. Did we miss a possible turn as we forged ahead during the past years in the search for excellence?
This possible option might be best described in Oren Harari’s book, “Jumping the Curve: Innovation and Strategic Choice in an Age of Transition”. He points out an alternative to the traditional approach which searches for answers to problems. After all, he was famously quoted saying, “The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.” This new approach is not based on finding answers but in asking questions. Curiosity is used as the tool to explore and find new opportunities. Rather than focusing on answers to lowering costs it focuses on asking “Why should we do this?” and “What are we doing and why are we doing it? Have we gone too far down that road in that search and find ourselves on an unsustainable road to “Excessilence”?
This New Path Isn’t Necessarily Straight Either
The nuclear industry operates with a psychology and tradition of ensuring certainty and having solutions to problems. There is a very strong drive to adhere to established practice. Take, for illustrative purposes, a simple example: the practice used for years to sign documents. It was always required that documents be signed using black ink. Quality Assurance would reject anything signed with blue ink. The simple reason behind this requirement was that in the past, copy machines were not able to capture the color blue; therefore the requirement to forbid the use of blue ink. In some cases, organizations were even not allowed to stock blue ink pens. Yet for some years later, even after copier technology evolved to capture the color blue, the prohibition remained in place.
New solutions may be found by questioning current practices and departing from tradition. Rather than look at the efficiency of those practices, are they effective? We need to probe deeper to look for improvement. Are our operations effective in delivering the value that we need to reliably and safely deliver cost effective nuclear produced electrical generation? So, we need to ask ourselves, are we still using “black ink”?
Let’s look deeper and question the scope and extent of programs and practices which have been developed and implemented over the past decades. Are they still appropriate or have they expanded further beyond their purpose and become part of tradition? There are lots of areas to evaluate but consider some sample questions in just three:
1. Have quality assurance programs gone too far? Are some records now produced primarily as a defense for potential audits? Are corrective action programs focused on correction or just protection?
2. In the area of security, are assessments and activities focused on credible threats that are possible and probable or have they been stretched to a hypothetical and theoretical limit?
3. In procurement, does a predominant focus on lowest cost with multiple bidders deliver the best result? Does an arms-length relationships ensure customer satisfaction (i.e. access to alternative solutions and the best result) and supplier success (i.e. stable workloads that keep companies with good talent available)?
The questions may seem simple, but actually the answers are complex when considering that those practices and processes that were validated and adopted years ago in the pursuit of excellence. Questions pose a whole new set of questions or concerns: How can we “back up” from our current methods? What will the reactions of stakeholders be to a perceived reversal of those practices solely for the purposes of saving money? How can we undertake such an effort and ensure that any revisions do not have unintended consequences?
Moving Forward on a New Path
Facing the need for change is not anything new. As a species, we have been exceptionally good at dealing with change. We are naturally skilled at assessing our environments and adapting to the changes we perceive. These adaptive skills have allowed us to find novel and useful solutions to complex challenges. Were we to stay in our comfort zones and hope things get better (or hope we don’t get eaten) we would not have become the dominant species on the planet.
We also know that change is difficult. Our brains are wired to pursue the familiar path. Our neural networks don’t have to work as hard when we are engaged in routine behavior. We fear that doing things differently will result in the loss of all that has been built and invested in. This is precisely why the process of change needs to involve the right people, working toward a clear set of goals that lead to a shared vision. The process also requires the courage to face uncertainty and to engage the imagination to figure out the best ways to get there.
One of Charles Darwin’s most often quoted phrases is: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
The time to act is now. We must address the issues facing the industry on all fronts to preserve nuclear as a valuable asset for the nation. Doing less is simply irresponsible and unacceptable.
We are beginning the start of this dialogue with a panel discussion to be held at in the executive session for the upcoming American Nuclear Society Utility Working Conference on August 6-9, 2017 at Amelia Island, Florida. I will moderate a panel of executives with utility, regulatory and supplier experience to discuss their opinions and perspectives of this path forward. In addition, this September, the Carolinas Nuclear Cluster which is part of E4Carolinas, a 501(c) energy industrial trade organization serving the Carolinas will undertake an effort entitled “Nuclear, What’s Next?” to further pursue this initiative.
As always, reactions, input, comments and questions (of course!) are welcome.
p.s. It’s ok to use blue ink.
Jim Little is an Executive Consultant, Nuclear Energy Programs
He’s a member of the State of South Carolina, Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council. He earned an MS in Nuclear Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University
Editor’s Aside: Better ways to document acceptance and approval should be encouraged. Ink is so last century.
Note: The above article was originally published on Linkedin at Nuclear’s Fork in the Road. It is republished here with permission from the author. The author presented his thoughts at a well-attended session at the Utility Working Group. He gave Atomic Insights permission to share his slide deck.