President-elect Trump’s gracious acceptance speech includes a statement that should stimulate creative people who appreciate the capabilities of nuclear energy yet are saddened by the huge gap between the promise and the current reality.
“I’ve spent my entire life in business looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country.”
Nuclear energy is the mother lode of untapped potential.
At Atomic Insights, we’ve been documenting the reasons why nuclear’s potential benefits have barely begun to be exploited and put to beneficial use — both in the initial posts provided by your host and in extensive comment discussions provided by the growing group of talented contributors.
We’ve also been talking for years about the actions that could release a great wave of creative solutions to reduce or eliminate the erected barriers, improve our internal management practices, begin effective marketing efforts and solve the remaining cost and schedule challenges that scare potential customers away.
With a newly elected president who states that he wants to make America great again, we have a golden opportunity to remind both our leaders and the public that nuclear energy development was once a great business full of optimism and ingenuity.
The universe of challenges that can be mitigated or overcome with the intelligent use of the vast, emission free energy that our creator locked inside the nuclei of certain superfuels — uranium, thorium and plutonium — continues to expand.
Compared to the 1960s through the 1980s, when nuclear energy production was expanding rapidly around the world, we have more people, more energy demands and a greater realization of the importance of using sources that do not pollute, minimize their footprint and require less supporting infrastructure.
The existing nuclear power plant sites in the U.S. are underdeveloped assets with available land, buildings that can support a much greater production level, transmission corridors, a trained workforce capable of expansion and supportive communities that recognize the value of having productive enterprises that serve important societal needs and desires.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an organization full of capable people, but its effectiveness been hampered during the past decade or more by unproductive, politically divisive oversight and poor management. Its budgets have been attacked as being too large, but the responses to the attacks have often resulted in practices that reduce effective ability to regulate.
Decisions take longer than they should, adding unaccounted costs without making any improvement in the outcome. People get realigned into unfamiliar roles and slow down their reviews as they learn their new responsibilities. Corporate knowledge gets lost in waves of early retirements or buyouts, again adding an unrealized burden by breaking the necessarily level of continuity that contributes to efficiency.
Development of a robust nuclear energy industry can and should be a unifying activity. A prosperous industry serving a growing appetite for affordable energy would be capable of funding the kind of research and development effort that will be needed to begin working up the evolutionary S-curves of technological development. It’s time begin expansive efforts to tap the incredible potential of the only new energy source discovered in the past couple of centuries.
Government enabling action is needed more urgently than government funds. The president’s bully pulpit can be used to inspire the workforce, to improve regulatory effectiveness, to create new energy demands as we work to improve our crumbling infrastructure and to help expand on the growing realization that we can have both an expanding economy and a clean economy based on essentially inexhaustible resources.
What about increased competition from fossil fuels?
I’m not fazed by the prospect of streamlined regulations and expanded domestic development of hydrocarbon resources. Combined with abundant heat energy from atomic fission, America’s raw materials can be fully developed into finished products for global markets while improving our shared environment.
The chemical processes needed to convert materials like coal or natural gas into clean liquid fuels have been known for almost a century, but they can be more cleanly and effectively applied with abundant heat from clean atomic fission.
Abundance lowers market prices and reduces the financial incentive for extreme energy exploitation in underdeveloped areas. When there is competition for an expanding market, suppliers work hard to eliminate waste and to expand the productivity of already built infrastructure.
New pipelines reduce the risks associated with both old pipelines and with alternate sources of transportation like trucks and trains. Expanding demand provides the incentive for financial investments in improvements and maintenance; falling demand results in more risky practices known colloquially as “milking the cash cow.”
What about competition from renewables?
I suspect that wind and solar energy development will be put on a more rational basis by allowing the currently scheduled phase out of tax credits to progress without intervention.
Both industries have made it abundantly clear that they are mature technologies with falling costs and increasing ability to compete. I relish the prospect of taking them at their word and engaging in competition on a more level basis.
Like raw hydrocarbons, biomass can benefit from partnering with abundant fission heat to improve both productivity and product quality.
Maybe the Ft. Calhoun Station can be turned into a demonstration of exactly that kind of partnership. There is a huge biomass refinery on the northern border of the plant site. That situation seems like a prime example of “untapped potential.”
There’s little doubt that many of my colleagues in clean energy advocacy will be horrified by the prospect of increased fossil fuel extraction and the removal of financial incentives for wind and solar.
I’m sure there are nuclear supporters who will be offended by my suggestion that the government does not need to spend much money on nuclear energy research if it focuses its efforts on figuring out how to get out of the way.
During the recent ANS meeting, I was reminded that some current leaders in the nuclear field firmly believe that success can be defined by the ability to capture large quantities of government funds for “big science” projects, even ones that never produce anything of value. I’ve never been a fan of that kind of grand challenge.
Nuclear energy is fully capable of competing. It can make a vast improvement in the cleanliness anc capacity of our energy supply. Society has a lot of work to do to make the earth a better place for us all. It can use all the energy we can provide.