Many, if not most, of my nuclear energy colleagues believe that our biggest hurdle is overcoming public fears. They believe that the main reason nuclear energy is not more popular is that the public is misinformed by the media. What they do not understand is that selling energy is perhaps the world’s largest and most influential business, but it is a business where finding markets (customers) is at least as important as finding and producing the resources.
In my analysis, the main reason that nuclear energy is not more successful in the United States and western Europe is that our competitors are eating our lunch in the fundamental business endeavor of attracting an increasing number of paying customers.
While browsing this morning, I ran across a well-designed, and probably well-funded ad campaign from Shell Oil touting natural gas as a cleaner fossil fuel that produces about 50% of the emissions of burning coal when used in an electricity production facility.
Producing electricity is the application that currently accounts for nearly all of uranium fission’s market share. In business school terms, central station power plants are the “sweet spot” for nuclear reactors since they are the easiest application for achieving the scale economies that allow us to invest in all of the security, redundant infrastructure, and overreacting regulatory ratcheting that our competitors have imposed on our technology.
As you watch that short clip – and I recommend several viewings, paying critical attention to the imagery and accompanying words – think about how it would have to be worded if Shell Oil honestly admitted that it has more than just coal as a competitor in its target market. While natural gas may produce just 50% of the emissions of coal, and while it may be the cleanest burning fossil fuel, it produces at least 30-50 times as much CO2 per unit of electricity produced as nuclear fission does. In addition, it has other emissions of concern that are not produced by atomic fission.
In terms of sustainability – which is the closing argument for natural gas in the ad clip – the 87 year supply of natural gas remaining deep underground in the United States pales in comparison to the inexhaustible supply of potential energy that is locked up inside of our uranium and thorium resources. Those resource estimates are even less favorable for natural gas if you recognize that its longevity assumes that we maintain our current consumption rate (24.3 trillion cubic feet (TCF) per year in 2011) AND that we are successful in extracting every last molecule of the proven, probable, possible and speculative resources that make up the Potential Gas Committee’s estimate of our total resources (2170 TCF as of Dec 2010).
Aside: Just in case any of you check those numbers to realize that 2170/24.3 = 89, not 87, please recall that the total resource figure was computed for the end of 2010 and it is now November 2012. The clock keeps running and the gas keeps getting burned at a rate far higher than any possible replacement mechanism from natural hydrocarbon production cycles. End Aside.
So my message this morning, fellow nuclear energy professionals, is that we must get our collective heads out of the sand and recognize that our competitors are working hard to capture our markets and that they are doing it with ads that are deceptively lacking in some key factual comparisons.
This is probably not the most polite time to mention that the natural gas industry’s infrastructure vulnerabilities contributed to a number of serious, fatal fires during Hurricane Sandy, but I will anyway. In contrast, the 34 nuclear plants in areas hit by the storm operated safely and relatively reliably, with only 3 forced outages and one plant where the effects of the storm were serious enough to move beyond the “unusual event” stage to the “alert” stage in the NRC’s four level emergency classification system.
I noticed repetitious natural gas ads played frequently during the Fukushima Frenzy. That experience reinforced a key marketing lesson as taught by some of the world’s most experienced and successful marketers of a product that has enormous benefits but carries a certain amount of known risk. The lesson is that it rarely hurts to tout your successes when your competition is down and to do it in a way that helps direct attention to that competitor’s current challenges.
I have no regrets about piling on when a strong competitor in the energy production and supply business is having issues that result in substantial property destruction and human fatalities. I recognize that the competition would like to sweep its challenges out of the public view, and I suspect they will be quite successful in their effort. After all, they have regularly invested in high dollar advertising campaigns and show every sign of continuing to be a reliable revenue stream for any moderately cooperative media enterprise.
Personal aside: This is the month of Movember, a time to recall that men face unique health challenges in the form of prostate and testicular cancer, two killers that are not frequently mentioned in public. Movember is partnered with the Prostate Cancer Foundation and the LIVESTRONG Foundation. I’ve shaved my trademark mustache to start the month, but will be growing a new one along with my Mo-Bros. Updated photos of my less than pretty mug will appear in the widget in the right-hand column of the site.
You can support the cause by donating to my Movember fundraising campaign. Several members of the Atomic Insights community of contributors have provided a head start by adding $175 before the month even started. Thank you very much, Eric, Meredith, Joel, David, Carl, Robert, Jeff and John. End Aside.