Decade after decade the U.S. continues to rest on nuclear theories of the past by choosing to avoid change and by only endorsing light water reactors (LWR). Isn’t time we wake up from the Rip Van Winkle-like energy slumber in this country and look to the future? Shouldn’t we actually explore and fast-track the next generation of nuclear reactors that are safer and also deal with waste? This has me thinking the U.S. needs a Nuclear Twitter, a game-changing atomic technology adopted by the masses, in order to gain true energy independence. That means the future of the nuclear industry will likely come from an incubator that has that wherewithal to support radical ideas that can truly disrupt the nuclear industry and help the U.S. move away from foreign sources of oil.
When I consider the willingness to adopt modern nuclear power, the U.S. is definitely lagging other countries around the world, most notably China. So while the future of nuclear power will not be led by the U.S., that can still change since the country needs to gets its domestic manufacturing swagger back at a time when meeting the 2020 carbon targets will be impossible without a deeper commitment to nuclear power. This could present an enormous opportunity for increased innovation here at home for Generation III and IV reactor designs especially if more commitment to nuclear energy is backed by the Department of Energy (DOE). Sure there the second DOE small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) funding opportunity announcement (FOA) has recently surfaced and is on the table, but realistically those designs will come to market in 2025 at best so offsetting carbon for the sake of meeting 2020 targets seems rather unrealistic. Also, embracing radical new designs is something that will never happen in the nuclear market in short order so the resources to support that “aha” moment in the nuclear space needs to start soon or our clock to be energy independent by 2030 will be greatly challenged which is the bigger issue we should be focusing on.
So where do we go from here? For starters, increased focus should certainly be on scalable reactor designs that can be added to as power demand picks up. Plus we are already seeing new commitment to the uranium waste issue from companies such as TerraPower and Kurion so that needs to continue. The U.S. should also emphatically dedicate more research dollars to advance modern nuclear power that can morph into economically efficient sources of megawatts whether the reactor is fueled by uranium or even thorium for that matter. Paul Genoa, Sr. Director of Policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) recently told me, “It’s not impossible to think that the DOE might actually move forward with more than one additional design certification in yet another subsequent FOA if Congress approves and provides additional funding since the U.S. may opt to push for increased innovation and create a new, modern domestic energy industry rather than simply choosing to back one or two SMR designs.”
At the end of the day, if the government actually commits to nuclear power as part of our broader energy future, I do believe more venture capital dollars will be allocated to early stage nuclear ideas that in essence may one day change the world by eliminating the waste issue. With that said, the U.S. should look in the mirror long and hard and come out right now and push back the 2020 carbon goals and in the process endorse more nuclear designs that have a very strong chance to actually come to market in the next decade. Therefore without a question of doubt, I feel the nuclear industry needs to find the atomic version of Twitter and in the process look to totally revolutionize the energy world just as the tiny San Francisco real-time information network did to the global communications industry with just 140 characters. Considering LWRs make use of only ~3% of the potential energy from its uranium fuel source, future nuclear designs have nothing but upside (said in 138 characters and ready to be Tweeted).