This has been slightly revised from an op-ed first published in the Washington Times on Aug. 1, 2017.
The suspension — at least for now — of the first two U.S. conventional nuclear reactors under construction in more than three decades, underscores what was already painfully obvious: the future of nuclear and of clean energy broadly will rest on the backs of people who decide to lead today.
Monday the owners of the Virgil C. Summer nuclear facility in South Carolina announced the two reactor projects would come to a halt — but the news isn’t a death knell for nuclear energy in America.
But innovation doesn’t come cheap or easy. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It takes a lot of work.
Isaac Newton once wrote to a friend that if he had indeed seen further than others it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Whose shoulders will hoist future generations? As entrepreneur Peter Thiel asked last year, “What are we contributing to human prosperity and well-being in the mid-21st century?”
A big part of the answer must be significant advancements in clean and reliable energy.
The developing world is increasingly hungry for power for cooking, refrigeration and air conditioning. As the world looks to decarbonize, no single clean energy source will get us there. That isn’t practical or responsible. The answer has to be found through innovating and commercializing a suite of advanced energy technologies, which in America will produce generations of great jobs that help modernize and grow our economy.
But advanced energy technology won’t just appear out of a genius’s garage.
Newton’s reflector telescope was within the grasp of an inventor of modest means, just like the next iPhone app is today. But innovations in the energy world today are often beyond the ability of individual businesses to fund. They’re too big, too risky and the benefits are spread widely across society and business rather than the company that tried it first. That’s exactly why these advancements are so important but also so hard for a private company to pursue at an early stage.
We need cost-sharing to launch new industries and technologies that will become part of our national infrastructure and backbones of our exports. Part of America’s DNA is leadership in world markets, including high-tech industrial goods in energy and other fields. And as new technologies emerge, we have to seize the opportunities, or lose out to China in the emerging trillion-dollar global market for nuclear energy.
But government seldom undertakes those pathfinding missions alone anymore. It’s now up to industry. And many of the best energy ideas are from start-ups, with budgets far smaller than the government’s. In fact, these investments are very large even for industrial companies with energy divisions.
There is a sensible tendency to look at every dollar government spends and decide if it is worthwhile. But energy research shouldn’t be on the chopping block. The agency that did the early work that led to fracking of natural gas — which is one foundation of America’s recovery from the Great Recession and shift towards being an energy exporter — was the precursor to the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy. That office is now pursuing important advances in technologies that can capture, store and utilize carbon emissions from coal and natural gas plants.
The fate of another Energy Department program, the Office of Nuclear Energy, is integral to innovative efforts. Start-ups are on the verge of commercializing new kind of reactors that can be installed where electricity is needed most. It can also pair with wind and sun as a carbon-free generator that runs day and night.
But the federal government is so stacked against nuclear innovation that the costs to start-ups include the millions of dollars that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will need to review licensing applications. Money previously promised to help prime the pump for technology development is now on the verge of disappearing.
In 1899, the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office said that it might be time to shut down that operation because everything that could be invented already had been. Thankfully, he was ignored.
Today we must learn from that commissioner’s folly. There is a world full of undiscovered advancement, unfinished innovations waiting to improve our lives, especially in producing cheap, clean and reliable energy. American creativity in science and innovation remain second to none. But we need to organize ourselves to put that creativity to work. And in doing so, we can guarantee that our children and grandchildren can see farther than we can.
John L. Hopkins, chairman of the Executive Committee U.S. Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and CEO of NuScale Power, and Jay Faison, the founder of ClearPath, whose mission is to accelerate conservative clean energy solutions.