Posted on June 8, 2018 by Jay Faison
The next generation of American nuclear power is going to rest largely on the shoulders of the private sector, as it should.
But the Department of Energy will continue to play an essential enabling role in nuclear, which is the workhorse of our clean energy sector today and can still fill that role tomorrow.
I was honored to be recently selected by the Trump administration to be a member of the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, which was created back in 1998 to provide independent advice to DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
Looking ahead, NEAC will aim to give the Trump administration guidance from a wide range of perspectives in its efforts to modernize and expand the sector.
Here are my two cents at the outset.
When I and others at ClearPath visited many of our national labs a couple of years ago, I came away with a renewed belief that the clean energy challenge is incredibly complicated – but doable thanks to the immense expertise we have housed in our labs, especially in nuclear.
I was also struck by the many nuclear researchers we spoke to collectively expressing the need for further direction from Washington about long-term program goals.
The good news is that DOE has lots of experience tackling this type of challenge.
DOE has historically taken on some of the nation’s most complicated energy dilemmas by aligning the American innovation machine’s robust resources and competencies towards an ambitious “goal,” be it in creating affordable solar power or digging deeper (and horizontally) in shale gas production.
Any effective goal must be understood by contributors at all levels, and used to actively guide and prioritize efforts.
That’s exactly what we now need for advanced nuclear.
At ClearPath, we call it NuclearVision.
Building the Bridge Between Public and Private Research
This would be a focused public-private research initiative driven from the highest levels of the DOE that will help the U.S. regain its global leadership in nuclear energy security, open up entirely new markets for domestic nuclear generation, retake a key strategic advantage from China and Russia, and put thousands of American engineers, manufacturers, and tradesmen to work.
The guiding principles behind previous DOE successes should be utilized to further advanced nuclear technologies:
- Set technology goals: Develop aggressive technology goals, in coordination with the private sector, that balance the pace of scientific innovation with commercial needs. One goal ClearPath has pushed would be demonstrating multiple new state-of-the-art advanced nuclear designs in the U.S. by 2030. The initiative should be a secretary-level priority to coordinate resources across the entire department.
- Encourage disruption: Proactively encourage thinking that challenges the status quo and pushes the limit of innovation. Think about the potential to use advanced reactors for multiple departmental missions, such as nonproliferation and environmental management needs, in addition to innovation.
- Empower technical staff: Deep engineering and scientific expertise is needed to identify projects that are not on track toward meeting the program goals. Program managers should come from the cutting edge of industry.
And putting some more meat on the bones of this vision could result in:
- Investing in DOE research programs: The Office of Nuclear Energy houses vital programs that must be supported as they back early-stage R&D on advanced reactor technologies such as modeling and simulation, essential to tackling key performance and design challenges needed to make these technologies a reality.
- Facilitating advanced fuels development: Advanced fuels R&D to support both existing and next-generation reactors by developing accident-tolerant and non-light water reactor fuels that improve safety, enhance U.S. national security, and reduce operating costs. And we need a reliable domestic supply of the high-assay fuel needed for these reactors.
- Constructing a versatile fast test reactor by 2026: For the U.S. to regain a global leadership role in development of next generation of advanced reactors, a versatile fast spectrum test reactor is an essential experimental tool. This facility, currently being planned at DOE, would provide necessary irradiation data for evaluating the performance of fuels, materials, components, and instrumentation used in some of the promising reactor designs currently in development.
- Competitive cost shares: Provide demonstration and early design cost shares to the most promising advanced nuclear technologies, while focusing on giving preference to those that have earned the most enthusiasm and backing from the private sector.
There’s a saying I think of often:
“What got us here, won’t get us there.” I’ve certainly used that a lot when talking about clean energy innovation. But in the case of supercharging our advanced nuclear industry, a healthy mixture of a robust forward-facing vision AND tried and true DOE oversight is the right recipe for getting us where we need to be.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of Jay Faison and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.