It's time to pick the winners in nuclear energy

It's time to pick the winners in nuclear energy
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In May 1958, President Eisenhower inaugurated Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant. It was a capstone to the process he began five years earlier with his “Atoms for Peace” initiative, but it launched something much larger. In just 30 years, nuclear would grow from providing 0 percent of U.S. electricity to over 20 percent.

That wasn’t an accident. Eisenhower provided the inspiration, but the work of making it happen was the legacy of one man, Hyman Rickover, the legendary admiral often called “The Father of the Nuclear Navy.”

Shippingport was as much Rickover’s achievement as the Nautilus, the Navy’s first nuclear submarine. He oversaw construction of the plant through his bilateral role with the Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Defense, a job he completed in under five years — a period that seems incredible now.

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How did Rickover do it? It was an approach that has fallen out of favor: He picked a winning technology and threw the weight of the government behind it.

Rickover knew the U.S. did not have the luxury of exploring every possible design. Instead, he chose two, holding one as a backup. The winner was Westinghouse’s pressurized-water reactor; the backup was General Electric’s sodium-cooled technology.

It worked: That choice is largely the reason pressurized-water reactors now dominate the industry.

Things have changed since the 1950s. Over the last 20 years, the U.S. has added just one reactor. At best, two more will come online in the 2020s. Meanwhile, seven have shut down since 2013, and another 12 may shut down by 2025. That’s a lot of clean, reliable generation lost from a grid that’s increasingly dependent on intermittent renewables. 

This reality continues despite technologies that far exceed Shippingport in safety, flexibility and economics. Approximately 75 such advanced reactors are in the works, yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not certified a new design since 2014.

Overseas, the picture is different. The U.S. was once the leader in the nuclear industry — not anymore more. The U.S. has long since ceded that position to Russia, which has as many as 36 reactors in development worldwide, plus memoranda of understanding on nuclear cooperation with another dozen countries.

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Meanwhile, South Korea has developed a robust export industry despite starting its first reactor in 1978. China has likewise made significant strides developing nuclear technology and leveraging its manufacturing advantages for export.

Business and jobs are not the only losses when customers turn to Russia, Korea and China. A nuclear plant is a decades-long investment — countries choosing Russian reactors are embarking on relationships that may last 60 to 100 years.

Russia isn’t just building reactors for NATO members like Turkey and Hungary. It’s also seeking business from countries that are not parties to conventions on nuclear safety and security, some of which have — to put it politely — deficits in the technical skills and regulatory infrastructure necessary to safely manage a nuclear power program. 

What can be done to reverse this trend? History suggests an answer.

Just as Rickover did, these countries all picked one or two designs and backed them with significant government support.

Narrowing the field focuses investment and reduces risk. Understanding this dynamic has allowed Russia — a country with an economy smaller than California’s — to dominate the global nuclear industry.

The U.S. government has long recognized the need to invest in advanced nuclear, but that funding is spread across dozens of designs — too thinly to get any one over the finish line. The rationale? It’s not DOE’s role to “pick winners and losers.” 

That assumption, however, is stifling progress. “Picking winners” was what the U.S. did in the 1950s, and it’s what Russia, Korea and China have done now.

If the U.S. is to regain its leadership role, it needs a visionary like Rickover who can spearhead a well-funded program to develop a new generation of reactors that will be more competitive, safer, and produce less waste than existing ones. Just as Rickover did, that visionary will need to work across organizational and institutional boundaries, accept responsibility for hard choices among possible options, and lead those choices across the finish line.

One cause for hope is in the Pentagon’s interest in mobile reactors. Too many servicemembers died in Iraq and Afghanistan delivering diesel fuel. DoD believes small reactors could help solve that problem, so it has solicited proposals for deployable nuclear generators. 

Here’s the key: It hopes to swiftly down-select to the most promising designs.

Should it be successful, this project could offer a blueprint for more ambitious “picking of winners” among small and medium-sized advanced reactors. Assuming we can identify the leadership to take charge of it, we must make it happen. 

Zabrina Johal is a former nuclear propulsion officer in the U.S. Navy and director of business development for General Atomics. The views expressed here are her own.