I spent most of March 3-5 in a meeting at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque that was joined electronically to similar meetings in Idaho, North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Oregon. The software worked smoothly for the most part, and after a few glitches the first day, the coordination among facilitators at the sites went well.
The objectives of the workshop were defined in general terms. A white paper was provided that opened the conference to many possible paths, although the questions posed to the participants narrowed the workshop somewhat. The participants had their own interpretations of the objectives; most rallied around what was presented in the sessions.
A workshop like this is always torn between two objectives: blue-sky ideas about innovation and how to move ahead now. A further division is that participants come with objectives defined by their organizations, usually having to do with getting more funding for those organizations’ programs. National laboratories and universities were strongly represented, with a scattering of others, including the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
I expected a more blue-sky approach. The very general white paper elicited a wide range of responses to the discussion questions, but much of the discussion converged on three needs: more predictable funding, a facility where new ideas can be tested, and more relevant regulations. Only the facility discussion made it into the news.
The sessions began with video talks. The two that stood out for me were the introductory talk by Franklin Orr, DOE’s Undersecretary for Science and Energy. He emphasized the need for nuclear energy in dealing with global warming. Nuclear will have to be cost-competitive with other forms of energy, and new plants must begin coming on line by 2030 to replace older plants and increase nuclear’s contribution to the nation’s energy.
Kirsty Gogan, CEO of Energy for Humanity, gave the most inspiring talk. Unfortunately, we didn’t discuss most of the issues she raised. I had expected more emphasis on these issues, because they are probably the biggest barriers to more rapid buildup of nuclear power and the most in need of innovative solutions. More in another post.
The working part of the sessions consisted of a variety of ways of generating ideas, and voting, voting, voting for – what? Somehow to evaluate and prioritize the ideas for those who will compile the report of the conference. We voted on lists of the top 3 ideas from each site as to which were most feasible, most innovative, most likely to irritate the NRC (they didn’t put it that way), and other characteristics. Because the top ideas (and 3 could equal 4 or 5 at times, giving us 20 or so ideas to rate) were often similar but differently worded, I found the voting very difficult, and I have little confidence that I rated similar ideas similarly. Or that some of what I voted even made sense. How do I know what the NRC would prefer? Or what if an idea is terrifically innovative, but stinks as a solution?
Not knowing why different criteria were applied to ideas from different sessions kept us from gaming the voting too easily, but also made it difficult to focus. Nonetheless, three themes emerged as needs: consistent funding, a facility where ideas could be tested, and problems in the licensing process.
The issue of consistent funding is a tremendous one. It surfaced in one way or another in response to many of the questions. But it’s difficult to say some things about it out loud in a venue like this. I’ve got some strong thoughts about it that I’ll discuss further in another post.
The facility where ideas could be tested – call it a prototyping facility or a testbed – could have many forms, and most of them surfaced during the discussion. It could be a place where components could be tested: fuel elements heated for an accelerated aging test, for example. Or it could be a place where components are assembled to see how they work together. It will be expensive, particularly if it is to accommodate all the possible reactor types, from light-water reactors through liquid-sodium, molten-salt, and high-temperature-gas.
The current licensing process is oriented toward large light-water reactors. Because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is funded through user fees, it has no way of looking forward to the new types of reactors. Thus, the first companies to design reactors that are not large light-water reactors will bear the brunt of cost and time required to get the NRC up to speed for evaluating their proposals. Other issues regarding the timing and methods of NRC review emerged, but this was the one (in my opinion) most likely to keep these new designs, including small modular reactors, from contributing to US electrical power by 2030. A solution would be for the government to fund NRC, perhaps in concert with the national laboratories, to develop general safety criteria that could be applied to all reactor types and then develop specifics needed for each type to meet the criteria.
There were a great many other ideas, some of which could be incorporated into these three. But these were the ones that kept coming up and that elicited most of the discussion.
In my next post on #nukeinnovation, I’ll discuss what we didn’t discuss.