If there is one thing that has become crystal clear in this calamitous year, it is that lack of preparation is a killer. That is true for the novel coronavirus and it will be true for marketing next-generation nuclear technologies unless a comprehensive global preparation plan is rapidly developed.
Next-gen nuclear has been one of the few issues benefitting from bipartisan support in the thoroughly shattered U.S. political landscape. The Congress has rhetorically and financially supported technology development and demonstration on an accelerated schedule. The Department of Energy (DoE) has responded with the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) that aims to build two operational reactors in 5-7 years. DoE has identified three driving forces for this push – security, the environment, and market opportunities.
While the focus on technology development and demonstration is essential, it is insufficient. Even the best technology will face serious headwinds if the global market is not prepared to use it.
A case in point is the new report from the House of Representatives Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The document expresses its support for the zero-carbon electricity generation by existing nuclear reactors, noting that it makes up “more than half of all zero-carbon electricity” in the country.
It also identifies next-generation nuclear technologies as a “promising” source of future carbon-free energy. It further highlighted the potential for a long-term power purchase agreement from next-gen reactors by federal agencies, particularly those with national security responsibilities.
But the committee raises two key concerns about the emerging technologies – safety (including cyber security) and the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. Both of these issues will be high on the list of any country, community, or commercial industry investigating whether these small reactors are applicable for their needs. So, they need to be thoroughly addressed.
The Global Nexus Initiative (GNI), is the leading entity examining the intersection of nuclear power, climate change, and global security – the very intersection on which the Congress and executive branch are now both focused. Last Summer, GNI produced the first comprehensive public analysis of the nuclear proliferation, security, and geopolitical implications of advanced reactors. There clearly is more detailed follow-up work to be done from that publication’s initial findings and that is being explored both inside and outside of government.
But there are a number of other activities that are required to prepare both the domestic and international markets for next-gen technologies. Many of these focus on the intellectual, industrial, financial, and legal readiness of newcomer nuclear nations to deploy advanced nuclear technologies.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has a comprehensive Milestones Approach designed to guide nations through the nuclear power development process. It identifies 19 important issues, but they currently are scaled for the deployment of large Light-Water Reactors (LWRs), not smaller next-gen technologies. These future reactors may mitigate some of those key issues and require more attention to others. But the adaptation of the Milestones is not well advanced and the process for achieving its evolution is currently undefined.
Any new nuclear nation will need a deep and expansive support system to ensure adequate project finance capability, risk assessment, educational and training capacity, industrial infrastructure, and legal, regulatory and governance competence.
These issues plus nuclear security and nonproliferation need to be woven into a comprehensive strategy in the near term so that the global community can become familiar and comfortable with the technology evolution that is coming over the next 10-15 years.
The next-gen nuclear wave is breaking onto a very different global landscape. The market is going to demand low carbon and high security. Preparing for these dual demands now by creating an integrated, effective market strategy is the smart way to proceed.
Ken Luongo, Partnership for Global Security