A path towards innovating nuclear energy

31 March 2015

At the heart of the modern energy debate is a struggle between the need for more energy globally, while simultaneously achieving lower emissions. Nuclear energy is uniquely positioned to help respond to these duelling necessities, but innovative advancements must overcome considerable barriers, writes Todd Allen.

The topic of nuclear energy can be a polarizing one, but all sides agree that the nuclear energy sector could benefit from significant innovation. The industry can and should work together to address six key areas - improving communication; increasing private investment; designating test beds; modernizing regulation; stabilizing federal funding; embracing advanced technology.

From 3-5 March, more than 120 global energy experts met in six cities across the USA to discuss innovation in nuclear energy. Unlike typical conferences organized around a series of prepared presentations, these workshops were driven by small-group brainstorming about some of nuclear energy's most pressing challenges. The goal of these workshops was twofold: to gather input from energy experts that could help improve strategy and collaboration for innovating nuclear technologies in the USA and globally; and to start an ongoing dialogue among experts and laypersons alike about nuclear energy's role in the nation's energy mix.

The events were organized by Idaho National Laboratory and hosted by Oregon State University, the University of New Mexico, Boise State University, the Ohio State University, North Carolina State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. National laboratories near each host site contributed technical expertise and other support.

Each location included a carefully chosen mix of participants: thought leaders from academia, national laboratories and industry, plus regulators, international contributors and public policy organizations. This diversity of participants balanced the dialogue at each site across multiple points of view. Discussion groups were small and inclusive, providing the opportunity for different ideas to emerge from each region.

Structured collaboration software captured all participant suggestions and comments, and also allowed the regional discussion groups to share and compare ideas. All comments and suggestions were retained to develop a final workshop report.

A number of themes emerged from the six sites. Ideas to promote a more disciplined R&D pathway included:

Improve communication: there is growing international recognition of nuclear energy's value in providing stable and clean energy. Communicating that value in a simple evidence-based way is a necessity.

Increase private investment: a number of private interests of varying size are already investing in the development of advanced nuclear energy systems. A clarified roadmap to development will encourage further investment.

Designate test beds: one or more national test beds that provide access to critical capabilities, as well as clear user pathways and possibly tailored regulatory oversight, are needed to support advanced nuclear energy designs.

Modernize regulation: the current interface between advanced concepts and the regulatory process makes it difficult to obtain significant private funding or to reduce risk along the way to regulating an advanced concept. Better leveraging of the federal R&D programs should be investigated, and collaboration should be encouraged.

Stabilize federal funding: Improved stability of nuclear R&D funding is vital and should include a specific set of clear, long-term national priorities that extend multiple decades.

Embrace advanced technology: the nuclear energy community needs to embrace emerging technologies such as advanced manufacturing and construction that have been developed outside of traditional nuclear energy communities.

Going forward, each of these themes will be fleshed out, developed into detailed proposals and presented to key decision-makers for consideration. An initial snapshot workshop report will be produced in a few weeks with a final report available by the autumn.

In remarks to workshop participants, Department of Energy (DOE) Undersecretary for Science and Energy Lynn Orr and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy John Kotek said the workshop report would be studies closely as DOE formulates future plans.

For those who wish to share their ideas for nuclear innovation, the workshop established a web page that allows suggestions to be captured from people who were not participants at the workshops. Submissions will be accepted through the end of July.

The intended public dialogue has already received a strong start. Activity on social media during and just after the workshops surpassed four million interactions, driven in part by an Associated Press article that was published in news media outlets spanning 31 states and eight countries, including in the New York Times, the Washington Post and ABC News. Follow @InnovationWksp and #nukeinnovation to keep up with the latest news about this exciting new initiative.

Todd Allen

Comments? Please send them to editor@world-nuclear-news.org

Todd Allen is deputy director for Science & Technology at Idaho National Laboratory.