Cross-sector panel embraces spirit of innovation

25 June 2021

Global crises like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change can create a strong impetus for the rapid acceleration of new technological development, panellists at a World Nuclear Association Strategic eForum said this week. Governments also have an important part to play in facilitating the right market conditions to enable innovation to flourish, while effective communication is vital in all sectors.

(Image: World Nuclear Association)

Thinking Outside the Dome - Strategic eForum on Nuclear Innovation brought together a diverse panel of experts from the nuclear, biomedical and renewable energy sectors for a holistic discussion on innovation, including the renewable energy industry's experience of transformative change and the biomedical sector's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Embracing the spirit of nuclear innovation means "thinking outside the reactor dome", event moderator and World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León said. "We really want to grow the traditional dialogue on nuclear innovation, and to do that we need to go beyond technology, and explore interactions and other aspects that make innovation successful and commercially deployable."

The rapid development and deployment of vaccines in response to the pandemic was built on long-term funding of basic science, said James Naismith, professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford and director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute. Biomedical research on vaccines against coronaviruses was already advanced prior to COVID-19, but the advent of the pandemic changed the economic calculus, providing the funding and the need to translate research into real products, he said. The involvement of large companies, such as Astra Zeneca and Pfizer, with the depth of expertise necessary to take fledgling technologies forward to market, was critical to achieving this.

eForum-Screengrab-1.jpgPanellists at the eForum, Jim Naismith, Nina Skorupska, Sama Bilbao y León, Mikahil Turundaev (Rusatom Additive Technologies), Rita Baranwal, Ville Tulkki and Chen Bin (Chinergy)

Rita Baranwal, vice president of nuclear and chief nuclear officer at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), said the the organisation's recently launched low-carbon resources initiative is an R&D commitment to develop pathways to advance low-carbon technologies for large-scale deployment through 2030 and beyond. "We can talk about it, and we can design it all we want, but if we do not demonstrate it, it's all for naught."

Connection and communication

The culture of innovation is "almost dissonant" with the traditional nuclear energy culture, which is a very conservative sector, Baranwal said. "Perfection is the expectation in almost everything we do, but when it comes to innovation we need to take a step back - step outside the dome - and really think differently, and allow innovators, allow researchers to move quickly, to make mistakes, to fail, to pivot, and to move on to the next iteration of the experiment or the trial."

In order to thrive, a culture of innovation requires strong leadership and incentives, she said, but also connection and communication, particularly through social media. "It's really important to not only be innovating but to be sharing what we're doing, and then to take in constructive feedback and iterating on that technology and on that innovation as well."

Nina Skorupska, the CEO of UK Renewable Energy Agency, said, "Nothing drives innovation [better] than having an imperative goal that you have to meet." Skorupska previously worked for the RWE Group and its UK predecessors across fuel engineering and R&D, power station operations and trading. The importance of climate change was formally recognised by governments some 10-15 years ago, she said, but at that time the prevailing views were that renewables such as solar would "never work" for countries like the UK. "It needed government legislation and some market instruments, which would then create the 'pull' for that change to happen," she said.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), over the past decade the price of solar power has fallen by almost 80%, onshore wind by 40% and offshore wind by 30%. "The race to net zero has driven that agenda - innovation and funds from government appeared, but they had to create that market," she said.

Another aspect that "had to happen" in driving innovation is regulation, she said. "Doing the same as what you've always done cannot be accepted, and so the pressure is brought to bear by society, on the larger oil and gas companies."

It is a certainty that future demand for net-zero derived power will escalate as further electrification, including of heat and transport, happens. "But we now need to engage with the power of the people", she said. "There's one thing about renewable energy that's very different from our traditional sources - it's more decentralised, it's democratised. The advent of digitisation allows us to accelerate decarbonisation."

Ville Tulkki, who is managing VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland's conceptual design for a district heating reactor suitable for European networks, also spoke of the democratisation of energy. "Using nuclear energy for district heating is not a new thing but climate change is now a driver towards an increased uptake of this," he said. The push to look into using nuclear instead of coal and gas for district heating in central and eastern Europe came from society, he said.

Accelerating innovation

Industry leaders must appreciate that innovation takes time and a different mindset, Baranwal said. This will be the starting point for the planned 2022 Global Forum for Nuclear Innovation - an initiative launched in 2018 by EPRI and other nuclear organisations. The theme of the forum, which is to be held in the UK, will be culture change. "Typically, 90% of the efforts in innovation result in failure. But learning from those failures is what makes innovation successful. And allowing, giving permission to learn from those failures is what permits innovation to be successful," she said.

Effective communication is essential to accelerate and implement innovative techniques and processes, not only in technology but also in finance and organisational processes, she said. And communication must involve all stakeholders, she added.

Communication and public acceptance are also "absolutely vital" in the renewables sector, Skorupska said. "Many people know that climate change is important, but what is more important [to them is] the size of their energy bill and knowing that they can rely on the lights coming on when they flick a switch."

The owners of the more than 1.5 million UK homes that now have solar panels have become "prosumers" who produce energy as well as consume it. "When you become closer to your energy source you become more interested," she said. "Ultimately, though, people don't want to pay for that change - the price for the purse is still really important - and energy is very political." Governments can stand or fall on how they implement their energy strategy, she said. "The market is important, but we need the government to also catch up with how fast the technology is changing. Technology is outstripping the regulatory and the policy framework - they have to catch up. Other technologies that want to play in the net-zero world also need to now catch up."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News