Nuclear is the new green. This week’s post comes by way of two enlightening articles written by Jim Conca, Forbes Magazine contributor. Two weeks ago, Jim reported on an stupendous technology breakthrough by two laboratories operated by the US Department of Energy, Pacific Northwest (PNNL) and Oak Ridge (ORNL) national laboratories. The technology in question is on the cusp on turning uranium into a genuinely renewable energy source, and do so economically. The details are available here (the reader is highly encouraged to peruse and come back). The process utilizes polyethylene fibers coated with amidoxime to extract uranium dioxide from seawater. The oceans, it turns out, are believed to contain as much as 4 billion tons of uranium (enough to power a thousand 1,000-MW nuclear power plants for one hundred thousand years, Conca noted). And the secret sauce? Uranium is continuously replenished in seawater by natural, geological processes. Which means, in effect, that seawater uranium is entirely renewable, even more so than solar and wind when their extraction and manufacturing activities are factored in. In a second article published yesterday, Conca reported that NuScale Power had recently filed an application with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate Americas first small modular nuclear reactor. NuScale didn’t wait for government funding or state tax credits to get things done. It spent $30M to design, test and prove a pilot plant on its own. The first operational site should come online in the early 2020 and exhibit something that is hitherto unheard of: an economically small modular reactor that is shippable and suited to the kind of power demands involved in plants that desalinate seawater, refine hydrocarbons, or produce hydrogen by electrolysis. As a bonus, its design make the reactor impervious to core meltdowns. What’s not to love? This article is also worth the reader’s time to read here.
The nature of leadership. Readers may wonder at this point what does nuclear have to do with their hydrocarbon brethren. Leadership is the answer. The vilification of our industry has been nasty, to say the least. But is has been a cake walk compared to the decades of excoriation suffered by the nuclear industry. Amazingly, the Sisyphean task of defending its image and promoting its benefits to society never caused its proponents to waiver in their beliefs. Such stalwart fate in one’s truth is the best bulwark against the malodorous attacks of detractors. Unabashed and unfazed, the industry has pursued an aggressive, sotto voce program of innovation to turn its objectors’ objections on their heads and change the very message to the public at large into one of optimism, reassurance and sustainability. Changing the tune to such an extent does not happen by happenstance: it demands a kind of social leadership that change admiration into inspiration. Just pause for a moment to consider the magnificence of the promise intimated by Conca’s two technology breakthrough reports. In one fell swoop, our nuclear colleagues have potentially solved the most pressing issues of our times: renewability, emissions and economic power diffusion.
Leadership abhors a vacuum. The nuclear industry could easily have suffered a meltdown of its own, long ago. It did not because it refused to let the forces inveighed against it to dominate its agenda. It saved itself by acknowledging what truths lurked in the opposition’s defamation and taking charge of its destiny. Power abhors a vacuum and rewards offensive actions. Sulking from incessant attacks never changes the tune; clamours of unfairness resonate like a scream in empty space. In an age of fickle minds, fact-free allocutions and vapid victimization, the road to survival and progress carries forth on the sinews of genuine leadership. Despite overwhelming favorable odds, the hydrocarbon industry risks losing the war without even waging battle. The ecological Storm troopers have hitherto held the upper propaganda (witness the latest witless wonder of Fonda et al). It is high time that our industry took a page from the leadership magnum opus of our nuclear colleagues. Someone will lead, in the end, comes what may. Our collective fate depends on our willingness to stand up and be counted.