By John Licata
I recently attended the World Nuclear Association’s (WNA) Fall Symposium in London where I joined the Energy and Nuclear Power Panel with the likes of Areva (ARVCF), Exxon Mobil (XOM), The Weinberg Foundation, The Ux Consulting Company and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. The discussion focused on the future of nuclear power and followed an updated 2040 Outlook by ExxonMobil that definitely raised some eyebrows, including mine.
It certainly was welcoming to see forecasts for a higher amount of nuclear energy and renewables in the future energy mix coupled with much wider adoption of hybrid vehicles by 2040. However, I must say I was quite surprised by ExxonMobil's lethargic views for growth for both biofuels and electric vehicles, two areas I believe will "greatly" surpass ExxonMobil's modest forecasts with the help of better battery technology.
My rather strong bullish stance on the potential for electric vehicles is actually vey promising for the nuclear industry since demand for 24/7 base load power will only intensify the need for a more efficient and modern smart grid, especially with the world’s population expected to grow more than 25% to 9 billion by 2040 according to Exxon Mobil. With that being said, the need for cybersecurity, a topic not really of much concern on the panel, is an area I continue to strongly believe needs much greater attention in any conversation about future power and securing energy assets.
In general, the panel seemed mixed on embracing new technologies and entering a modern energy world. I did feel there was a common hope that technology would somehow emerge to make nuclear energy more widespread. In fact, a panelist brought up that the nuclear sector needs its own Steve Jobs to push new innovation forward. I certainly agree with that. In fact, I have been saying the next Facebook (FB), Twitter or yes, even Apple (AAPL), will come from the energy sector. However, that being said, many, myself included, believe the industry needs more guidance from public policy to help make any new potential disruptive technology much more of a reality.
Despite growth seen in both areas, energy storage continues to be a overhang for utilities and consumers when it comes to solar and wind power generation. I felt compelled to defend the renewable sector as a whole when a panelist proclaimed that if subsidies were taken away from the renewable space, the group would not be able to compete with fossil fuels or even nuclear. I made it a point of pushing back on that notion and alluded to the fact that traditional oil and gas companies have greatly benefited from their own government subsidies in the past so trying to level the playing field and welcoming new forms of power should not be seen as simply supporting alternatives. Also, trading our addiction to crude oil with a new addiction on natural gas means prices for natural gas are not going to stay at 40-year lows much longer. This could swing investor capital “finally” back into the nuclear sector post-Fukushima, especially with the rapid development of advanced microgrids, grids that can sustain themselves if a power outage hits an area.
What about natural gas?
Surprisingly many on the panel did believe the price of natural gas is actually too low at present so it was amazing to me that even more panelists were not talking about competing more with natural gas in the years to come rather than simply focusing on keeping renewables at bay. All forms of energy have a place in the future energy race and ultimately it may come down to geography, economics and storage solutions. To me the subsidy argument against renewables needs to be tossed out the window once and for all primarily because nuclear power can co-exist with renewables. The thinking of “us” versus “them” is actually hurting the nuclear industry in my view.
In a world that should be thinking longer-term when it comes to energy, we must learn that nuclear is a far better alternative to natural gas when it comes to CO2. I mean it is silly to put all the eggs in the natural gas basket when nuclear produces no carbon. That's why I am convinced the US will have egg on its face and be forced to push back its 2020 goals.
While the talk of supporting new technologies in the nuclear space was rampant, my colleagues were concerned the lack of public energy policy in the US may be hindering global development. While industry participants are closely watching the developments of small modular reactors (SMRs) here in the States, I came away with the feeling that many in the nuclear sector are waiting for someone to actually go first and introduce new game-changing technology before allocating time and money to modernize themselves.
That had me thinking: What if Elon Musk went nuclear? Maybe not literally, of course, but what if thorium (see "Is Thorium Misunderstood"?) and Molten salt reactor technology actually disrupted the nuclear space like Musk's Tesla (TSLA) electric battery technology is completely turning the automotive industry on its head? What if safety and waste, the two biggest fears regarding nuclear power, were finally addressed so consumers can more confidently embrace nuclear power as the ultimate way to reduce man-made carbon? That's a big question, yet climate change was not given as much attention as one may have thought at the London conference.
At the end of the day, the nuclear industry can't simply proceed with business as usual post-Fukushima. I am hopeful the industry will do a better job of embracing change and educating the public to the benefits of modern nuclear power. With companies like TerraPower (supported by Bill Gates) working to use waste as a fuel catalyst, it seems like the safety and waste fears could soon be swallowed into the abyss. That means the changing of the guard is something not only to be seen in London at Buckingham Palace, but more importantly, it could mean the nuclear industry may in fact see a new renaissance and get it’s own Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.
John Licata is the Founder/Chief Energy Strategist of Blue Phoenix Inc., an independent research company focused on advanced energy and cleanweb solutions.