By: Chris Levesque, President and CEO
The need to build an energy system which mitigates climate impact, while also assuring energy security for a world with ever-growing needs, has never been more critical. Electric cars, grid-scale batteries, renewable power expansion, carbon capture and a myriad of other transformational changes are underway. Ask any group of experts or policy leaders for their vision of the 2050 energy system, however, and you will find great disconnects in their views. I’m left thinking that it will be more of the same in 2024 and we still find ourselves at odds over the best path forward. But this doesn’t have to be so as we have the technology right now to become a net-zero society. The question is, do we have the will.
Collaboration at events like COP, the annual U.N. Conference of Parties, where governments gather to negotiate how to address climate change, is increasingly valuable. We have agreed on our 2050 objectives, but we have not yet fully carved out the best plan to reach those goals. In the coming year, I believe that the role nuclear energy will play in this transition will become even more apparent to many in the U.S. and around the world.
Domestic support for clean nuclear power is at its highest level in a decade. We saw similar support at this year’s COP conference as over 20 countries committed to tripling nuclear capacity worldwide. Groups like Net Zero Nuclear brought together diverse stakeholders to give nuclear a voice in clean energy discussions. However, even with these commitments at this year’s COP, there is still more work to be done, and little time to waste.
To meet the level of change we need, and do so in a continually narrowing time frame, it will take bold action and united commitment. When I had the great opportunity to participate in the U.S. nuclear submarine build program in the 1990’s, we delivered multiple submarines each year under such a united program. Even though I was young and inexperienced, I had a national program and experienced experts around me. How else could a twenty-something-year-old Naval officer supervise initial criticality of the most advanced reactors of that time? Unfortunately, the U.S. civil nuclear industry, its supply chain and its labor force are not at that level of proficiency. Even with the best planning, doing anything for the first time is difficult, whether it’s a baby’s first steps or building a new nuclear plant, and it is natural to fall, get up, and sometimes have to figure things out as you go. But to meet our grand goals, we need to remain steadfast in our efforts, rely on our expertise and collective experience and press on to overcome the challenges ahead.
China and Russia are continuing to move forward aggressively with Gen-IV reactors, which they plan to export around the world. The U.S. government and our allies need to understand the geopolitical implications of their progress and must move quickly to ensure that free-world options exist for countries who are new to the nuclear energy community. These nations will inevitably want to pursue the most advanced and capable technologies as they launch their programs in support of their growing economies.
Launching new efforts in a regulated energy sector that demands complete predictability and shies away from any level of risk makes it very difficult to get new technologies off the ground. This is why we’ve seen the need for an increased commitment from the federal government during the past few years — they understand the risks, challenges and expenses in the deployment of first-of-a-kind technologies. Following first deployments, we will have the knowledge to better prepare, avoid any predictable pitfalls and rapidly replicate and deploy new plants. Programs like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Project (ARDP) exist, in part, for this reason. The program established a public-private partnership that aids innovative new technologies as they encounter the highs and lows of the first-of-a-kind process.
Whether it’s solar, wind, hydrogen, carbon capture or nuclear, each industry is facing the same challenges of supply chain and workforce constraints, and highly evolved regulatory processes that are not yet operating at the tempo warranted given the climate and global energy security challenges that we face. We’re seeing inflation hit all aspects of life, from the price of groceries to construction materials, along with supply chain and logistics disruptions in a just-in-time system that we once took for granted. These challenges aren’t unique to nuclear, and some companies will fail to establish their place in the future energy system.
At TerraPower, we are rooted in innovation. I remind our team regularly how unique that is since the nuclear industry focused on incremental improvement of existing technology, and did not create a place for true innovation, for more than 60 years. TerraPower was founded by visionaries who are committed to changing the world, to battling climate change and energy poverty and who believe in all that nuclear science has to offer. Our approach has enabled us to design a nuclear reactor that functions on the grid in a completely different way, changing its power quickly to accommodate the frequent changes in renewables output and demand that the future grid will bring. Our approach allowed us to discover how life-saving medical isotopes like Actinium-225 can be harvested from nuclear waste to save lives. We’ve grown our team over the years, pairing our innovative scientists and engineers with experienced nuclear energy professionals who’ve shown the desire and the capability to embrace and deploy cutting-edge advanced nuclear technology. And our commitment to our Natrium plant in Wyoming, truly the first-of-its-kind, remains steadfast.
We are doing something difficult that has never been done before. We will enter 2024 with the unparalleled support of our investors, our employees and our partners including the U.S. Department of Energy. The Natrium project alone is running at 1,000 people strong as we prepare to start non-nuclear construction in Wyoming in the spring. As we approach the challenges of 2024, we are fortunate to enjoy two key ingredients for success — bold innovation and united commitment.