By: Kevan Weaver, Ph.D, Director of Technology Integration
Earlier this month, I participated in the American Nuclear Society’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas. I spoke on a panel in a session that asked the question, “Is there a market in the United States for advanced nuclear?” This is a particularly poignant query for us at TerraPower as we seek partners to demonstrate our traveling wave reactor technology.
Global energy needs have always defined what we’re doing at TerraPower. Part of the answer is nuclear, and TerraPower was created to maximize the potential that fission energy has to offer.
One of the critical pieces though, is that TerraPower is a for-profit business. We need an active market in which to sell our technology. If you take a step back and analyze the global marketplace, it’s clear today that both demand and growth are centered outside of the United States. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 1.3 billion people – 18 percent of the global population – live without access to electricity; nearly 97 percent of these live in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. Moreover, according to a recent projection by the IEA, installed nuclear capacity will grow 60 percent through 2040, concentrated heavily in China, India, Korea and Russia (76 percent of it), compared to only a 16 percent increase in the United States.
Utilities today are trying to figure out how to approach this shifting marketplace in a way that will satisfy both customers and investors. There are many questions. Is distributed or dispersed generation the future? How will gas prices change over time? Is intermittent wind or solar the best technology for U.S. demand, or is there need for base load nuclear? If nuclear, do we build more light water reactors, small modular reactors, or go with a totally new nuclear technology?
Southern Company spoke on the same panel as I, sharing how their utility is responding to customer demands for more power. It is leading the first nuclear new build in the United States in nearly 40 years, while at the same time expanding its renewable and natural gas portfolio. Of particular interest was Southern Company’s call to think bigger than just maintaining nuclear’s 20 percent share of the electricity market in the U.S. Others, like the NGNP Alliance and the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Advanced Reactor Working Group, also speakers on last week’s panel, are tentatively evaluating the market’s appetite for different types of technology.
TerraPower’s investors, in particular, recognize that commercially viable technologies will help accelerate economic development, and they are willing to make a longer-term investment. I spoke at ANS of the need to consider the world as part of the U.S. market, where we should expand into markets that could benefit from our experience and know-how with respect to reactor, component and equipment design, to component and equipment manufacturing and export. I believe it is possible to push through the type of innovation needed to scale nuclear energy to meet the increase in demand for safe and reliable electricity. I think TerraPower is asking the right questions.