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The Importance of Innovation to the Nuclear Industry

Milton Caplan's picture
President, MZConsulting Inc.

Milt has more than 40years experience in the nuclear industry advising utilities, governments and companies on new build nuclear projects and investments in uranium.

  • Member since 2018
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  • Feb 13, 2014

A comment caught my attention at a recent nuclear industry event.  The comment was that a hi-profile agency with a mandate to do research in advanced technology across industries had no interest in attending any events to learn more about nuclear power – primarily because “nuclear is not innovative”.  In reality, there are numerous examples of how the nuclear industry has and continues to improve through innovation. 

In exploring this comment, what we found was a belief (likely more prevalent than we would like) that renewables like wind and solar as well as various storage technologies are moving forward, innovating to become the energy source of the future, while old technologies like nuclear are past their prime heading into old age.

The discussion then moved to future reactor designs as proof of innovation in the nuclear industry.  Look at fast reactors, thorium reactors or even SMRs.  Although these are all interesting, it was pointed out that these represent “novelty”, not innovation.  And to argue that a novel design is what is required to save the industry (although they will come) gives the message that today’s designs are just not good enough – and that is absolutely not true.

The public looks at nuclear power and sees a staid industry, some think in decline, that is building technology that has been around for 50 years.  Granted some nuclear projects continue to be built above budget and over schedule, while other “newer” technologies continue to improve and reduce cost and schedule – as would be expected when developing technologies of the future.

However, there are numerous examples of innovations across the nuclear industry.  For example, China has made improvements to the Daya Bay CPR1000 design at Lingao.  They increased the output by about 100 MW through an improved turbine, and made great advancements to the control systems by adding distributed control.  At Nuclear Power Asia in Vietnam this past month, a presentation by Mitsubishi showed how they improved their construction schedule from 77 months to 50.5 months from the Ohi 1 project to Ohi 3.   Westinghouse is learning lessons from its experience in China and is applying them to their AP1000 projects in the US using advanced modular construction technology. And here at home in Canada where Bruce Power, whose tag line is “Innovation at work”, has found ways to increase the life of its reactors well beyond what was thought possible only a few years ago.

The analogy can be made to cars.  The cars we drive today are very similar to those we drove 30, 40 and even 50 years ago.  Four wheels, combustion engine, rubber tires.  But are they really?  In fact almost nothing is the same.  Our cars today are full of electronics controlling the engine; the bodies no longer rust away in a few short years, safety has been greatly improved through air bags and other enhancements; and tires rarely go flat so that many models no longer carry spares.  In fact technology has advanced in leaps and bounds in the cars we drive every day.  And even though we are now looking at next generation technology such as electric and hydrogen powered cars, these are still novelties.  These types of advancements are not required to innovate our vehicles.  In fact the opposite is true.  It is the innovation in the everyday systems in our cars that continue to make them better.  And the magnitude of these improvements is staggering.

Somehow this message is not getting through with our nuclear plants.  It may be because we operate in a very rigorous regulatory environment that forces nuclear utilities to be extremely conservative as change creates risk.  Add to that the magnitude of the capital investment in a nuclear plant and the conservatism increases further as the risk of an advancement is always taken into consideration when looking to the future.

That being said, the operators of today’s fleet of nuclear plants have made incredible improvements to the operating fleet.  This is why capacity factors (percent of maximum possible production) today can be 90% +.  Back in the 1980s, a capacity factor in the mid 80% range was considered excellent.  But no more.  Today we expect better performance from our plants and we get it-through everyday innovation!



When it comes to operations, the improvements are easy to show through improved performance of the operating fleet.  The issue we have had in the west is an insufficient number of new build projects to show the innovation that is happening every day in this industry when it comes to new projects.  New build in western countries have had a rocky start after decades of not building.  But as we move forward, this too will improve.

For new projects, we need to not only be building to budget and schedule, but also showing that costs and schedules are reducing with time.  The Koreans, Chinese and Japanese have clearly demonstrated the benefits of standardized fleets to reduce costs and schedules as they build more and more plants.  We see them innovating as they learn from each project and move on to the next one.  We are already seeing improvement in the US as the Summer plant is taking advantage of lessons learned from the Vogtle plant; and both are benefiting from the experience in China.

We must be able to demonstrate that today’s nuclear technology is a technology of the future and that advancements are indeed coming that make every project better than the last.  If an agency looking to the future of energy thinks there is no innovation in nuclear, then we need to be more vocal about our achievements.  We need to celebrate our innovation.  And we need to continue to invest in further innovation because there is always room to get better.

Our strength is through our performance.  And our performance continues to get better through innovation, each and every day.  For those of you who have good examples of where innovation has benefited the industry, please post them as a comment.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 13, 2014


Information about improvements in the Nuclear Industry is really hard to come by, maybe it’s just me?

As a supporter of Nuclear Power, it is disappointing, although not surprising to read your exposition of the attitudes of some US agencies to Nuclear Power, it is also unfortunate that the Nuclear industry itself seems to do almost nothing in the arena of public relations, or just keeping us informed about progress in the area. It almost seems that the only hope for breakthroughs and innovations have to come from China.

However I’d still like to say thanks for this update.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Feb 14, 2014

There isn’t much innovation in the nuclear industry because innovation simply isn’t allowed in the nuclear industry, nuclear being almost unique in that regard.  Haven’t you heard?

Any innovation (i.e., any change at all, in design, technology or procedures), requires decades of review, beard stroking and analysis paralysis (as well as a cubic mile of paperwork).  It’s almost impossible to grasp the degree to which extreme, suffocting over-regulation has utterly destroyed this industry.

That is the reason that all of the “innovative” designs the author mentions have remained on the drawing board for decades.  Heck, you can’t even get a new LWR, with slightly different technology, approved without review that takes years and hundreds of millions of dollars.  Even a getting approval to build a carbon copy of an approved, even already built, reactor design takes years of review and hundreds of millions of dollars.

It’s almost enough to make many of us feel that it is all deliberate and intentional, a way to suppress any and all nuclear development, as that would be a threat to the rich, powerful and well established fossil fuel industry, which has tremendous influence on government, as well as the media.

Improved technology (innovation) will not be the path to salvation for nuclear.  Its problems are not inadequate technology.  Its problems are with policy, regulation and public prejudice.  The regulatory/policy playing field is tremendously stacked against it, and unless that changes, it is doubtful that any technology (reactor design) will be able to compete.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 15, 2014

I agree that nuclear is struggling in the US.  But the reason to support nuclear is because of its potential, not its current trajectory.  As environmentalists, we should all look forward to a future in which our decendents can continue to live energy-rich lives, and do so in a way which is sustainable and has minimal negative impact to the environment.

In other words, we must build a world which can survive without fossil fuels.  With today’s technology, there are only three energy sources which are large enough to power our society: solar, wind, and nuclear (hydro, biomass, and geothermal help, but are small).  When the required energy storage and power transmission is included, nuclear is by far the cheapest of the three.  When seasonal demand matching is consider, only desert solar and central plains wind are feasible, which further degrades the appeal of renewables (note Europe will face strong pressure to use the much cheaper solar energy in the Middle East and North Africa).

So the non-nuclear path has a very high risk of prolonging our dependence on fossil fuels, with all of the environment destruction and political strife that entails. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 15, 2014

By the way, there is no such thing as a negative learning curve nor negative gravity.  If you think you see either, there is probably another effects at work which is being ignored.  For example, perhaps the rising cost of nuclear power are caused by political interference by fossil fuel lobbyists (and at some points in history, inflation of materials cost which effect all energy production, and shrinking unit volumes).

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 16, 2014

But seriously are you not abusing the word “Exponential”?

Does wind andsolar incerease by an exponent of 1.1, 1.3, 1.4…or what exactly? I am just merely asking you to justify the claim of exponentials.


Also, I saw NNadir challenge the futility/utility of wind and solar in spite of the money invested, but I can’t say I saw any ad-hominem remarks, considering that you likened him to the Titanic’s Captain.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 16, 2014

Be careful with the claims for exponential growth, or decay.  As I recall exponential growth infers that we’ll find the curve representing numbers of instalations approaching infinity, and prices approaching zero. Somehow I just don’t believe the growth of wind or solar, or their prices will get that good.

Exaggerated claims will only lead to skepticism.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 16, 2014

Right, exponential growth is a quite poor description, because it misses the most important features; the theoretical positive exponential goes towards infinity.  Any real technology grows with an S-curve: exponentially at first, then linearly, then asptomptically towards a limit.

So the important question to ask about energy system is what limit are they growing towards?  For non-dispatchable electrical generators, the limit is reached when the market penetration matches the capacity factor.   So wind and solar PV in Germany, which respectively get about 18% and 10% capacity factor can only produce about 18% and 10% of their electricy.   If Germany were so huge that the output of its wind farms were uncorrelated, the total penetration could be somewhat higher, but no, Germany is only about the size of Texas.

Because nuclear is dispatchable (particularly when blended with a much smaller amount of hydro or pumped hydro), the growth limit is up around 90% (it’s 100% when dispatchable desalinization or fuel synthesis is used).

So if your goal is to protect the market share of the fossil fuel industry, renewable are the way to go.

Marijan Pollak's picture
Marijan Pollak on Feb 17, 2014

@Paul O. I invented WindSolars, joined CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) type Solar and my new fully reactive and at least 4x more effective Wind Power Stations based on new kind of turbine. Beside working 24/365 guaranteed without any backup, WindSolars would produce electricity at cost of less than 10€ per MWh in Solar and 5€ from WPSs. WindSolar PSs would use Wind with speed of 5m/sec.  that could be found nearly everywhere, so they can be Distributed baseload PSs where long distance transmision is not mandatory, so actually electricity would be still cheaper than usually.

I would say that they can replace all existing Fossile Fuels burning Power Stations, together wih Nuclear PSs. without much investment as ROI (Return Of Investment) time would be 8 months for factories that have to pay electricity just for 3 months while WindSolars would be built and use 8 months worth of electricity expenditure to build it. After this, they get electricity basically for free.

So, this is closest to “Infinite” growth of Alternative Energy instalations and zero cost of electricity.

Nifty, huh?

Regards from Croatia, the homeland of Engineer Nikola Tesla! 


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 18, 2014

Seems to me nuclear power is running into a ceiling typical of mature technologies, where improvements tend to be incremental and of diminishing returns. Strikes me the restraint is rooted in physics, being constrained by the temperature of the water used to cool the reactors and subsequently produce power. That limitation makes it difficult to overcome the steadily improving technical and economic advantages of the competition, namely the combustion turbine.

The underlying physical limitation is coupled with: (1) a bureaucratic straight jacket (that would be overly zealous and ponderous government regulators); (2) “short-range-thinking” financial environment; and (3) overreliance by the nuclear industry on a highly political (and more-or-less inept) government for “innovation” money. The government only provides “help” for “politically-correct” innovation in a “pay-to-play” game. Combustion turbines do not generally face these kinds of obstacles as innovation is much more directly linked to the economics of the competitive marketplace.

Not really surprising that nuclear power is struggling in the US.


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 18, 2014

There are limitations on the ability to reduce costs at nuclear power plants, most of which are well run. Embedded fixed cost cannot be magically made smaller in order to beat competitive resources that are just plain more cost effective (that would be very efficient combined cycle plants with low-cost natural gas).

By the way, renewable energy is not remotely cost effective.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 20, 2014

I don’t think physics is to blame.  

This 2005 paper from the University of California at Berkeley compares the amounts of concrete and steel used in several nuclear plant designs, per unit output.  It finds that starting from the 1970s Gen II reactors, material inputs went up for Gen III reactors like the EPR (70% more concrete and 20% more steel), but are coming back down to slightly below the 1970s levels in Gen III+ reactors like the ESBWR (the new additions to the Vogtle plant are a different Gen III+ design, theAP1000).

The Berkeley paper finds that nuclear in general uses half the steel of coal plants and an order of magnitude less than wind power (for the same average power output).  Other material from the same author shows similar ratios for concrete as well.

I’d say we just need to keep building them; if we had better public and political support, I bet the learning effect would drive the price down.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 20, 2014

The coal plants operate at much higher temperatures (about 1100 F versus say around 600F for nuclear), thus possessing a distinct advantage. The coal plants can be built at a cost of less than half that of a similarly sized nuclear plant. Bottom line is a new coal plant can produce power at about 60% of the cost of a nuclear plant, while a natural gas plant is 45% of a new nuclear plants power cost. These differentials are very difficult to overcome from a competitive standpoint.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 21, 2014

Actually, the lower temperature make nuclear unsuitable for production of concrete and steel, but for electricity, it’s just fine.  According to the US government EIA, the levelized electricity costs for new builds are predicted to be:

  • nuclear – $0.108/kWh
  • coal (PC) –  $0.100/kWh
  • coal w/ CCS – $0.136/kWh
  • natural gas CC – $0.066kWh
  • natural gas w/ CCS – $0.093/kWh

So no, coal is not particularly cheaper than nuclear, and entails a large regulatory risk (that the government could force addition of expensive new pollution controls).  Note that this appears to be true in China and India too.

Natural gas is cheaper, but the price is volatile, so the prudent utility will not want to be over-exposed (40% of electricity from natural gas would scare utilities, and 70% would be unacceptable). 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 21, 2014

I think a careful review of the EIA data shows an uneven application of basic assumptions used in the economic analysis. Anomalies include: the lifetime of the asset; inflation associated with fuel costs; duration of loans; finance methods; owner equity percentage; indirect costs; discount rates, etc. Many of these elements can and do vary significantly over time.

In my opinion, “Levelized cost” is a poor method for comparing options because the probabilities associated with the variables become more uncertain as time marches on. A more accurate assessment relies on looking at much shorter time horizons, which is more consistent with current financial practice.

The numbers I provided are basically “overnight” costs.

A prudent utility would not make massive investments in facilities that vastly exceed costs of competitive alternatives.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Feb 21, 2014

I have only commented on the economics of power, observing that conventional nuclear plants are not competitive with coal or natural gas in the US. I would further observe that the money spent on renewable energy has been a monumental waste. A superior approach would have (and is) reliance on investments in conservation and better efficiency in energy production.

Countless tens-of-millions owe their lives to reasonably priced power provided by coal. Figure that in your “externalities”.

I get a little tired of arguments that paper over the extremely high cost of nuclear power. Provide a more cost effective product, stop expecting handouts and compete in the marketplace. There are other approaches to the current generation of nuclear power plants that are attempting to do just that.

Milton Caplan's picture
Thank Milton for the Post!
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