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Naval Reactors Should Be Empowered to Show the Way Again

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
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  • Nov 15, 2013 12:00 am GMT

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Naval Nuclear Reactors

President Obama should task John Richardson with a mission similar to the one that President Dwight Eisenhower gave Hyman G. Rickover. Richardson is the current leader of Naval Reactors (NR), the organization that Rickover built. If directed, NR could begin a new assignment to show others how to manufacture complete nuclear fission power systems starting tomorrow. They could accept the assignment with the confidence that comes from accomplishing that task repeatedly for more than 50 years. The effort would be a nearly sure success and provide an emission-free energy option that would disrupt the current version of the Great Game.

My proposal has been influenced by thoughts triggered by several different talks and conversations heard at the 2013 American Nuclear Society Winter meeting.

During the President’s Special Session on the next 25 years of nuclear fission, Dr. John Browne, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, provided part of my inspiration with the following statement:

Browne: The people who really can make a difference are those people who can look across fields, collaborate across disciplines, who sometimes get real insights for major breakthroughs that can change fields or an industry.

John Rowe in 2011, at one of your ANS meetings, said, “Nuclear is a business, not a religion.” I certainly agree with that statement, and I know what he was saying. But I would say it’s also a science and we can’t forget that. Advances in science and engineering can and must improve the long term business outlook for nuclear. So hopefully all of you people who will be here in 2038 will be able to look back and be proud of your accomplishments that would have helped to solve the global problems that we face today.

To do so, I think you’re going to have to be bold and think big. Don’t be afraid that if you ask the what if questions they might allow you to actually take steps that you would not have foreseen five or ten years ago. As President Kennedy said in 1963, “There are those who look at things as they are and ask why, I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

Another part of my inspiration came from Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, who closed her excellent talk with the following thoughts:

Eisenhower: The Intergovernmental Panel of the United Nations (referring to IPCC) concluded that the world is hotter, the seas are rising and that is unlikely to be occurring naturally. So we should stop continuing this debate and just do it. Isn’t it Nike that says “Just do it?”

We need to set about taking on the carbon issue again and getting climate legislation. I’ve had endless arguments with colleagues of mine who say “Oh it’s off the table.” Well, why? Get it back onto the table. I don’t understand. If it’s an issue of existential importance, why we wouldn’t all be making an effort to get carbon questions back onto the table.

The other aspect that I’d finally like to mention is the presumption that the only way to solve non-proliferation issues is to employ sanctions or force. I have to say again that I was privileged to be a part of that group of people — along with Sid Drell, I’m so happy to see you here today, Sid — and to recall the enormous amount of energy that went into our interactions with the Soviet Union — and then New Russia — precisely to ensure that that proliferation would not be a threat.

We had any multiple number of programs that actually worked. We had the ISTC, International Science and Technology Centers; we had Nuclear Cities; we had the CTR programs which I mentioned before, all of which actually changed the vocabulary and many of the best practices in the Russian Federation.

And, so I believe that the only thing that’s missing in this piece is leadership. It’s leadership that is attached to deploying a vision that is backed up by education, not only with the pubic but also on workforce issues and perseverance.

We need to get climate legislation back onto the table. And may I immodestly say, as a former member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, we need to get the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations through Congress.

Finally, let me just say that it has been a wonderful experience to be with you here today, to see the people receive their awards for extraordinary service, not only to this enterprise but also to the nation and to reaffirm the fact that Americans can do it. The only thing we are lacking is the certainty that we have it in us to do it.

Admiral John Richardson, the current director of Naval Reactors, followed Susan Eisenhower’s plea for leadership with a talk that reminded the audience of the contributions that Admiral Rickover made to the development of nuclear energy production technology.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower determined that the best way to defuse growing tensions about the possibility of a nuclear war was to show the world that atomic energy could be much more usefully applied to create a peaceful world. He turned to a leader with an established team that had a proven track record. Eisenhower asked that leader and his team to demonstrate one way — of many possible ways — to build a useful, reliable nuclear power plant.

Admiral Rickover and his team at Naval Reactors accepted the task. They were fresh from their successful effort to develop and build complete power systems that were reliable enough to propel submerged submarines full of valuable American sailors for months at a time. They cooperated to adapt their knowledge and technology to producing a useful commercial power plant and provided America with the capability to design and build many more.

Starting in early 1954, Naval Reactors, along with many other corporations and organizations that had honed their technical expertise and teamwork as part of the submarine propulsion plant effort, completed the Shippingport power station before the end of 1957.

That plant, though its one-of-a-kind nature resulted in a unit cost that could not compete with the extremely cheap fossil fuels available in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s, showed utilities, vendors and financiers that nuclear fission was a capable alternative to fossil fuels. The design and construction effort provided a useful project on which thousands of people could develop new skills and knowledge and get paid while creating something of immense inspirational value.

Though it did not happen overnight, the technology — including the whole package of work force, materials, factories, processes, and procedures — developed as part of the Naval Reactors-led Shippingport project eventually led to a world-wide enterprise that gave the world a new power source.

Light water reactors have been producing the energy equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per day for the past 20 years. Though often overlooked, that contribution has been equivalent to finding another Saudi Arabia (10 million barrels of oil per day) plus another Angola (1.9 million barrels of oil per day) — but with less damaging environmental, economic, and political implications — to supply world’s energy needs.

It is a cliche to call an energy source “the Saudi Arabia of…” but within a couple of decades of its discovery, nuclear fission demonstrated that it has the potential to turn Saudi Arabia’s oil resources into a mere footnote. I believe that fission’s almost unlimited power production potential is a major reason why there has been such a focused, well-funded, relentless effort to oppose the development of nuclear fission power plants beyond their initially rapid deployment.

Other energy suppliers hate the idea of virtually unlimited clean energy supplies. The added supplies are going to force prices down for everyone; most of us think that would be a very good thing.

My determination to make the bold suggestion of tasking NR with being the leader in the development of small, module reactors (SMR) was solidified during the first session of the embedded topical on SMRs during ANS 2013. The SMR effort, which has incredible potential, is full of skilled technical people, but it requires skilled, experienced, focused leadership. It would be enhanced with concrete examples of success that can contribute both financial strength and industrial momentum instead of frittering the potential away in an endless series of meetings rehashing the same issues we have been discussing for at least five years.

Pete Lyons, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member and current head of the office of Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy, strongly disagrees with me. However, my interpretation of existing law is that NR has the legal authority to approve the design of nuclear power plants that can be used to power critical federal facilities and to supply some of their output to surrounding communities. NR also has the unique capability to review and approve the design of reactors that do not operate on a fixed site and, instead, can be used to propel commercial ships or produce power on floating barges.

Aside: Several years ago, I had the opportunity to ask a senior NRC regulator how they would respond if an applicant showed up at their door with a design for a power plant that did not have a fixed site. He had just given a talk about the site permit process that is a required part of the Part 52 licensing process. He told me that the NRC would start by asking NR for advice. End aside.

NR owns existing designs that can be adapted to civil use, it owns a training infrastructure that is expandable and replicable, and it owns refined operating procedures. It has access to a supply chain that could expand, and to a large number of experienced project managers that know how to achieve high quality production within cost and schedule.

Aside: I am fully aware that the Navy uses core designs that are not appropriate for civilian use. However, reactor pressure vessels are just “tea kettles” that can be loaded with an almost unlimited variety of cores. They do not have to be the kind of long lived core that the Navy has decided are best suited for ships; they can be low enriched cores that need more frequent replacement with systems designed to enable routine replacement. End Aside.

NRC regulators could shadow NR decision makers and learn new ways of ensuring nuclear safety. Thousands of people could be employed in jobs where they learn valuable skills that will ease the training burden on future SMR efforts as other designs get completed, licensed and deployed. Pragmatic financial analysts could watch the process, learn to trust the projections based on demonstrated success, and see that promises can be kept.

People would stop doubting that the renaissance would ever come. America could keep producing its wonderful, newly accessible treasure troves of oil and natural gas but not fritter away that resource in a burst of short-lived prosperity akin to the UK’s short, 20-year “dash for gas”. That dash, by the way, is coming to an end as North Sea abundance peters out.

If he accepts the modest proposal the President would make a big impact on our ability to reduce the risk of climate change and in building the prosperity that enables adaptation to whatever climate change is already inevitable based on the CO2 that has already been added to the atmosphere.

This admittedly bold suggestion cuts across many subject areas, even if there is really no new technology involved. Sometimes technologists forget that innovation and change in business models, regulations, and legal constraints can be just as important as inventing a new material.

PS – I want to make it clear to those who do not know me that I have a basis for believing that this vision is realistic. I served in roles of increasing responsibility up through Engineer Officer on submarines. I served on the Chief of Naval Operations staff in two assignments that gave me access to the financial details of the Naval Reactors infrastructure. I spent four years as the requirements officer for submarine and surface ship training and then 2.5 years as a requirements officer for ship and submarine maintenance.

I was a staff-level Commander, which meant that I was responsible for asking hard questions, putting together decision briefs, building spreadsheet models and learning deep details that the admirals were expected to know, but did not have the time to find themselves.

I’ve been on an SMR development team and know enough about the details of the challenges those pioneers face to believe that following through on this proposal would boost their potential for success. I’ve been a manufacturer and seen the economies of series production first hand. Finally, I am a self-employed writer who does not have to be concerned about upsetting my employer or my employer’s influential customers by making disruptive suggestions.

I know my limitations; I’m not capable of leading the effort, but I sure can be a cheerleader.

Why not just do it? What are the immovable obstacles that prevent success?

The post Naval Reactors should be empowered to show the way – again appeared first on Atomic Insights.

Photo Credit: Naval and Nuclear/shutterstock

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Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 15, 2013

Conventional water reactors are a mature, dated steam turbine based technology that needs to move into the 21st century in order to effectively compete in the US. In my opinion, parallels the shift from steam boilers to gas turbines that has occurred with the most of the surface fleet.

In the US, the conventional water reactors are unlikely to overcome the technology and cost advantages of high-temperature combustion turbines, particularly considering the low-cost of natural gas.

The underlying financial fundamentals of commercial power industry are quite different than those of the navy, although the technical expertise of those operating the ships is a superb foundation for those who run and manage power production facilities.

I am doubtful that the government is the salvation for nuclear power. Rather, a “better-nuclear-mouse-trap that makes money” must emerge.

William Mullins's picture
William Mullins on Nov 15, 2013

Congratulations Rod,

You have made the proposal that, precisely because it has precedent, could break the present gridlock around the belief that original AEC strategy enshrined at 10 CFR 50 (and now 52) is the only way to approach building an NPP.

While there are enormous advantages to applying the Naval Reactors program management architecture to the launch of SMRs, the biggest advantage would be the opportunity to evaluate licensing these newer, less inherently consequential reactors as if the LNTH had been falsified; and without the overhang of an unjustified ALARA principle.

This might strike many as a Bridge Too Far, but the reality is that it is the Myth of Spectacular Exception (that somehow TMI is really much, much worse than Deepwater Horizon or the World Trade Center Attack) that is holding the industry back. If commercial aircraft development had followed a similar development arc – most of us would still be traveling in trains and observing an ALARA principle – all convinced that flying is really too dangerous for all but the most special of needs.

Put more simply, the socio-technical problem of SMR licensing is small and manageable compared to the socio-political predicament that has a grossly unrealistic set of 1M year protection requirements put in place for a geological repository. Giving NR the job, and say making DOE the owner and contractor for operations services would get a fleet of 20-30 units – of several types – up and running with a reliable pipeline and some sense of costs that could lead to a transition to a more commercial funding base.

So long as people like Pete Lyons can’t envision this kind of a “break out of the box” strategy, NP is a Dead Man walking in the US.

jagdish bidani's picture
jagdish bidani on Nov 15, 2013

making oil and oil fields of the violent terrorist sponsoring countries redundant and liabilities through the developement of small civilian transportable modular 50mwe to 100mwe nuclear power plants. To achieve this we need to develope desin project construcion and small scale nuclear training infrastructure . for iintegrating 09313257211 with knowledge of nuclear applications.

Paxus Calta-Star's picture
Paxus Calta-Star on Nov 16, 2013

Dearest Ron:

You write

 I believe that fission’s almost unlimited power production potential is a major reason why there has been such a focused, well-funded, relentless effort to oppose the development of nuclear fission power plants beyond their initially rapid deployment.”

Really?  Do you have any proof of this what so ever?  Well funded?  i have been involved in anti-nuclear campaigning for 3 decades, including serving on the board of directors of NIRS.  The is no “well funded” opposition.  It is nice to play the “we are righteous and we are oppressed” game, but the opposite is true.  Nuclear is the darling of DOE, and congress, despite it’s poor economics and consistant poor record in construction completion and budget overruns.

None of the commercial reactor designers are advancing naval designs as part of the SMR efforts, because they dont make any sense in terms of cost.  You can pretend that there is a well funded global opposition to reactors, presumably funded by the oil companies? But reality is very different.

i look forward to continuing our respectful disagreement.

Paxus at Twin Oaks

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Nov 16, 2013


On Atomic Insights, I have been gradually collective evidence of the involvement of fossil fuel interests who oppose the use of nuclear energy. Those posts can be found with a search for “smoking gun”.

i know there are parts of the antinuclear opposition that do not seem to be well funded when seen from the trenches, just like there are portions of the energy industry that do not provide lucrative paychecks for the workers.

However, when you look at the annual budget figures for some of the major international groups that are significant participants in activity meant to slow nuclear energy development, you can perhaps see the reason that I call the movement “well funded”. Friends of the Earth, UCS, Sierra Club, NRDC, Public Citizen and RMI are just a few example members of the long running coalition against nuclear development with annual budgets in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

in addition to the sources documented in the smoking gun posts on Atomic Insights, consider the fact that major foundations supporting “environmental” groups that are almost uniformly opposed to nuclear energy include the Pew Charitable Trusts, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Foundation, and the George and Cynthia Mitchill Foundation. The common thread of all of these groups is that their wealth came from oil and gas.

Finally, do not limit your view to the US. The Green Party in Germany has received substantial support from both domestic coal and Russian gas suppliers.

Individuals have also “made bank” after working hard to slow nuclear energy. Two small examples out of many: Gerhard Schroeder, the German Chancellor that was the architect of Germany’s initial plan to phase out nuclear energy, went to work for Gazprom immediately after he left office

Joschka Fischer, a Green Party founder who was Germany’s longest serving foreign minister became an advisor to the Nabucco pipeline coalition to bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to central Europe. (Oil Road: Journeys From the Caspian Sea To the City of London pg 326

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 16, 2013

I find it hard to believe the oil-and-gas industry is actively trying do-in nuclear power because nuclear energy is not really a threat. The energy needs of the world are immense and both energy sources can exist quite well together.

The anti-nuclear forces (which include the recently departed head of the NRC) are powerful and greatly increase the costs associated with deploying the energy source. These same folks are also generally the same forces driving deployment of green-energy, which is generally a grossly ineffective and wildly expensive means to supply energy. I suspect the green-energy and anti-nuclear forces share a common thread, namely to consolidate the power of the elite to control the masses, as the common man is too dumb to be allowed to make decisions for theirselves. I find such a philosophy as fundamentally anti-American.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Nov 16, 2013


Here are a few questions that I hope stimulate some critical thinking:

1) What makes you think that the oil and gas industry is NOT part of the elite seeking to dominate the masses?

2) Why do major oil and gas companies spend so much advertising their investments in unreliables like wind, solar, and biofuels from algae?

3) What is the specific lever that OPEC uses to influence world oil prices?

i think we are close in our evaluation of the overall situation, but it appears that you have bought into the John Wayne version of the independent oil man.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 16, 2013

Why would the oil & gas industry have any desire to dominate the masses? They are a business, not a political philosophy. Further, they do quite well financially, with a free and open market place providing the necessary checks and balances.

I think you will find many of the oil & gas companies are dumping green energy as unprofitable; making money was the original reason for getting into renewables in the 1st place.

OPEC is a cartel intent on controlling the price of oil so they can make lots of money at everybody else’s expense. Such an operation needs to be crushed through the forces of the free market, including increased supply and reduced demand through better efficiency.

William Mullins's picture
William Mullins on Nov 16, 2013


I’m four-square behind Rob. I also think that it is important to look at the Global Energy Supply Enterprise as a century old System of Systems. Daniel Yergin has twice laid out the webworks of how petroleum interests came to dominated the energy scene in the early 20th Century; in the US with ample coal supplies, it proved quite easy for the two major fossil empires to make league along the lines that Rod has documented elsewhere.

The danger for those in the Global Nuclear Energy Enterprise (and particularly the US National NEE) is to give into old style (pre-Systems Thinking) conspiracy theories with the visions of aging plutocrats meeting in smoke-filled rooms. The “positive returns to cheap oil” SoS was never quite that simplistic in its operations. But for the past century fossil fuels have been held together by a potent “asynchronous strange attractor.”

The history of nuclear power over the past 75 years is a case study in why “having a ‘better’ technology” is not a sufficiently disruptive innovation to destablize the global fossil oligarchy. It’s possible with SMR’s that there could be a window of opportunity for nuclear to take its lessons learned (especially from the Naval Reactors “decisive national security advantage” value proposition) and make another run at escaping the “too expensive to rely upon” box that the first wave fell into circa 1975.

I take the case Rod’s making as demonstrated, right along with the science that the LNTH is false and ALARA is a mis-conceived strategy for “reasonable assurnace of adequate protection.”

I also suspect that the fossil monolith would like nothing more than to bog down the proponents and the anti’s in a protracted and – to them – mutually self-destructive – argument in NEPA space. We need to “Make a Better Ask” – that’s what I take the gist of Rod’s suggestion to be.

So here’s a candidate: Lets put DOE in charge of overall Governance (regulation by contract), NR as the Life Cycle Acquisition Authority; build the first four-six unit modules on good size, non-hub airports (like mine in KC) so that security is provided by TSA and Emergency Preparedness is more closely integrated with the full FEMA spectrum – ready go!

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Nov 18, 2013

In terms of costs… Ya, its easier to just use fossil fuels. However, if we want to save the biosphere, I believe we HAVE to inform the public (so as to sway political interests) and then scale up nuclear regardless of fears. Why, because (from a physics point of view) it is the quickest source that can be used to displace coal… completely and globally. And from a costs point of view, it is still cheaper than orders of magnitude more renewables AND their storage.

When battery storage is like ten times cheaper than lead acid THEN I will give up on nuclear!

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Nov 19, 2013

@Michael Keller

Why would the oil & gas industry have any desire to dominate the masses? They are a business, not a political philosophy.

Perhaps I phrased my comment incorrectly. I did not mean to refer to the “industry” but to the specific individuals that lead the industry and make its decisions. That includes the banks that have been a vital part of enabling the extremely capital intensive nature of the search for underground wealth since 1859.

The industry may be a “business” with no personality or philosophy other than making money, but the people involved have a whole range of ideologies and philosophies. They are very much a part of the elite that very definitely desires to maintain their place in the world, often at the expense of the masses.

Further, they do quite well financially, with a free and open market place providing the necessary checks and balances.

Perhaps more than any other business on the planet, the oil and gas industry has been subjected to wild swings between boom and bust, often driven by characteristics that are not well regulated by the free market. That is why there have been a number of different price setting cartels and regulatory bodies established, including the Texas Railroad Commission, the Seven Sisters, OAPEC, and now OPEC. There are any number of good books about the history of the business, perhaps the best is The Prize, the 1991 best seller by Daniel Yergin.

OPEC is a cartel intent on controlling the price of oil so they can make lots of money at everybody else’s expense.  Such an operation needs to be crushed through the forces of the free market, including increased supply and reduced demand through better efficiency.

You did not answer my question. The specific tool that OPEC uses to attempt to control the price is an allotment system where each member has a production quota that gets adjusted up or down depending on whether OPEC is satified with the current pricing and believes that the market can accept more supply without a profit destroying collapse in prices or if it believes that prices are too low due to oversupply. 

My reason for asking that question is to get you thinking about OPEC’s natural response to the development of an energy supply like nuclear energy that can flood the energy market and drive down prices without any influence from the quota setters at OPEC. 

By the way, OPEC has been in business since I was in elementary school. I am now a grandfather in my mid 50s. The forces of the “free market” are not even trying to crush OPEC; the multinational oil and gas companies enjoy the profits that they make partially as a result of the way that OPEC instills some discipline and prevents overproduction that would result in a price collapse. It has not always been effective (note the low prices that were in effect during the period from 1986-2000), but it has done a pretty good job – for the oil companies and their financial backers – over the years.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Nov 19, 2013

@Michael Keller

I am doubtful that the government is the salvation for nuclear power. Rather, a “better-nuclear-mouse-trap that makes money” must emerge.

Please do not misunderstand my proposal. I did not suggest that “the goverment” save nuclear energy. I suggested a very specific, uniquely successful, highly respected, well qualified, experienced, small government organization as a potential leader of an effort to increase the commercial prospects of nuclear energy.

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