Ep 11: Jessica Lovering - Director of Energy, Breakthrough Institute
2:23 - Path from Astrophysics to Nuclear Energy
Bret Kugelmass: How did you transition from astrophysics to nuclear energy?
Jessica Lovering: Jessica Lovering completed her Bachelor’s degree in astrophysics at UC-Berkeley and started her PhD in astrophysics, but has always been passionate about the environment. After living and working in Fairbanks, Alaska after college, Lovering saw the impacts of climate change and became more focused on the big threat of environmental issues. She loved the challenge and problem solving aspect of physics, leading her to switch into an environmental policy graduate program. Energy seemed like the key, but nobody seemed to be talking about nuclear energy and its unique challenges, even though it is the largest source of clean energy. Decarbonization is always hard, but it becomes a lot easier when nuclear is on the table. One of Lovering’s professors was Roger Pielke, Jr., a voice and thought leader in climate known for calling others out for unrealistic assumptions. Through this connection, Lovering ended up doing the Breakthrough Generation fellowship in 2011.
5:51 - The Breakthrough Institute
Bret Kugelmass: What’s the history of the Breakthrough Institute and how did it get formed?
Jessica Lovering: The Breakthrough Institute was founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in 2007 as a new way of thinking about environmental problems from a pragmatic approach. There originally was a focus on making clean energy cheap, particularly how the government could invest in clean energy, as described in one of their first papers, “Fast, Clean, & Cheap”. The common thread in Breakthrough’s work is making the best practices for the environment cheaper and easier for people to implement. Breakthrough has always focused on energy and development, but started a conservation program in 2012 and has now opened up into food and farming. Energy, especially nuclear, has always been one of their big focuses. When Jessica Lovering came in to Breakthrough as an energy analyst, she was very interested in nuclear. Fukushima brought it to a head, because it shows how important it is when a country is so dependent on a single energy source. Lovering started doing a deep dive into nuclear and tried to figure out the policies, challenges, opportunities, and feasibility of expanding nuclear in the U.S. and globally. The biggest challenge for nuclear is cost and utilities don’t want to build something that is expensive. However, once it is built, energy is really cheap and it is a great resource. Breakthrough published a report in 2013, “How to Make Nuclear Cheap”, which looked at advanced reactor technologies and explored whether they made nuclear cheaper or whether people were drawn to the technologies for other reasons. Certain attributes of advanced nuclear could make it cheaper, such as whether it can be built modularly, in a factory setting, or built smaller. The AP-1000’s were built with certain modular construction techniques. There is a gradient in how much modularity is used to build nuclear construction. Combined cycle gas turbines, solar panels, and wind turbines are all built in a factory and assembled on-site. Jessica Lovering and the Breakthrough Institute thought about how to turn nuclear from a big megaproject to a product that is delivered to a site.
11:50 - Nuclear Readiness and Innovation
Bret Kugelmass: What does readiness in nuclear mean?
Jessica Lovering: Many advanced nuclear designs were invented at U.S. National Labs in the 1960’s and have been around awhile, but have not been built. For some designs, the right materials or computational power did not exist. Back during the time of design, if you wanted to know what happened in an accident or under different conditions, you had to build an experiment and a model. Today, there is a lot more that can be done with computational modeling now, making it easier to ask “what if” questions and do iterative innovation. In Breakthrough’s report “How to Make Nuclear Cheap”, Jessica Lovering looked at different levels of investment that was required for different technologies to get commercial availability. The industry needs technologies that will be ready soon. In another report, “How to Make Nuclear Innovative”, Breakthrough looked at how other industries innovate, and the “fail fast and fail often” approach turns out to be very different from how nuclear has historically approached innovation. Smaller nuclear plants can test components more rapidly and simpler designs may rely more on safety from physics than from active components.
16:22 - International Construction Costs of Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: How have construction costs varied in different countries?
Jessica Lovering: There is not an intrinsic trend for nuclear, as there are different trends for countries and time periods. The U.S. is the worst example of cost going very high in a very short period of time, but France was able to keep their cost stable and grew at the same rate as general construction index. South Korea saw their costs higher, but came down as they built more plants. If you are building each plant as a one-off with a different design, different architect-engineering firm, and a different utility that will own and operate it, they are all built as large-scale infrastructure projects. Other countries build the same design is by the same crews and utilities, such as South Korea and Canada. The U.S. usually has 1-2 plants at a site, while South Korea and China have 4-8 reactors which allows economies of scale. The U.S. needs designs that can be built faster and added incrementally, such as small modular reactors (SMR’s). Demand for electricity is flat in the U.S., but there is huge growth and demand for electricity and energy in industrializing countries. A huge benefit of nuclear is fuel reliability. In developing countries, it is really hard to get your coal, natural gas, or diesel delivered consistently year round. Once you have your nuclear fuel, it is two years before you need more and it is a very small quantity.
21:12 - Challenges of Exporting Nuclear Technology
Bret Kugelmass: What are some other challenges that companies have to consider when exporting nuclear technology?
Jessica Lovering: The U.S. does not want nuclear materials and technologies to get into the wrong hands, so there is very good oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and most countries are party to the nonproliferation treaty. If countries want to work with a U.S. company in importing nuclear technology or starting a commercial nuclear power program, they go through a process with the IAEA and with the U.S. to sign a 123 agreement. A 123 agreement shows that the U.S. Government has determined that the country is not a security risk and is not going to use the material for weapons or military program. The U.S. is still a major player in equipment and services around the world and it is still important for relationships with different countries. Enrichment is the big worry from a security standpoint and is more a concern about non-state actors. If a government wants to take over a facility and make weapons, it would be very obvious and bold. For non-state actors, such as a terrorist organization, it would be more about sabotage or stealing material to make dirty weapons. Jessica Lovering is looking at how the U.S. used to use and could in the future use nuclear exports to build relationships internationally to influence the safety and security regime. The concern now is that when you have countries like Russia and China, who are big nuclear exporters, they might not be as strict about some standards and might be willing to give enrichment or reprocessing technology to a country as an incentive to work with them. Lovering is looking for ways to enhance the U.S. position globally through more international collaboration on nuclear R&D and demonstration and prototypes to accelerate innovation and bring more countries into partnerships. Many countries in Africa are very interested in nuclear, since there is not a lot of coal and there is huge demand for electricity. Allowing everyone Western levels of human development and standard of living, such as agriculture modernization, requires a lot more energy and technology than they currently have. Nuclear power also provides energy security. China operates the second largest uranium mine in the world, which is in Africa. If the U.S. could have collaboration with other countries like South Korea to do a build in Africa, it would be much cooler model to see rather than having Russia or China come in and build a plant. Africa has a huge growth in engineers in many sub-Saharan countries and starting nuclear projects there is a great way to get more people in STEM, train people locally, and build out nuclear programs at universities. Getting the country and the local community engaged from the start has a higher likelihood of being successful.
29:35 - Advanced Nuclear Regulations
Bret Kugelmass: Is Canada trying to push forward on some advanced reactor licensing?
Jessica Lovering: Chalk River, a nuclear site in Canada, is trying to bring more interest in people building prototypes or demonstrations there. They have a more flexible regulator that gives a lot more feedback in the licensing process, so it is attractive for companies because it helps them figure out what their uncertainties are and what they need to prove for regulating in other places. Canada is trying to make themselves attractive for advanced nuclear companies, and companies like Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and other U.S. firms are already taking advantage of it. Jessica Lovering is really interested in seeing how fast floating nuclear or offshore nuclear could go. It is more of a different business model than a different technology, but it may accelerate the process for countries that don’t have the infrastructure set up or don’t have the security regulation in place. She is also interested in microreactors or autonomous reactors, which are minimally staffed, and the opportunities opened up there. If microreactors can be commercialized sooner, the U.S. has to rethink how they regulate nuclear if there are going to be a lot more microreactors in a lot more places. Other advanced nuclear companies are trying to be built into the commercial electricity market, whereas microreactors could compete with diesel or solar and could be very disruptive.