Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year Reflections:

Year-End Stocktaking--And New Year's Resolutions

As we ring out 2009 and the first decade of the current millenium, it is useful to take stock of where we are. Certainly, by almost any measure, the last couple of years have been exciting ones for the nuclear industry. After a long period of stagnation in many parts of the world, the past new years have seen 1) a high expectation for new orders by a number of utilities in the United States, 2) significant expansion of nuclear power programs by China and other countries, 3) indications of interest by several dozen countries that have never had nuclear power, 4) a turnaround by several countries that had phased out nuclear power or were planning to, and 5) a great improvement in public perception towards nuclear power in the US and around the world.

These are certainly heady times. However, I think all of us know there is much work ahead to make the promises a reality. Therefore, we should all be making these resolutions:

1. We should not count our chickens before they hatch. I don't think any of us really expect that every expression of interest will result in new power plants. We would all be happy to see a fraction of the current possibilities realized. However, if we crow about the numbers too much, others will perceive it as a failure when some of the potential orders inevitably drop off.

2. We should not rest on our laurels. Getting people interested in nuclear power is not the hard part. After all, its very real benefits should sell themselves. Delivering is the hard part. We need to make sure the new round of projects succeed.
3. We should not make promises we can't keep. There are several ramifications to this. I'm thinking most of all of the limits to the speed of growth. We need enough trained people to do the job well. We need enough industrial capacity to deliver the very specialized components. We should offer realistic projections of what we can do today, and how fast we can grow the industry. (As an aside, given the incredible growth in the early days of nuclear power, I'm an optimist on the possibilities. Even granted that the world isn't the same today, I think we can grow rapidly if the conditions are right. I just believe we can't promise that today.)

4. We should provide the public with simple, but reasoned--and accurate--arguments. I realize that the opposition engages in industrial character assassination--often supporting their opposition to nuclear power with seemingly concrete numbers that have little substance behind them. I realize that we are told that engineers fall into the trap of TMI--here meaning "too much information"--all too often. However, we are not going to win the public over by simply copying the same tactics others use. They have already gained some traction. We really have to refute those arguments--but in terms the public can understand. And, even more important, we have to present our own case--again, clearly, simply (but not simplistically), and most of all, accurately.

5. We should not fight ourselves. Of course, we all think the particular technology we are working on is the best one, and when I am not hearing about nuclear versus renewables, I seem to hear nuclear people bad-mouthing each other's technologies. Areva versus GE plants, small versus large plants. There are likely markets for multiple options, so we should not focus on any one option. Rather, we should work together to give all the options a chance in the marketplace.

6. We should face our own faults, and do something about them. Truly, we have had many bumps in the road to nuclear power development in the past. Many of them were due to reasons outside our control. Others were hard lessons learned, but we think we have learned them. Still, we continue to see cost overruns and schedule delays. We usually explain those away--at least among ourselves. It is my observation that, outside our community, people aren't buying it. Even if there is a good reason every time, we have stumbled so many people don't trust our cost and time projections any more. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, but we have lost credibility in this arena, and we need to gain it back. We need either to provide more convincing justification for why some of the recent problems were truly out of our control--or better still, we need the first few new projects to be success stories.

And with those thoughts in mind, a happy, healthy, prosperous New Year--and new decade--to all!


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