“Disruptive technology” was a phrase that kept coming up at Infocast’s Small Modular Reactors Conference in Washington, DC this week.
The term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, in which he showed that even the innovators of new technology can hurt themselves by introducing it if they are already well established in the old technology. Therefore, new technologies are usually developed by newcomers in the field.
The description would seem to fit the U.S. Nuclear Renaissance at this moment. The proposals for small reactors are coming mostly from upstart companies such as NuScale, Hyperion, Advanced Reactor Concepts, Radix, TerraPower and a reincarnated , which has dropped out of the full-scale field. Meanwhile, the established companies – AREVA, Westinghouse, General Electric and General Atomics – are “keeping up with the Jones” at best.
But there is a new element to the equation – the . The limiting factor in any reactor development, old or new, in this country, at least, will be getting licensed by the NRC. The Commission’s time – which is subject to Congressional appropriations and dedicated to safety issues first – can be finite even at its pass-through rate to users of $260 hour. And any effort spent on SMRs could logically be subtracted from time spent reviewing larger reactors. Thus, when Hyperion sat down with NRC officials earlier this month, the company was only adding to the Commission’s overload.
There won’t be any Apples or Netscapes upsetting the established order in the nuclear industry. Ultimately, along with securing customers, everything will depend on successfully navigating uncertain NRC regulatory regime waters over a five-year period at a minimum. In this department, established technologies will have an advantage, since, even more than major corporations, bureaucracies have trouble adjusting to innovation.
“I believe if the nuclear industry is going to succeed, we have to succeed as a whole,” said Gary Barbour, senior advisor for regulatory affairs at NuScale Power at the conference. In winning public acceptance, this is obviously true. But is there also a sibling rivalry? Are big and small reactors partners or rivals? Are small reactors and large reactors an either/or proposition for the industry or can the industry and the NRC multi-task? Are small reactors an untimely distraction at a time when the Renaissance should be focused on consummating a spate of new large reactor deployments over this decade?