Rod Adams has not followed a typical career path: Formerly the chief engineer on a U.S. Navy submarine, he’s now a prominent blogger on nuclear power.
Rod is well qualified to preside over Atomic Insights, the blog where he writes about energy supplies, technology and politics from an atomic point of view.
For one thing, he knows nukes–not only was he an engineer on a nuclear-powered sub, he has taught “the principles of naval weapons systems” at the U.S. Naval Academy.
For another, he’s trained to do without sleep. “You get four hours of sleep, maximum,” he says, about submarine life. Now, he is able to hold down a day job as a Navy commander (assigned as a ship and submarine maintenance analyst) and still write, prolifically, averaging four to 10 posts a week. That’s because he often posts to his blog between 3 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.
Recently, Rod and I met at 7 a.m. (early for me, mid-morning for him) for coffee at a Starbucks in Crystal City, Va., near his office, to talk about nuclear power. I wanted to get the perspective of an expert who has, literally, lived with nukes. He handed me this:
“You know what that is?” he asked me. “It’s the equivalent of a ton of coal.” It would be, that is, if the tiny metal cylinder was made of uranium.
Rod, who is 50, is an unabashed “pro-nuclear activist.” He grew up in the industry–his father worked as an electrical engineer for Florida Power and Light–and Rod graduated from the Naval Academy in 1981. He spent about five and a half years on a nuclear sub. “Submarines are the killer app for nuclear power,” he says, because the fuel is lightweight, a single fuel load can last as long as 33 years and, unlike a combustion engine, it doesn’t require a smokestack to get rid of its waste.
When Rod returned to the Naval Academy to teach in the early 1991, he got interested in energy. “Oil was a big topic of conversation in 1991,” he told me. “Friends of mine were going to war to protect oil.” He did a lot of studying and found, among other things, that the U.S. civilian nuclear power industry hadn’t ordered any new plants since the 1970s.
“I couldn’t understand why,” he says.
Since then, he has come to believe that the nuclear industry is being held back by a collection of unlikely allies–the fossil fuel industry, wind and solar power companies, and environmentalists who believe that we can solve the global warming problem with a mix of energy efficiency and renewable energy. See, for example, his reaction to a Business Week article with the (silly) headline Endless Oil as well his comments about Scientific American’s Plan to Power the Planet with 100% Renewables, in which he writes:
…my analysis tells me that anyone who pushes the idea that there is a hope for human society to shift from fossil fuels to a narrowly defined set of “renewable” energy sources that pointedly excludes atomic fission is either hopelessly innumerate or simply lying through their teeth. Because I am pretty sure that statement is true, I understand why fossil fuel interests (broadly defined to include anyone who wants to keep making money by finding, extracting, transporting, financing, marketing, refining, or selling coal, oil, natural gas or any of their byproducts) talk a lot about their plans for development of wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy and either ignore or discourage the use of nuclear energy.
Like Rod, I’ve been struck by the fact that the nuclear option is often off the table when people talk about global warming. Last month in Copenhagen, for example, a slew of events were held to promote renewable power but the nuclear industry was all but invisible. This is despite the fact that China, India, South Korea and others are building nuclear plants because they see nuclear power as an affordable, low-carbon source of baseline power.
I asked Rod what he thinks the U.S.’s nuclear policy should be. Interestingly, he’s not all that excited about the plans for large-scale nuclear power plants that are making their way through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at an excruciatingly slow pace. These are plants in the 1,15o to 1,700 MW range being pushed by utilities like the Southern Co. and NRG Energy. “There’s a market for big plants, but they can’t do everything,” he says.
He’s more excited by the smaller-scale plants being proposed by companies like NuScale Power and Babcock & Wilcox. NuScale, a venture capital-funded startup based in Corvallis, Oregon, is trying to commercialize, a modular, scalable 45 MW light water reactor. Babcock & Wilcox wants to deploy a reactor it calls mPowerTM which it says is scalable, modular and passively safe (we’ll try to explain that another day) with the capacity to provide 125 MWe to 750 MWe or more for a five-year operating cycle without refueling. B&W is a longtime nuclear supplier to the Navy and has built commercial power plants.
There are numerous advantages to building smaller power plants in a factory setting, including the lowering of the risk for the initial units. Smaller power plants also allow vendors a more rapid path along cost lowering learning curves. Research has demonstrated that a typical learning curve for constructing the same design will provide a cost savings of 10-20% for every doubling of unit volume.
Of course, he can’t speak for the companies but he told me: “Small plants can been built without depending on the government for a loan guarantee or other financial support.”
Rod, by the way, knows business as well as nukes. He took a leave from the Navy, owned a successful manufacturing company and tried to launch a nuclear startup of his own, called Adams Atomic Engines. He hasn’t been able to raise the capital to get it off the ground, but he hasn’t given up either.
Despite that frustration, he’s convinced that nuclear power will eventually thrive again in the U.S., particularly if it’s given a chance to compete on a level playing field. Actually, he prefers a basketball metaphor.
“Nuclear is like Shaquille O’Neal on a playground,” Rod says.
Huh? I didn’t get it. “No one wants to let Shaq play basketball on the playground,” he says. “The only way the other guys can compete is to tie him down.”