Sub-Critical Thinking in the Nuclear Industry

Nuclear Innovation

More than 20 years ago, I stumbled into the nuclear power field, almost by chance, but now I know it was the beginning of a calling. This industry has been a part of my entire adult life and I love it. I have met and continue to meet some of the most intelligent, inspirational, and motivated people I could have ever imagined. I have more mentors than I can count or credit. Nuclear power isn’t just a career, it’s a service to the legacy of humanity. It’s a building block to advancing us into our planet’s future and eventually into exploring other worlds.

Back in its infancy, nuclear power was surrounded by the latest and best technology available. Where the technology was not available, it was developed at a rapid pace to ensure that we could safely and efficiently harness the power of the atom. The excitement from the public and the support of national governments was equal to the promise of nearly free energy that nuclear power could provide.

Then, we slowed our investment in nuclear technology and innovation. The focus shifted to more paperwork and administration. Major nuclear disasters in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Japan were the main reasons. Although these disasters demanded a refocus on safety, an inappropriate shift away from innovation in our industry took place. Innovation in technology is also critical to safe nuclear operations. While our industry has tried to bring innovation back, we still have a long way to go.

If you have been to a nuclear industry conference in the past five years, you probably heard the word “innovation” more than 50 times at each event. There is even a good chance that the word was in the title of the conference. We are seeing all the same presentation slides and the same calls to action. But are we seeing real innovative change in our industry?

Seventeen years ago, I left the John C Stennis. That nuclear aircraft carrier, commissioned in the mid-90s, had alldigital systems except for an analog feedwater system. Imagine my surprise when I went to work at my first commercial nuclear station and every major operating system was 1960s analog technology. Just a few years ago, I saw a training class being conducted using an overhead projector. I am not referring to the digital projector that hangs from the ceiling; I mean the one you cart around that uses mirrors and a light bulb to project a small fuzzy image through a transparent sheet of plastic.

We failed to innovate for so long that the technology gap is now immense. Innovative upgrades now require a complete change in the way we do business. More bravery from our industry leaders and regulators is now needed to support and approve innovative solutions. The change management plan to implement any new technology should always be robust. However, except for a few small examples in our industry, it is nearly impossible due to the cultural resistance to change.

It is unfortunate that a financial squeeze in our industry had finally forced us to insert the word “innovation” back into our vernacular. Innovation should have been part of our journey all along. Now, the mental organizational changes required to implement the newest technologies are larger than actual hardware or software changes. We are in a situation where our up-and-coming workforce is demanding innovative changes to improve performance, safety, and quality of life. Some industry leaders are listening to them, but not enough.

We need to stop talking about innovation and have the bravery to start doing it. It requires strength and commitment to implement innovative solutions against the deep-rooted emotional and mental barriers to change in our industry. Henry Ford notoriously stated, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Due to the prolonged lack of innovative focus in our industry, we do not need faster horses — we need spaceships. Let’s stop patting ourselves on the backs for all the talk around innovation and realize that our industry still is not committed to it.

When we truly choose to embrace change, when we have the strength to overcome decades of cultural status quo, when we learn again what the word “innovation” truly means, then we will realize our promise and charter to advance humanity into the future.


2 thoughts on “Sub-Critical Thinking in the Nuclear Industry”

  1. Billy, I knew you were brilliant on the STENNIS, I just missed how brilliant. Great article, and dead on about our innovative failings as an industry. ADM Rickover as adamant that our public education system was not up for the challenge of the needs of his nuclear navy. Now, it feels like education in the US has passed us by. I know that my youngest, a high school freshman, is exposed to way more technological innovation in his learning than we are exposing to our students industrywide.

    1. I appreciate the kind words and it was pleasure to serve under your leadership during such difficult time for our country. I agree that we have some things to learn from the public education system. I do believe that our industry can get back. Will it happen fast enough? – is the big question.

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