Rethinking Nuclear: Can We Change the World’s Cumulative Carbon Emissions Soon Enough?

Joe Lassiter and Ray Rothrock jointly presented a twenty minute talk to Harvard B-school alums on the critical need for large scale nuclear deployment to mitigate climate change. This is a high signal-to-noise update on the challenge and possible solutions. Joe Lassiter summed up the reality of Kyoto-style targeting: 

The political process to getting international agreement on emissions is painfully slow, with pretty much unsolvable problems.

When you look at EIA and IEA projections to 2040 and extrapolate IPCC scenarios past 2100 you see we are on a trajectory to “extremely high ranges of temperature” at levels where “economic and biological models are likely to be invalid”. Poor countries like India and China do what they have to – coal plants. Because as Bill Gates said recently in a Financial Times interview “Renewable energy can’t do the job.” And nuclear still hasn’t crossed the “Cheaper than coal” cost curve. Meanwhile “the rich countries can do what they want” which is mainly the soft path of variable renewables – the path Bill Gates expects to lead to “a beyond astronomical cost”.

I recommend this talk for a bit of insider perspective on nuclear innovation. In the “conflict of interest” declaration, Prof. Lassiter revealed that he is an investor in Terrapower. Later in the NRC-barrier discussion he says “they are rumored to be building a test reactor in China…but they have never issued a press release about that.” Why China? “Because they saw no way to move through licensing in the United States…because of their belief about the un-licensability of anything but a light water reactor in America”.

As you likely know, Ray Rothrock, Venrock partner emeritus, lead the seed investment in Transatomic Power. Ray (via Venrock) is also an investor in stealthy fusion startup Tri Alpha Energy.

Joe used the following tabulation to make a very broad taxonomy of nuclear generation technologies, and the associated build process (on-site v. factory manufacture). Probably none of the example companies are happy with their “box”. Neither Westinghouse nor TerraPower will like being labeled “Classic On-Site Construction”. And characterizing the three technology columns as analogous to Mainframe, Mini Computer, Micro Processor? OK, I’m sympathetic to the challenge of explaining today’s spectrum of nuclear generation to a group of Harvard MBA alumni. In 20 minutes? I score this a good job overall.

BTW, I think it’s cool that Joe picked GE-PRISM and UPower for his category “Gen IV Passive SFRs/Factory Manufacture”. Yay UPower! But the MiniComputer metaphor? No!

Nuclear entrants

The presentation slides are available here if you have Harvard alum login credentials. Fortunately the event video is available at YouTube without HBS login.