How a culture of innovation can help nuclear power play a major role in the transition to a decarbonized world
Wynter McGruder has been to enough nuclear power industry conferences to know what to expect. Inevitably, she says, a succession of smart engineers will stand up and deliver scripted and formal presentations about weighty matters, such as advances in reactor design and materials science.
It’s what the audience demands. “You always have an audience of technical people who have spent their careers deeply focused on serious work,” said McGruder, an EPRI principal technical leader in the nuclear sector who previously spent about a decade as a reactor pressure vessel engineer for the utility Xcel Energy.
In other words, nuclear conferences can be counted on to feature serious people talking about serious topics. To put it mildly, last summer’s Global Forum for Nuclear Innovation (GFNI) in London did not follow that familiar script. At the event’s kickoff, a stage was set up with a speaker’s rostrum and a grouping of chairs suitable for roundtable discussions. But into that familiar setting strode Jon Chase. Clutching a microphone and casually dressed, Chase walked right past the rostrum and began to rap.
“There’s a crisis with the climate that’s affecting the globe, and we’re looking for solutions that are ready to go, but as you know, they take a little time to evolve, so let’s grow and innovate until the problem is solved,” Chase began. “We’ve gotta be bold, become the agents of change, and think about the four behaviors that we can arrange. It starts with you, so let’s keep the target in view and gather all our energies to make the future nu-cleeeeeaaaar.”
Later, Chase initiated a call and response with the audience, asking them, “are you clear, nuclear?” and then encouraged attendees to answer, “what we’re here to do!” Those who paid close attention to Chase’s lighthearted lyrics, though, couldn’t miss the seriousness of the message. In short, Chase told his audience that the world desperately needs nuclear power to address the climate crisis. But also layered into the lyrics were reminders that those assembled in the room had to do things differently than they had in the past.
Indeed, in just a few words, Chase illustrated the balance that must be struck for nuclear to play the role it can in building a decarbonized future. “So, on the one hand, there is safety. On the other is innovation. One relies on caution and the other inspiration, but the two must function hand in hand for any operation to succeed,” he sang. “How to find the balance is the vital question. We need the brightest minds, but we have to build them first through an education system that is thriving and diverse, then attract them to the sector and make room for them to grow, so they broaden the perspective and challenge the status quo.”
A Growing Recognition of the Need for Change
To be sure, discussions about the need for innovation in nuclear are nothing new. In fact, at the 2019 GFNI in South Korea, the first day of the conference was devoted to learning about what drives innovation outside the nuclear industry, including lessons from astronauts and the researchers behind breakthrough pharmaceuticals. The gathering also featured feedback from nuclear industry regulators, who emphasized their strong desire to collaborate on innovation.
An important insight that crystallized at the 2019 GFNI was that past efforts around innovation had been too focused on technology and not enough on building the kind of industry culture that breeds consistent and transformative innovation. The 2019 GFNI identified four essential behaviors needed to foster an innovative culture: courage, a challenger mindset, diversity, and role modeling.
While important, the mindset shift that occurred in South Korea four years ago was about building momentum to shift the day-to-day behaviors that constitute culture. What Chase’s rap and other activities at the GFNI in London did was to move beyond theoretical discussions of innovation into the often uncomfortable and messy reality of thinking, acting, and collaborating in new and innovative ways.
Embracing and Cultivating the Discomfort of Innovation
McGruder felt that discomfort acutely at first. “I have crippling second-hand embarrassment,” McGruder recalled with a laugh. “When the rap started, I didn’t want to see it. But it ended up loosening things up, and it was fun, demonstrating that it is OK to think outside the box.” Subsequent activities illustrated some of the mental barriers that prevent innovation. For example, Emma Wong, an EPRI technology and innovation advisor to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), led an activity illustrating the importance of questioning status quo beliefs.
The activity was a competition to build a sailboat car using a few simple materials (like paper and a paper towel roll) and see which one could speed across a table fastest. But the instructions and example participants were given subtly introduced limitations on innovation. “We introduced bias by calling it a car and showing an example that had four wheels and a sail on a boat,” said Sam Johnson, a senior project manager at EPRI, who attended the GFNI. “And everyone made slight variations of the car. Nobody challenged what could make it better. And that was the point. Pre-conceived notions, biases, and terminology can hinder our creativity in solving the problem at hand. The main problem is mindset.”
Of course, even the most innovative GFNI conference is just one step towards driving genuine change in the culture of the entire nuclear industry. What’s important is that the ideas and behaviors unveiled and modeled at these infrequent gatherings are then shared, reinforced, questioned, and evolved at institutions across the entire industry.
Understanding Barriers to Innovation
Driving the changes in mindset that will result in meaningful and consistent innovation also requires being clear-eyed about some of the real and understandable barriers that have prevented it in the past. “To understand innovation in nuclear, you have to think about the nature of the nuclear industry,” McGruder said. “It has thrived and been safest when it is highly procedural. It’s not just about highly trained people. It also is highly rules-driven. That does not facilitate much room for risk-taking and innovation.”
McGruder says that most innovation in nuclear in the past has been technology focused and incremental. For example, she points to the decade-plus the industry took to transition from paper-based work packages to digital. Another example: The reluctance to embrace 3D printing to produce complicated design parts used in reactors. “3D printing was in existence and required less welding and was safer, but it was hard to get people on board because it was a new technology,” McGruder said. “The industry was excited by the technology, but because parts are such an important part of a plant’s safety strategy, you have to be so cautious that any change is going to be safe.”
But both McGruder and Johnson say there are plenty of signs that the industry is serious about fostering an innovative culture. For example, Johnson says many more utilities have initiated innovation programs with dedicated staff and budgets in recent years. This helps keep innovation at the top of a utility’s priority list. “Innovation can be a low priority when you have 10 things to do each day,” Johnson said. “Having a dedicated staff and a forum for communicating what you’re learning matters.”
The nuclear industry has a unique opportunity to shift its culture to become more innovative. Like the rest of the utility industry, large numbers of seasoned nuclear employees are either in retirement or nearing the end of their careers. Newer employees, many of whom are attracted to nuclear because of the big role it can play in the transition to a decarbonized power system, are eager to contribute new thinking.
“Innovation has been grassroots in the industry over the past few years. A lot of early career folks are willing to speak up and say, ‘I have a good idea,’” McGruder said. “And leadership in organizations increasingly see the value in innovation and what it can do in other industries and are letting people run with ideas and funding them. That wouldn’t have happened 10 or 15 years ago.”
Continuing the Push to Innovate
EPRI is also focused on cultivating an innovative culture among nuclear sector researchers and helping member utilities as they work to become more innovative. For example, in January 2021, EPRI launched the Nuclear Innovation Working Group. The group’s mission is to create a community of nuclear innovation leaders to build support, coordination, and awareness of the industry’s past, current, and future innovations and technologies. The group, which meets twice annually, has discussed a range of topics, including drones, submersibles, machine learning, robotics, digital twins, advanced manufacturing, and artificial intelligence (AI).
Coming out of the London GFNI, EPRI staff are also leading ongoing research and collaboration around four Grand Challenges. The industry has identified these areas as important to cultivating innovative cultures and mindsets. The Grand Challenges are:
- Think Tank: No talent, no sector—The nuclear industry must recruit and retain talented and innovative people to thrive in the future. This work will look at the actions the industry can take to ensure it has both enough talent and the right type of talent.
- Brain Bubble: Operating a lean machine—Lean operation is nothing new in the nuclear industry. However, building on past successes remains important, and this initiative will take a close look at efficient operations and modernization.
- Energy Pod: Safe doesn’t have to be slow—Safety will always be the number one priority in nuclear. The work around this challenge will examine how safety can remain the top priority while still cultivating rapid and disruptive innovation.
- Power Hub: Beyond electricity—From hydrogen production to district heating to desalination, there are myriad opportunities for nuclear to deliver more than baseload electricity. This initiative will investigate potential regulatory and operational changes necessary to seize those opportunities and how the industry will need to change to do business with new stakeholders.
>Success in these important areas relies on an innovative culture, which is why EPRI’s Johnson hopes that the next GNFI in 2024 will include a hard look at what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. “Hopefully, we will build on what we have learned and continue to develop culture across the industry. I think we need to come back and look at what we have done, how we have applied what we learned in London and pushed the industry forward, and how we grow in the future?” Johnson said. “We have to review what we have done because, without self-reflection, we won’t make progress.”
EPRI Technical Experts:
Sam Johnson, Wynter McGruder
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