One Hundred Diablos
“The trick to getting things done is to list things to do in doable order.” – Robert Breault
At elite college campuses all over the globe, students angling for jobs at the best consulting firms inevitably confront the dreaded market sizing question. Meant to probe a candidate’s ability to think on their feet and make accurate estimates with limited data, the exercise often borders on the absurd. How many golf balls can fit inside a Boeing 747? How many blades of grass are on an average home’s front lawn in Kentucky? From the perspective of the interviewer, the method by which a student arrives at an answer is just as important as the answer itself, and only the best critical thinkers progress to the next round.
Truth be told, a surprising number of important decisions in business and politics are decided in a similar fashion—rough estimations that produce bite-sized quanta of information suitable for power brokers with busy schedules. Investment bankers might pitch a CEO on the total addressable market derived from synergistic growth through an acquisition. Renewable energy advocates might lobby a politician on the acreage needed to power a community with solar. Knowing which question a leader should focus on and how best to proactively frame the answer are the hallmarks of an effective advocate.
If any industry is sorrily lacking in effective advocacy, it is the civilian nuclear energy sector. Despite having the full weight of physics behind it, the industry quivers like a litter of beaten puppies under the routine flogging carried out by radical environmentalists. As a consequence, civilian nuclear technology is regularly overlooked as a solution to environmental challenges, despite possessing an unparalleled energy density, an unmatched safety track record, and the capacity to provide society with a virtually limitless amount of carbon-free energy.
Consider direct air capture (DAC), a technology that is suddenly all the rage in the contemporary environmental media landscape. The prospect of directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently storing it underground has long been considered a potent strategic lever in the battle against climate change. Much to the chagrin of Malthusian environmentalists, the fossil fuel industry—led by Warren Buffet-backed Occidental Petroleum (Oxy)—has leapt at the prospect of implementing DAC to negate its emissions. In so doing, they have leveraged support from the Biden Administration to fund early development projects. Here’s how a recent Bloomberg article framed the controversy:
“The speed with which Occidental and DAC has captivated the Biden administration is alarming for environmentalists and some scientists. DAC remains by far the most expensive way to capture carbon, and the technology is largely unproven outside one small plant in Iceland. There are serious questions about whether the large quantities of power the process needs will offset the climate benefits. The loudest critics insist DAC should never be used to justify fossil-fuel extraction.”
The “large quantities of power” needed for the DAC process inspire a fun thought exercise: why not use nuclear technology to power a fleet of DAC plants across the world, offsetting most of our carbon emissions in the process? While some are studying the potential to append existing nuclear power plants with small DAC setups, why not explore building nuclear reactors for the sole purpose of scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere? This sets up a quintessential market sizing question, one that simultaneously frames the magnitude of the carbon challenge and showcases the incredible energy potential of nuclear:
Approximately how many purpose-built nuclear energy plants would be needed to enable the capture 100% of US carbon emissions?
Let’s pretend it’s interview day and give it a whirl.