“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” – Napoleon Hill
The 1945 Battle of Okinawa was the last major combat operation between the US and Japan in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Code-named Operation Iceberg, the invasion involved a symphony of naval logistics on the US side, countless waves of kamikaze suicide bombers launched from the Japanese home islands, and brutally bloody fighting on the ground that lasted several months. While many statistics about the battle are staggering, here is one that stands out: in summoning an impressive armada of fleet oilers, repair ships, floating dry docks, hospital ships, salvage vessels, and munition suppliers, the US Fast Carrier Task Force was able to remain at sea, in combat mode, for an incredible 92 consecutive days.
War is nothing more than the concentrated conveyance of destructive energy, and the history of war can best be understood through the lens of primary energy development, its efficient conversion into weapons, and its resulting targeted delivery against the enemy. The carbon footprint of Operation Iceberg was massive and that energy had to come from somewhere. Blessed with an abundance of oil and the technologies to extract and refine it, the US enjoyed an insurmountable energy advantage over Japan, one it was ultimately able to press for total victory.
Armed with a solid knowledge of physics, US military leaders understood the vast potential of nuclear energy – the ultimate high-density energy source – and by the time the Battle of Okinawa was over, the development of the first generation of nuclear weapons was largely complete. Faced with the prospect of massive US casualties should a full invasion of Japan be undertaken, and simultaneously hoping to send a powerful message to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, President Truman authorized the use of these novel superweapons to accelerate the end of the conflict.
After the war, the US military continued to develop alternative applications for their newly harnessed nuclear technology. In the hands of brilliant engineers, the massive advantages of high energy density are handily exploited. By September 1954, the first nuclear-powered submarine was commissioned. The USS Nautilus revolutionized naval warfare and set records for speed, dive time, and mission longevity. Small nuclear reactors like the one that powered the Nautilus could go decades between refueling. Today, nuclear reactors are deployed in about 100 US submarines and aircraft carriers, and the military claims a perfect safety record with the technology.
The history of propulsion technology at sea is marked by a completely sensible journey up the energy density ladder. Wind-powered sailing vessels were made obsolete by ships that burned coal, which were displaced by those that burned diesel, which ultimately gave way to those that leveraged nuclear technology. There is no room for platitudes in the great geopolitical chess match – you either wield real power or become ruled by others willing to do so – and energy density is a decisive metric.
That our civilian leaders seem to have forgotten this, choosing instead to sway in their politically expedient hammocks of denial, is one of the great mysteries of our time. By shunning nuclear power in favor of low-density and intermittent renewable energy like wind and solar, much of the Western world has trapped itself in a rolling series of energy crises. Despite the incredible safety record of the existing nuclear fleet, the ongoing improvements in the latest proposed reactor designs across all critical parameters, and the obvious need for a nuclear renaissance if we have any hope of meeting aggressive climate goals, getting new projects built has proved stubbornly challenging. This is especially true in the US, where a labyrinth of unnecessary regulations seems specifically designed to satisfy the Malthusian impulses of the radical environmental movement.
There are encouraging signs that the tide is finally turning. Support for the nuclear industry was substantial in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, an accomplishment that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. Democratic leaders in California are signaling their support to keep the Diablo Canyon Power Plant open beyond 2025, offering the last remaining nuclear facility in their state a much-needed reprieve. Perhaps most notably, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently signed off on a new small modular reactor (SMR) design, the cumulation of a multi-year application process by NuScale Power. Here’s how POWER Magazine described it (emphasis added throughout):
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has indicated it will certify NuScale’s 50-MWe (160 MWth) small modular reactor (SMR) design, marking another definitive milestone for the reactor vendor and its technology prospects.
The NRC on July 29 said it directed staff to issue a final rule that certifies the standard SMR design, for which NuScale submitted an application in December 2016. The certification, which means the design meets the agency’s applicable safety requirements, will be effective 30 days after the NRC publishes that rule in the Federal Register. When published, NuScale’s SMR will become only the seventh reactor design certification that the regulatory body has issued for use in the U.S.”
Just how important is this approval by the NRC and will it pave the way for a future with hundreds of small nuclear reactors spread across the country? Is it truly a regulatory turning point or will environmental extremists continue their desperate fight against a nuclear resurgence? NuScale recently became a publicly traded company. What are its long-term prospects? Let’s dig in.