When the Orteig Prize for the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris was first announced in 1919, such a feat seemed nearly impossible. It wasn’t until eight years later that Charles Lindbergh claimed the $25,000 in prize money (about $340,000 in today’s dollars) in what most viewed as a critical technological achievement that changed the public perception about air flight. Nearly 80 years of innovation later, the $10 million Ansari XPrize was awarded to the Tier One Project for being the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.
The fact that the investment needed to win these prizes is typically much larger than the prize itself goes to show that these competitions are only partially about the money. At its core, a prize competition is designed to inspire people to conquer a seemingly impossible goal, thus altering the public narrative about what is achievable.
In today’s landscape of rapid technology change and ambitious technology achievement, one area stands out as being both incredibly useful to economic growth and climate conservation and in serious need of innovation: nuclear energy.
A prize competition is designed to inspire people to conquer a seemingly impossible goal, thus altering the public narrative about what is achievable.
In the 1950s, there was exuberance for nuclear energy and the potential power of the atom. But after an initial surge in nuclear deployments, the marginal rate of development in the U.S. slowed as challenges due to cost, interest rates, and environmental concerns arose. First generation nuclear ran into a set of uncertainties and safety failures that plateaued growth and left a humbled nuclear community searching for new innovation strategies.
Nuclear technology must move beyond a single commercial product (large-scale electricity production) and provide new functions demanded by a 21st century energy system. Happily a new era of nuclear innovation has taken early steps; in 2015, Third Way identified nearly 50 companies, backed by more than $1.3 billion in private capital, that are developing plans for new nuclear products.
Given emerging commercial interest in advanced nuclear energy, how can investors enlist the country’s brightest minds?
This raises the question: given emerging commercial interest in advanced nuclear energy, how can investors enlist the country’s brightest minds? Recently, I sat down with a diverse group of smart people to discuss whether an incentive prize competition could change the trajectory of technology development and brighten the public narrative around nuclear energy. This group included nuclear energy professionals, a machine learning and strategy scientist, a community resilience expert, technology innovators, a federal policy representative, experts in project finance, a technology product manager, and an urban designer.
Here’s what we discussed:
A prize competition in this arena must select a specific target for its goal. For instance, it is difficult to determine if an applicant has succeeded in something like developing a nuclear system that is “cost competitive” with natural gas due to fluctuating costs of gas. A vague target like “cost competitive” sets up a moving finish line that is hard to measure.
Fixed targets can vary widely. Some proposed ideas involved improving performance, whether it is through easier reconfiguration to adapt to market dynamics or technology innovation (not locking into a 60 year design) or updated techniques to consume more energy from the fuel (comparable to better gas mileage in your car). Other concepts revolve around cost, like designing a system that costs below five or six cents per kilowatt hour or cuts operating, maintenance, or decommissioning expenses by a fixed amount. Another specific target could be creating a new and improved plant material in half the time it currently takes to do so, thus allowing faster time to market.
Prize competitions could also focus on smaller products than a fully deployed energy production system. These might include creating a commercially-viable product out of nuclear waste, building controls such that small reactors that can operate without any human intervention for a year, or engineering a radiation-hardened drone that can operate at decommissioned nuclear sites.
Alternatively, prize competitions could think bigger than just the energy production device. Contests could ask for the creation of nuclear-inclusive energy microgrids, or designing urban-centric nuclear plants that encourage people to more routinely interact with the plant.
Ideas for prize competitions may also go outside the realm of technology. Designing and implementing a public campaign that changes public perception of nuclear energy or finding new ways for consumers to demand nuclear energy in their electricity bill could both be good goals.
Finally, prizes can come from a single benchmark or in multiple stages. A three-stage prize competition might include a year-long design competition, a longer contest for the first to get approval for the design, and then a final round of prize money for whoever first implements the new technology.
But let’s get specific for a moment. I crafted some ideas for potential prize competitions in advanced nuclear, based on the general discussions of the group. Here’s what they look like:
1. Nuclear New Town Prize
A three-stage prize competition with the final prize being a new planned community (or maybe a significantly upgraded one) established with a nuclear-inclusive design. This competition could partner with government agencies to fund various parts of the development.
- Stage 1: One year long design competition, with $250,000 to each of three teams presenting the best design for a nuclear-friendly town
- Stage 2: Up to seven year competition awarding $10M to any team getting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval to build the nuclear reactor included in the new town design
- Stage 3: $100M for the first nuclear new town to host 1,000 new residents and ten new businesses
- Bonus prizes: $25M bonus prize for a nuclear-friendly town that first hosts a visitor population to their nuclear facility ten times the size of the resident population, and a $50M bonus prize if that town is on Mars.
2. Nuclear Waste Product Development Prize
A one-stage prize competition with the final prize of $1M for the commercial sale of a product that is derived from a current waste product of nuclear energy.
3. Nuclear Technology Development Prize(s) or Competitions
A one-stage prize for crossing a specific technology goal. Examples could be $250K to $1M prizes for:
- Building, within two years, a radiation-hardened drone that can perform in a decommissioned plant zone
- Developing and proving a pathway to cut by half the time needed to prepare a new material for plant use
- New plant architecture design competition
- Conceptual design of a reconfigurable nuclear energy system where components could be economically replaced on a 5 year time period
- Designing a nuclear system with defined reduced decommissioning cost
- Creating a technology that significantly reduces the operating and maintenance cost of a current reactor, by at least 20 percent
In the past, prize competitions to encourage innovation have not only produced new technology — they’ve reframed the conversation about what achievements are possible. Applying this philosophy to advanced nuclear could prove one of the strongest strategies to drive excitement, inspiration, and new development around a powerful energy tool.
If you have ideas, please let me know by noting them in the comment section. I’ll compile them and do a follow up. If there are good ideas, let’s put them into the public discussion to inspire a prize.