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Why the UK nuclear industry needs its own NASA

Abeer Abdalla

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

The nuclear sector seems unique in its characteristics and challenges – it is highly regulated, subject to intense pressures over operational safety, expensive, and the days when it was at the cutting edge of technology were in the 1950s and 1960s.

But much the same can be said of the US space sector, which is now showing signs of technological renaissance. 

What might nuclear power innovation strategists learn from the experience of the space industry over the past three or four decades? 

A comparative study reveals that market opportunities and business practices in innovation management within highly regulated industries, such as space and nuclear, have to be addressed and recalibrated to improve the speed and efficiency of technological advancement. 

In the case of the US, where achievements in the space industry were a symbol of national and technical supremacy, incidents such as the Columbia accident, along with the increasing reliance on foreign capabilities, became a cause for serious concern among policy-makers. 

Furthermore, barriers to entry for private companies and the costs of space missions charged by incumbents such as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) were escalating. NASA was therefore directed to nurture affordable and domestic launch capabilities through the private sector. 

Commercial thinking

The solution devised by NASA was the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program (COTSP). Developing a competitive domestic capability was an urgent imperative that broke down barriers between actors within the industry and encouraged NASA to engage differently with the private sector. 

Through COTSP, NASA spun off cargo transport into a commercially attractive market where a guaranteed number of contracts to the International Space Station were offered to commercial partners, through which they could demonstrate their capabilities. Constrained by its reduced budget, NASA administered a matched-funding partnership, but one where the commercial partner shouldered any cost overruns, not the taxpayer.  

What happened? The success of COTSP is evident in the achievements of SpaceX, NASA’s most prominent commercial partner. Successes include:

• Recovery and landing of the first stage of orbital-class rockets

• First re-flight of an orbital-class rocket

• Breaking the 10-year monopoly of ULA on military-cargo launch

• Over 50% market share in global commercial launches in 2018.

What made the positive difference? Three key elements contributed to the success of COTSP between NASA and SpaceX: the national strategic imperative discussed above, development of a rapid prototyping capability and NASA adopting a new collaborative mindset in working with the private sector. 

SpaceX moved away from the traditional supply-chain model adopted in the space industry, towards a lean vertical model that allowed the company to adopt an aggressive design-build-test programme. The access to NASA’s expertise, patented technologies, facilities and the close coordination between NASA’s safety officers and SpaceX engineers, facilitated through COTSP, were critical in accelerating the technology demonstration programme. 

To facilitate that close coordination, a NASA advisory team was embedded within SpaceX. That team was also charged with protecting SpaceX from NASA’s bureaucracy and process-focused culture, to the extent of removing NASA staff from the advisory team if they failed to embrace a goal-oriented mindset. 

COTSP therefore presents lessons to both the public and commercial actors within the nuclear industry.

Recent reports from the UK government have reiterated the significance of nurturing domestic capabilities and encouraging private-sector funding and engagement within the nuclear industry. Guaranteed deployment opportunities and a stable policy context are also essential to creating an acceptable level of business risk for the private sector. 

Evidently, there is no equivalent to NASA in the nuclear industry, but this raises the question – would it be worth establishing an equivalent body to oversee activities within the public and private sectors to ensure they are coordinated and aligned with the vision set for the nuclear sector? 

Early regulatory engagement in technology development is also favourable to decrease the uncertainty associated with regulatory approval. The regulator has to maintain its independence; however, an effective state-sponsored engagement framework would maintain this independence and allow the industry to gain valuable input at the early stages of technology demonstration projects.  

These underlying conditions would suggest that there are significant opportunities within the UK nuclear industry to apply the successful approach used in the US space sector. 

Following high-profile accidents in the nuclear and space industries, we’re facing comparable challenges: reduced public funding; increased oversight; high costs and programmatic risks associated with the deployment of nuclear power plants/space missions; and technical stagnation. 

Push the boundaries

These challenges have created similar problems for each sector in trying to deliver technological development and sustainable commercialisation. The national strategic importance of the space industry led to reforms within the public and private sectors. A burst of activity and success followed, reigniting interest in space exploration from the young demographic and experienced professionals. 

Likewise, energy security and the apparent urgency to tackle climate change allow the UK nuclear industry to position itself as the sector that would support the rapid transition to low-carbon energy through domestic capabilities. With such an imperative, an enabling context and the right public-private engagement framework, the private sector would be better placed to deliver ‘faster, better, cheaper’ nuclear power. 

To borrow the words of President Barack Obama as he addressed NASA in 2010, “This is the next chapter that we can write together with industry… we will invest in cutting-edge research and technology. We will set far-reaching milestones and provide the resources to reach those milestones. And, step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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