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John Hopkins isn't one to shy away from a challenge.
Hopkins arrived at NuScale Power at a pivotal moment in the company’s history. Only months removed from some investment-related turbulence and recently acquired by an outside company, NuScale — then a team of about 30 scientists and engineers — needed a leader with a steady hand and tremendous business savvy. It needed someone who could help put the company’s innovative nuclear reactor technology on a clear path to commercialization.
Four years later, 650 NuScale engineers are now moving briskly down the path that Hopkins laid out, and under the chairman’s and CEO’s leadership, the Oregon-based company has emerged as the world leader in small nuclear reactor technology.
Now Hopkins steps into a new role — chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — at a no less critical juncture in Washington, D.C.
Businesses and the free enterprise system are under assault in the nation’s capital and out on the campaign trail, Washington’s regulatory engine has been kicked into overdrive, and the American economy continues to sputter. Yet Hopkins is optimistic.
“I know politics can be divisive, but I think business brings people together,” Hopkins says. “I usually find that when you bring businesses together and get them working toward solutions, it can alleviate a lot of problems on the political front.”
Dale Atkinson, NuScale’s chief operating officer and chief nuclear officer, says that he is confident Hopkins will excel in his new role, particularly when it comes to building those connections.
“The guy’s gregarious, and he’s got this big smile, so people warm up to him very quickly and feel like they can engage easily with him,” Atkinson says. “And then you get to talking, and you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy has been around awhile and really knows what he’s talking about.’ He has an uncanny ability to make complicated business issues and government issues easy to understand.”
From Main Street to Multinationals
A native of Austin, Texas, Hopkins earned a business degree just down the road at the University of Texas. After college he took on a NATO assignment for nearly three years in Turkey before returning to the Lone Star State to work for Conoco in Houston. There he met an entrepreneur running an upstart environmental cleanup business.
“We got to chatting, and it became clear he was looking for someone who could help him expand to new markets,” Hopkins recalls. “I thought, ‘Now this sounds like an adventure.’”
Hopkins made the leap. He was initially handed some overhead capital and sent to San Francisco to start and build the company’s West Coast outpost from scratch. The company, SOS International, then sent him to Phoenix and next to New York City.
“I really liked doing the startups and running those small businesses,” he says.
It became clear that further expansion would require additional resources. Hopkins facilitated the eventual purchase of SOS International in 1989 by Fluor Corporation, a global engineering construction company based in Irving, Texas, specializing in energy and infrastructure.
Soon he found himself transitioning to lead Fluor’s commodity chemical business and quickly ascended to a corporate officer role. His portfolio expanded to include global sales, corporate affairs, government relations, and mergers and acquisitions. There was little Hopkins didn’t have a hand in.
Under his leadership, Fluor’s contracting portfolio ballooned as the company started doing more work for the Defense and Energy departments. With his eyes on the future, Hopkins started and led an ambitious program in the company called New Ventures and Emerging Markets.
“We were watching the emergence of renewables, biomass … there was just a lot happening that wasn’t necessarily in our wheelhouse at the time,” he says. “So we set up this small internal organization to look across industries and businesses and identify what Fluor’s role should be in the future and what technologies we should be looking at.”
That’s when Hopkins came across NuScale.
New Ventures and New Opportunities
More than a decade earlier, scientists at Oregon State University and the Idaho National Laboratory had set out to redesign a nuclear reactor that was smaller, safer, and more effective than the ones in use at the time. Equipped with grant funding from the Department of Energy, they started from the ground up, looking not to make minor or incremental improvements to existing reactors but to rethink how nuclear power sources were designed.
After a series of breakthroughs, scientists involved with the research patented some underlying technology in 2007 and started a venture called NuScale. Oregon State received a small stake in the venture. The research continued, and by 2011 the company had raised approximately $35 million and had roughly 100 employees working across the Northwest.
What they had developed was unprecedentedly safe, self-contained nuclear power units (called small modular reactors) based on what’s known as light water reactor technology. One NuScale unit is about 70 feet long and 15 feet in diameter; for context, about 126 of NuScale’s reactors could be squeezed inside one of today’s typical nuclear power plants. Each unit operates individually and pumps out 50 megawatts of electricity – particularly ideal for remote locations.
Because of the way the reactors are designed, they do not require outside water, outside AC or DC power, or outside intervention from a human operator to cool down or even shut down completely if necessary — an improvement that vastly reduces the risk of accidents. Instead, NuScale’s reactors harness the natural forces of gravity, convection, and conduction to handle normal cool-down operations and, in case of an emergency, total shutdown.
NuScale became the first to enter the small modular reactor market, and in 2008 the company began the preapplication process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). But in January 2011, one of the firm’s largest investors had its assets frozen, cutting off NuScale’s flow of funds at a crucial moment.
That’s when Hopkins stumbled upon the company and began pitching it as an acquisition target. By October, a deal had been reached.
“This wasn’t about quick returns. It was about asking Fluor’s senior leaders and board members to look 15 or 20 years down the road and make a bet on our future,” Hopkins says. “That was my pitch.”
It was clear that NuScale — which was still mostly composed of scientists and engineers — needed a leader with private sector experience and business know-how who could chart a course to commercialization. Hopkins volunteered for the challenge.
He took over as NuScale’s chairman and CEO shortly after the acquisition, and in two years’ time he had helped the company secure $217 million in funding over five years from the Department of Energy (which called for some additional cost-sharing investments from Fluor) to accelerate NuScale’s path to market. Today, the firm is working through the NRC’s extensive licensing and approval processes, with testing taking place in the United States, Germany, Italy, and Canada. NuScale remains the only company to receive funding support from the U.S. government to advance its small modular reactor technology.
Atkinson pegs much of the company’s success to Hopkins’ unwavering leadership and business smarts.
“John brought a business focus to NuScale that, frankly, it really needed at the time,” says Atkinson. “He’s such an outside-the-box thinker and seems to know everybody, so he’s able to make connections and get conversations moving very quickly when challenges arise.”
NuScale also landed its first customer. A conglomerate of utilities in Utah agreed to purchase what Hopkins refers to as a standard NuScale “12-pack" — that is, a 12-unit, 600-MWe batch of reactors. Under the agreement, the units must be ready for installation by 2024.
A Chairman Up for the Challenge
Hopkins’ relationship with the U.S. Chamber dates back to his time with Fluor when he led the company’s government relations efforts and worked with business advocacy groups and trade associations.
“At that time, I thought of the Chamber as just another business organization,” Hopkins says. “Frankly, it took me a while to really understand the Chamber’s enormous importance and the scope, size, and breadth of its work, particularly internationally.”
He joined the Chamber’s board a little more than a decade ago. Shortly afterward, he was invited by Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue to attend a White House meeting. It was at that meeting that the Chamber’s unparalleled resources and access started to come into focus, he says.
“There were maybe five of us, and we simply walked over there and had a roundtable conversation with President Bush and Vice President Cheney at the White House,” Hopkins says. “That’s the kind of access the Chamber brings to the table.”
It’s not merely access that Hopkins has come to value at the Chamber.
“Over the years it has become clear that the depth of resources and the quality of the people are just amazing,” Hopkins says. “I call it the ‘shadow of the leader’ effect. People like to emulate their leader, and when you have somebody like Tom Donohue, who is out there making it happen 24/7, you can see the passion. It transcends throughout the organization.”
Hopkins steps into the role of chairman at a time when his unwavering passion to make things happen is needed more than ever.
Fortunately, Hopkins is itching to get started.
“I have a fire in my belly about this stuff and believe we can get things done,” Hopkins says. “I’m passionate about the work the Chamber is doing.”
Among the issues Hopkins wants to prioritize in the coming year is the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation deal that would vastly expand American businesses’ access to Asian markets and help reduce the cost of goods for U.S. consumers.
This won’t be new territory for Hopkins. Upon his election as the Chamber’s vice chairman last year, Donohue commented, “John has done a great job of promoting international trade and helping open up new global markets for companies and investors.”
In addition, Hopkins plans to push for more support for our country’s energy producers, including those advancing nuclear technology. He notes that investing in and reducing legal and regulatory barriers for America’s energy sector will lead to more reliable and affordable energy for American businesses and consumers while decreasing dependence on foreign sources.
Hopkins says that he aspires to be an even more vocal advocate for the entire American business community, reminding those inside the Beltway and across the country that innovators, entrepreneurs, and private companies can and must be a big part of the solution to the many daunting challenges we face.
“When I meet with friends and business leaders from around the country or around the world and we start talking about what’s important, it’s all the same things. We’re thinking about the health and safety of our families,” Hopkins says. “No matter where I go, businesspeople want to grow their businesses, want to be good corporate citizens, and want to support the countries they represent.”