Putting excitement back into nuclear technology development

Josh Freed, Third Way‘s clean energy vice president, has published a thoughtful, graphically enticing Brookings Essay titled Back to the Future: Advanced Nuclear Energy and the Battle Against Climate Change. It focuses on Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie of Transatomic Power, but it also makes it abundantly clear that those two visionary entrepreneurs are examples of a growing wave of people that are excited about developing nuclear energy technology that can allow modern society to continue prospering AND improve the environment’s ability to sustain all living creatures, including humans.

As the Ford commercials say “AND is better.”

The primary idea in Freed’s piece is that there is a revival growing in nuclear energy technology development because people like Dewan and Massie (along with other entrepreneurs and thinkers like Kirk Sorensen (Flibe Energy), David LeBlanc (Terrestrial Energy), Kevan Weaver (TerraPower), Jose Reyes (NuScale), Jacob DeWitte (UPower), and Jeff Halfinger (B&W mPower)) have recognized that it is a technology that can provide both abundant, reliable power AND ultra low emissions to enable a successful fight against climate change.

The below video is part of Freed’s essay, and well worth viewing as a stand-alone example of the kind of communications products that nuclear energy visionaries need to produce and distribute as widely as possible.

Aside: The segment from 1:34 to 2:00 is inaccurate and disingenuous. I have asked the creators to make a revision. End Aside.

I have a couple of quibbles with Freed’s summary of nuclear history. For example, the following statement made me chuckle just a little bit.

And because Rickover also oversaw the development of the Shippingport reactor, the light water reactor design quickly became the standard, triumphing over the designs of ‘50s-era engineers like Alvin Weinberg, the director of research at Oak Ridge, who had been developing a molten salt thorium reactor.

Apparently, his research didn’t illuminate the fact that Alvin Weinberg invented the light water reactor and introduced that design to CAPT Rickover and his team when they were studying at Oak Ridge the year after WWII ended. The molten salt idea came a few years later as a result of trying to devise a technology that could be even more compact and power dense so that it could fit inside an aircraft. (See Bob Hargraves excellent history titled Alvin Weinberg’s liquid fuel reactors.

I also think that Freed glosses over the root cause reason that the United States has abandoned its leadership role in nuclear energy and has not yet decided to make the investments required to regain our former role. He alludes to it in the following section heading “This country, which was awash in cheap and plentiful coal, simply wasn’t going to build more nuclear plants if it didn’t have to.” He also mentions the role that the fracking-enabled natural gas boom has played in slowing the promised Nuclear Renaissance that was often discussed in the years leading up to the Great Recession, a period in which natural gas prices rose by a factor of 6 over their early 2000s lows.

My interpretation of the history is that America has too many people that would prefer to sell coal, oil and natural gas than to allow nuclear energy to flourish and take over markets that they view as “theirs.” Whenever nuclear seems poised to expand at a reasonable rate, the competitors do what they can — including using price wars and exaggerated responses to otherwise acceptable industrial events — to hamstring that growth.

I’m a devoted fan of nuclear innovators like Dewan, Massie, Sorensen, Reyes and all of the others who are seeking ways to improve on fission-based machinery.

I wouldn’t be human if I was not also just a little jealous of the fact that the environment of 2014 seems to be a bit more welcoming to atomic innovation than the environment that Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. faced when it was founded in 1993.

My self-assigned role in the new Atomic Age is to cheerlead, provide the grey-bearded view, and give some advice to the next generation. One of the most important things I can do is to help them to understand their opposition and devise ways to use the strength of that opposition as a lever for success.

Atomic Show #229 – Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, Transatomic Power

On December 1, 2014, I talked with Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, the co-founders of Transatomic Power, a tiny nuclear reactor design company started up less than 3 years ago. Several weeks ago, I published an article here titled Transatomic Power – Anatomy of Next. That article, as expected, generated a healthy discussion thread. At […]

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Transatomic Power – Anatomy of Next

Dr. Leslie Dewan is a co-founder and the CEO of Transatomic Power, a venture capital-funded start-up based on research conducted at MIT. Along with Mark Massie, the other co-founder, Dewan is exploring a design that uses a molten salt fuel that enables materials currently classified as “nuclear waste” to provide the heat source for a […]

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Tour of NuScale control room and test facility

Jose Rod Test Facility

Disclosure: I have a small contract to provide NuScale with advice and energy market information. That work represents less than 5% of my income for 2014. On October 20, 2014, I had the opportunity to visit NuScale’s facilities in Corvallis, OR. Though the company now has offices in three cities, Corvallis, the home of Oregon […]

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UAMPS stepping forward to serve customers

The established nuclear energy industry has taken a wait-and-see approach to the idea of developing and deploying smaller, simpler fission power stations that can take advantage of the economy of series production. The industry’s trade organization, the Nuclear Energy Institute, has expressed cautious optimism and has engaged in a moderate effort to identify regulatory obstacles […]

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Prospective customers lining up at NuScale

Each orange circle represents a potential NuScale power plant

A few days ago, Dan Yurman at Neutron Bytes published a blog post that is now titled Flash: NuScale executive says firm may build SMRs at Idaho lab. It was a follow-up to an earlier post in which Dan speculated about the Idaho National Lab’s potential as a good site for a new nuclear power […]

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Terrestrial Energy – Molten Salt Reactor Designed to Be Commercial Success

There is a growing roster of innovative organizations populated by people who recognize that nuclear technology is still in its infancy. Terrestrial Energy is one of the most promising of those organization because of its combination of problem solving technology, visionary leadership, and strong focus on meeting commercial needs. Nearly all of the commercial nuclear […]

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Nuclear-Powered Trans-Ocean Shipping – 3rd place in New York Advanced Energy contest

I received an update from Benjamin Haas, the SUNY Maritime student who has been working on nuclear powered ship designs from a complete systems perspective for the past three semesters. He and his team have not just focused on the technical aspects of designing a power plant and a ship that could take full advantage […]

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Can nuclear energy save Detroit?

Update: (August 2, 2013) – American Atomics is now claiming that there is no site in Detroit that is large enough to house the infrastructure that they are planning to build. Here is a link to their post. http://safereactor.org/post/57104636966/no-room-in-detroit It is a pretty incredible claim for a company that currently has no facilities. Supposedly the […]

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Dieter Helm – Nuclear saga cannot go on (Leaders must push to a happy ending)

Dieter Helm has generously shared an April 2013 article written for Prospect Magazine titled Stumbling towards crisis. In that article Helm points to US energy decision making as a good example that serves as a contrast to UK energy policy making. He sees chosen path in the UK as almost guaranteeing a crisis. In his […]

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Is an employee buyout a win-win-win solution for Kewaunee Nuclear Power Station?

Dominion’s October 2012 announcement that it is closing the Kewaunee Nuclear Power Plant took the nuclear industry by almost complete surprise. My friends who write about nuclear topics on a regular basis had no clue about the possibility before it was announced. None of the contacts that I have developed over the past few decades […]

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