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.

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