I keep close tabs on developments in small nuclear reactors, so I was intrigued this morning to notice that many returns in a news search with that phrase kept turning up obituaries for Bob Guccione, the founder and long time publisher of Penthouse Magazine. Here is a quote from the New York Times version:
The dissolution of the Guccione empire took years. A $200 million Penthouse casino in Atlantic City never materialized, and he lost much of his investment. A $17.5 million movie containing hard-core sex scenes and graphic violence, “Caligula,” was shunned by distributors, and Mr. Guccione lost heavily. He once hired 82 scientists to develop a small nuclear reactor as a low-cost energy source, but it came to nothing and cost $17 million.
One of the people that I follow on Twitter (@plutoniumpage) also noticed that comment and tweeted
Things you didn’t know about porn moguls: “He once hired 82 scientists to develop a small nuclear reactor…” http://nyti.ms/bTpHes
I have spent quite a bit of time in front of investors trying to persuade them that small nuclear reactors are a promising technology worth supporting; I had to find out more. What I could have done with an initial injection of $17 million . . .
It took just a few tries to find an excellent source of the rest of the story. Guccione was a fusion fan who was convinced that Robert Bussard was on to something that could be developed if only it could attract a sufficient level of funding.
In March 1980, Guccione formed a partnership with Bussard and turned over, as he recalled later, some $400,000 in startup funds. Engineers, computer programmers, and metallurgists were hired, and Inesco set up a new shop in La Jolla, California, with eighty-five employees. Over the next four years, as design work progressed and the search for investors continued, Guccione poured in $16 million or $17 million, by his accounting. Predictably, the Inesco scientists who attended international meetings endured considerable ribbing about working for one of the most successful purveyors of adult magazines in the world. Physicists and pinups seemed so hilariously incongruous.
Guccione was a true believer in fusion, but he was also a sophisticated investor with a decent sense of marketing; he recognized that the Bussard led developments would be a continued drain on his resources if he did not get some additional investors excited enough to jump into a public offering. Part of his marketing effort – in addition to sending his engineers and scientists to international meetings – included a wry sense of humor and skilled branding.
To oversee Penthouse’s interest in Inesco, the publisher created a subsidiary, which he dubbed Penthouse Energy and Technology Systems, thus creating the acronym PETS. It was a conscious reference to Penthouse’s nude centerfold, “Pet of the Month,” and a way for Guccione to acknowledge the uninhibited women who in truth, were creating the profits to finance fusion research.
Even Guccione and his PETS money, however, could not convince other investors to commit themselves to fusion. Inesco’s project was just too speculative. Guccione said he also grew to suspect that the nuclear power industry, the fission plant owners, were putting pressure on Washington to ignore projects like Inesco’s, which threatened to replace fission power. Guccione had no direct evidence of this, but it was a theme commonly sounded by frustrated fusion researchers.
In 1984, an attempt to take Inesco public flopped after the underwriter failed to sell the last 400,000 shares. Bussard’s dream and Guccione’s gamble were crushed.
It is interesting to hear that fusion researchers would blame fission supporters – after all, oil, coal and gas suppliers control 90% of the world’s energy market. Fusion has received far more of DOE’s R&D money than fission; that is probably because it is no threat to the politically powerful coal, oil and gas industry. Fusion will not begin taking any markets away from the established fossil fuel suppliers until everyone currently in those industries is long dead.
Bussard was still looking for money in interesting California locations as late as November 2006 when he gave a tech talk at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. He also successfully pitched my former employer and convinced a key decision maker that polywell fusion was something real enough for continued support. That effort did not result in any real progress towards the fusion dream either. Dr. Bussard passed away in October 2007, but there are still fusion visionaries out there happily spending money from whatever sources they can seduce.