An increasing number of major corporations and famous individual investors have announced plans to make their money work harder to address environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.
These plans are not about philanthropic giving. The individuals and organizations believe that careful targeting of their money can produce both financial and social returns.
By investing in companies and entrepreneurs seeking to address and solve real problems, their returns can be made more durable and predictable than if they simply follow fads or back the latest bright and shiny phone ap.
With few exceptions, however, impact investors – the generally applicable term for people who invest their money in ways designed to improve multiple bottom lines – have avoided atomic fission.
While everyone knows that Bill Gates started investing a portion of his immense income stream into TerraPower more than a decade ago, most of the fission developers I know have been struggling mightily to find sufficient backing to rapidly develop and deploy their products.
It’s time to change the paradigm and work to reverse the effects of 60+ years of negative propaganda.
Entities that sincerely want to ensure a healthy environment must be reminded that atomic fission works well. Since 1956, fission has been producing reliable electricity without any associated air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions.
It uses fuel materials that are abundant and rarely used by other industries.
If impact investors want to put their money to work and have an immediate positive impact on the world’s energy supply and its greenhouse gas emissions profile, they don’t have to wait for the technology to be developed.
Currently operating plants produce vast quantities of electricity without pollution every day. Some of them are economically challenged, but could be improved and “fixed up” if more investment dollars were available.
Fission has a bright future
Some investors have shied away from atomic fission opportunities because they have been convinced that fission is obsolete. Maybe they think fusion is the future.
Meanwhile, there are some bright fission folks who have been diligently working to remove barriers and straighten the paths towards successful new fission ventures.
A formerly firm assertion was that it takes 10-20 years and a billion or more dollars to develop a new fission power system, obtain permission and complete construction on the first unit. One of the more lengthy and indeterminate parts of that process was the regulatory process.
But within the next few weeks, Oklo, a small start-up company that was founded less than 5 years ago, will submit an application to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The expected review time for that application is approximately 2 years.
This extraordinary development is the result of quiet, diligent, intelligent effort to peel off layers of bureaucratic habit and return to fundamental principles of ensuring safe and reliable system operation.
Oklo founders chose not to follow the frequently offered advice to go to China if they wanted permission and support for their product. Instead, they chose to help the US NRC polish its “gold standard” and develop a reasonable, repeatable process for reviewing and approving refined technology.
Oklo isn’t alone as a nuclear system developer. The trail it has blazed so far will be followed by an uncounted number of additional developers who have designed their systems with the factual knowledge and systematic understanding that has been accumulated during 70 years worth of fission system invention, development and operating success.
Waste isn’t as unsolved as we’ve been taught
Everyone – including investors – has been taught to worry about fission waste and told that “no one” knows what to do with the material. We’ve been taught that the material will be hazardous for longer than the accumulated experience of human history.
But the reality is that used nuclear materials are carefully stored and isolated from the environment. After a period of cooling in a deep tank of water, used materials are placed into dry storage containers. Experience and detailed engineering reviews have convinced regulators that the dry storage systems will provide adequate protection of the public and the environment for a century or more.
Fission technology has been used in more than 1000 power systems –including naval vessels. Operations began in 1953. No one has ever been harmed by exposure to improperly handled used materials left over from power plant operations.
That safety record is extraordinary, and it’s reproducible. It comes from understanding the nature of the material and using simple methods to protect people and the environment.
A number of companies produce reliable storage systems today. Several of them are nearing completion of application reviews for sites that will allow them to consolidate the material from a number of power plant sites. Those sites will keep the dry storage systems on or near the earth’s surface where they can be monitored, repaired or replaced as needed.
Taking advantage of developments in other fields
Several companies, including Deep Isolation, are working on ways to achieve deep geologic material disposal without the controversy and cost of building a single centralized repository for each country.
They’re using one of America’s most well proven core competencies. We have an industrial sector that has drilled well over a million holes into the ground. Some of the most sophisticated can aim bits into selected geologic layers that are only a few feet thick through more than 10,000 feet of rock and sand.
For current purposes, the drilling industry chooses layers with high potential for holding natural gas and oil, but they can just as readily choose layers that have no such potential and have been stable for hundreds of millions of years.
A commonly understood trait of existing US nuclear plants is the fact that their control rooms are filled with analog equipment that most other industries replaced decades ago. After many years worth of effort, there are finally some indications that nuclear fission power plants are entering the digital era.
Reluctance to dump analog equipment has had its advantages. Unlike so many other industries, nuclear is relatively isolated from network vulnerabilities. Though there have been some well-publicized efforts to infiltrate some of the limited connected systems at nuclear plants, those attacks have never posed a significant risk to plant safety or reliability. Air gaps offer solid protection.
But traditional analog devices have real disadvantages as well. Innovative, creative thinkers who are knowledgeable about atomic fission and power plant needs have developed hardware hybrids that combine features of analog and digital components.
Details are beyond the scope of this article, but some of the systems now being introduced offer vast potential for reducing the effort required to maintain old systems. They also offer the potential for efficiently converting the isolated measurements formerly recorded by manual log keeping into useful data that can be quickly processed to provide insights for maintenance and operations.
Fission can directly replace combustion
Unlike many of the more popular and publicized alternatives to fossil fuel combustion, atomic fission is a source of controlled heat. That means that it can often do the same jobs that fossil fuel has always done.
In many cases, it’s possible to replace just the fossil fuel-burning heat sources in a system with a fission based heat source. Major portions of existing industrial infrastructure can thus continue operating, but without producing the harmful emissions that come from burning mined hydrocarbons.
Ocean transportation is one of the most polluting sectors of our current economy. It is responsible for approximately 6% of global carbon dioxide emissions and a much greater share of sulfur dioxide emissions. That’s because it has been allowed to burn the cheapest, dirtiest, bottom-of-the-barrel products. Out of sight, out of mind.
Nuclear fission has been powering reliable naval vessels since 1955, but most of the trial and demonstration programs to use fission in commercial ships were abandoned by the early 1970s when oil cost less than $5 per barrel.
Those demonstration programs were not technical or even economic failures; there simply did not develop the momentum required to overcome focused opposition from competitive fuel suppliers.
Even though ocean shippers have good reasons to be skeptical and slow to adopt unproven technology, there are well-proven and fully tested ship propulsion systems that could be introduced into the commercial shipping market. Impact investors could help develop the political decision process to enable this environmentally beneficial product to be marketed.
If you are concerned, take action
Most impact investors would put themselves into the concerned category. They know there are challenges in the world. They know that human activities harm the environment and that some human activities pose a significant future threat.
They also know that money has power and that a lot of money moving in similar directions can have a lot of power. When the monetary flows are directed with purpose by people who really want to make a difference that power can do a lot of good.
Fission is a powerful force. It can do almost unimaginable good when properly influenced and directed. Let’s make an impact. It helps when we use the best available tools.