Note: The initial version of this post was written based on an incorrect interpretation of the Roman numeral date stamp at the end of the video. The film was made in 1963, not 1968. The post was revised after a commenter provided the correct production date. End note.
I have a theory about why the Environmental Movement transitioned from a 1950s and early 1960s position favoring nuclear energy as an alternative to burning hydrocarbons and building hydroelectric dams to an almost universally antinuclear position before the Arab Oil Embargo of October 1973. The below video illustrates some of the hope and visions developed during The Atomic Age.
I believe that some people who saw the video or were exposed to its themes in other venues recognized that their positions of wealth and power were threatened by rapidly improving atomic energy innovations.
Some might have been especially worried about inventions designed to solve military logistical challenges, knowing that machines refined by the military often find useful civilian applications. Hugely profitable markets would shrink dramatically if atomic energy lived up to its technical promise. Hydrocarbon industry leaders knew they would not have much success convincing people to abandon nuclear energy in order to enable wealthy interests to keep making profits by selling fossil fuels, so they undertook a more devious propaganda effort.
I believe they decided to obtain assistance from the increasingly popular Environmental Movement.
For example, in the early 1960s, the Sierra Club sustained a campaign known as “Atoms, Not Dams.” Their message was that nuclear power plants did not produce air pollution and did not require filling scenic, wildlife-filled valleys with with water.
As the 60s progressed the Club experienced a lengthy period of infighting about its support of — or opposition to — various energy sources. The board also struggled with decisions about the role of corporate contributions. By 1973 or 1974, the Sierra Club had settled on a strongly antinuclear energy position.
The discussions didn’t move fast enough for David Brower, a prominent Sierra Club leader. In 1969, he left the Club and used an initial investment of $200 K from Robert Anderson, the CEO of ARCO, to create Friends of the Earth (FOE) as a more militant antinuclear group.
My guess is that it was not hard to convince professional activists to turn their efforts to fighting nuclear energy. The persuasion was made easier by the close associations between nuclear energy and the military, even when the specific use of nuclear energy under discussion was reducing the logistical burdens of supplying electrical or motive power, not producing enormously destructive weapons.
The optimistically futuristic video about portable atomic generators included above was produced by the U.S. Army, an agency with a poor reputation among antiwar activists. The leaders of the antiwar movement gained useful experience as professional organizers and movement creators; they were so successful in attracting political support for ending the war that the U.S. left Vietnam in 1973.
Their animosity towards the military provided a means for far-sighted hydrocarbon strategists like Anderson to subtlety direct them and their organizations to actions aimed at slowing the development of atomic energy as a formidable alternative to their lucrative hydrocarbon economy.
Just imagine how different our world might be if the star of the above show, the Army’s ML-1, a truck-mounted 300-500 kwe nuclear heated, direct cycle, nitrogen cooled generator had been deployed, refined and improved during the five decades that have elapsed since it was first built and tested.
Many of you know that I spent a couple of decades working on an improvement to the basic concept of the ML-1 that I immodestly named the Adams Engine.
That effort was inspired by some dusty documents about the ML-1 and related projects that I discovered in the bowels of the Nimitz Library at the US Naval Academy in 1991.
The discovery happened soon after I had completed a tour as the Engineer Officer of a nuclear submarine that used a traditional pressurized water reactor/saturated steam system.
Though a series of influences, I became intrigued by the potential of combining an atomic fission heat source with a Brayton Cycle gas turbine using the same operating conditions as found in combustion gas turbines.
Some of the inspiration for that idea was born on frequent runs from Monterey to Pacific Grove with Mike LeFever while we were both students at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School between 1985-1987, just before my Engineer tour. Mike and I engaged in good natured chatter during those runs. He had been the Chief Engineer on a gas turbine powered destroyer; I had just completed a junior officer tour on the USS Stonewall Jackson and was completely enamored with the capabilities nuclear energy provides.
Mike was just as enthusiastic about his experiences with gas turbines and convinced me that they were well suited for lazy, work-averse people like me when compared to a steam plant. The operational simplicity and ease of maintenance were music to my ears. The attraction of those features of gas turbines was especially clear after my 40-month tour as the Engineer on a 25-28 year old sub.
When I was assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy for shore duty, I took advantage of the opportunity to audit some higher level engineering classes focused on energy production. It’s not a frequently-seized benefit, but staff members are allowed to take classes as long as there are seats available.
Before the fall semester began, I met with Professor Mark Harper and explained that I wanted to take his energy conversion course seriously, completing all of the homework and paper assignments. With that entering commitment, he welcomed me into the class. The final project for the class was a paper on a chosen energy system.
My research began with entering the following Boolean search — “Nuclear AND gas turbine” into the computerized card catalog that the Nimitz Library had recently installed. The search produced a number of hits and fundamentally altered my life’s journey. I audited two 400 level alternative energy engineering courses taught by Dr. Chih Wu and then completed an independent research project [p. 29] that resulted in a published paper.
By early 1993 I had completed the work necessary to submit a patent application for the control system for a closed cycle gas turbine. Without accepting advice from others, I decided that I would resign my active duty commission, move my young family to Florida, start Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. and take the energy industry by storm.
It was a very rash and poorly laid out plan. My excuse is that I was young and possibly hypnotized by stories from Fast Company and the booming dot com era.
AAE Inc. didn’t work out as planned, though the control system patent was awarded in May 1994, even more promptly than expected. However, there were more than a few rocks in the road; we made some rather large detours as a family; my resulting career path included some unique features but the overall results of the subsequent decisions have turned out reasonably well.
My children and my wife still seem to like me and have forgiven — if not forgotten — the tough times. I don’t think I’ve lost too many friends; even those who lost the money they invested still take and return my phone calls.
All that history came flashing back a month or so ago when I came across the above video starring the ML-1.
Despite my dedicated research efforts, I had never seen it before. Somehow, the scenes of the ML-1 system in motion and being loaded onto a cargo plane made the lost opportunities seem much more real.
I remain convinced that the fission gas turbine is an attractive way to use an emission free, compact, low priced fuel with a simple power conversion system. The combination should result in zero emissions, long refueling intervals, passive safety, moderate capital costs, extreme simplicity, compact size and reasonable system weight.
Whenever people tell me that atomic fission is too expensive and slow to consider as a solution for big challenges like climate change, potable water scarcity, transportation dependence on liquid fuels, or international interventions aimed at protecting multinational petroleum corporations, I think about the little atomic engine that could address all of those issues if manufactured in series and distributed around the world.
One more thing – my patent on the control system has lapsed and entered the public domain about a decade ago. There is nothing stopping others from picking up the development. A couple of people have suggested that one explanation for a lack of interest is the fact that there is not much about the system that can be patented and monopolized.