“Back to the Future, Generation IV”

In the movie trilogy ‘Back to the Future’, Marty McFly travels back to November 5, 1955, the day ‘Doc’ Brown had invented the flux capacitor used in the modified DeLorean powered by plutonium, a nuclear fuel. That was just a movie, but in the real world we also have to go back in time to understand the energy of the future.

Back in the 1940’s, the early nuclear researchers were all housed in government laboratory communes at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, at the Idaho National Lab in the high desert of eastern Idaho, at Argonne in Chicago, and Los Alamos in New Mexico. Across the country, the nation’s top chemist, physicists, metallurgists, mathematicians, and various engineers worked together in an atmosphere of feverish excitement. The government supported them with the freedom to explore the furthest boundaries of their burgeoning new technology field. While locked in what they thought of as a life-or-death race with the Soviet Union, they aimed to be first in every aspect of scientific inquiry, especially those that involved atom splitting. Then the active cold war with USSR ended in the late 1980’s and without that perceived threat, federal research money just dried up which affected the entire nuclear industry’s intellectual research base for the next thirty years, as well as advanced reactor designs.

Recently, a flood of young engineers has entered the nuclear technology field. More than 1,164 nuclear engineering degrees were awarded in 2013—a 160 percent increase over the number granted a decade ago. What happened to cause this influx? The general fear of nuclear has transitioned to the general fear of man-made climate change. Many hard core environmentalists are now having second thoughts about nuclear power because they believe it will play a vital roll in controlling a climate change disaster. Remember in the last article I wrote that nuclear fuel is one million times more energy dense than fossil fuels without the CO2.

Today’s new engineers actually went back to the past to find the next generation of nuclear reactor designs (GenIV). The molten salt (liquid) design was one of those designs and it wasn’t just theoretical because Oak Ridge National Labs had actually built a real demonstrable reactor, which ran from 1965-1969, racking up 20,000 operating hours without a hitch. This reactor was so safe it actually had an on/off switch that was used when everyone went home for the week-end. The reactor would immediately shut down and would start back up on Monday when someone flipped the switch back on. There is no such thing as a melt down with a liquid reactor.

Several new startup nuclear engineering companies have emerged in recent years here in the US and Canada, each with its own advanced reactor design. This new generation of pioneers is working with the same sense of mission and urgency that animated the discipline of the original founders of nuclear technology and their mission is to curb climate change with sustainable clean energy. All of the new blood, new ideas, and new money are having a real effect. In the last several years, an industry that had been declining in the US has become dynamic again, once more charged with a feeling of boundless possibility and optimism.

However, the government funding and support enjoyed by those early pioneers has all but disappeared. It will be very difficult to develop the advanced liquid thorium reactors with just Silicon Valley VC-scale funding. There has to be a substantial government involvement in nuclear reactor research and development or the US will be buying/leasing future reactors from exporters like China, Russia, Japan or South Korea. What will our future be?

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