Redeeming the Atom

At age 14, Taylor Wilson became the youngest person ever to build a working fusion reactor. Since then he has inked a book deal, spoken at TED, and seen movie rights to his story get bought up by a major…

At age 14, Taylor Wilson became the youngest person ever to build a working fusion reactor. Since then he has inked a book deal, spoken at TED, and seen movie rights to his story get bought up by a major studio. Now 19, his work continues in pursuit of advances in nuclear technology

The second half of the 20th Century was coined the Atomic Age, in acknowledgment of how, for better or worse, the ability to manipulate the atom fundamentally changed the course of history. Most would argue that the 1950s and 60s were the height of the fervor and excitement surrounding peaceful applications of atomic energy. It was a time when this newfound power could do anything, raising the possibility of incredible destruction and incredible progress. In contrast to the hype, what happened over the following decades was not radical innovation and application of new nuclear technologies, but rather small incremental improvements to existing designs.
I have long argued that nuclear physics is simply a morally neutral, fundamental property of nature, and that nuclear technology can be a powerful tool if wielded properly. Much like our advances in computing, we are left with nothing more than a tool, albeit, in the case of nuclear energy, one that is intrinsically more powerful than any other. As with any other tool, we can either choose to use it for good or malice, responsibly or recklessly. While our brief adolescence with the technology has been clouded under the shadow of nuclear war, there may well be a redemption for nuclear energy in the future. Human conflict has long been driven by scarcity of resources, a challenge nuclear power is poised to meet like no other technology, and I truly believe that, properly implemented, we have the possibility of using this technology to secure the greatest period of peace we have ever enjoyed as a species.
In sitting down to evaluate the future of nuclear power, however, many uncomfortable truths soon became evident. While the benefits of an energy-dense, baseload power source amid a global race to eliminate carbon emissions are obvious, nuclear power is being weakened in the face of a boom in hydraulically fractured shale gas reserves and the plummeting cost of renewable installations. The intensive post-Fukushima regulatory environment and the large installed capacity of new nuclear projects utilizing designs such as the AP1000 mean few utilities can stomach the price tag, even with large government loan guarantees. Nevertheless, more than any of these issues, what sticks out to me as a singular challenge for the industry is the basic technology at the core of today’s nuclear utilities.
While admittedly we are generations ahead of those early pioneers in nuclear energy, and the marginal improvements are uncountable, today’s PWRs and BWRs are the same basic technology we originally tapped to bring nuclear power onto the grid in the 1950s. While the industry has had an enviable safety record, and exposing its weaknesses requires exceptionally unlikely cascading failures, the technology at work today does have its intrinsic flaws.
So much of the cost of nuclear power comes from the fact we have to regulate using the concept of defense in depth. While incredibly rare, there is always the possibility of core damage in the event of loss of offsite power or a large break LOCA. Fukushima demonstrated what hazards lie in the catalytic tendency of zircalloy cladding to produce explosive chemical potentials at elevated core temperatures. Because of these fundamental issues in implementation, we’re forced to ensure multiple redundant systems are in place to prevent damage and the release of radioactivity.
But what if we could adopt a technology that relied less on defense in depth by using a reactor that is not only passively safe, but intrinsically safe? What if we could have a nuclear power plant that runs more like a giant battery? What if we could develop a technology with strong negative coefficients and tightly limited reactivity, then eliminate every chemical or hydraulic inclination for radiological materials to leave the primary system of the reactor and turn up the heat of the neutrons so that along with an incredible reduction of spent nuclear fuel volume, you end up burning higher order actinides and reducing the radiotoxicity of the waste tremendously? What if we could then put this technology in a sealed, mass-produced unit that rolls off an assembly line, like the Ford model T’s of old or today’s mass-produced items with high risks and technological complexity similar to a nuclear plant , such as rockets and Boeing 747s. Many have long sought such a system, and yet none exists in production today.
But this technology is possible and, most importantly, it doesn’t require solving a physics problem to implement—in fact, we’ve had the basic know-how for decades. At its heart, the technology is the molten salt reactor invented at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. The reactor designs I have developed are inspired by this original concept to provide some of the necessary features just touched on. Additionally providing passive emergency cooling, an extremely compact core and reactor subsystems, few moving parts, minimal online processing, and the latest materials and fabrication techniques, and you can have an idea of the design I am working to move to market. With a sealed module design life of 30 years, even with the harsh fluoride salt environment, there are no exceedingly difficult materials problems. Designs range in size from 2 to 100MWe, the range in which the core technology excels. 50 MWe, however, is the standard design for utility costumers needing town-sized distributed power generation.
Consisting of two modules that are transported to a site, the core and additional internal UF6 reservoirs are filled from standard transport cylinders of low-enriched UF6 once onsite. These heat and power modules are lowered below grade to provide physical protection against any and all forms of impact, and a borated cap separates these two modules. The reactor module has as an output for a non-radioactive secondary salt loop, which is exchanged with a loop of supercritical CO2 that feeds the second module, a supercritical CO2 brayton cycle with associated turbo-machinery. While the reactor module is completely sealed and not field serviceable, maintenance can be performed on the power module.
For this technology to work, no rethinking of physics is necessary and it doesn’t even demand a new class of materials or manufacturing techniques. All it requires is the dedication to continue to design the best reactor system possible and bring it to market successfully. Even the regulatory problems that have inevitably doomed short-lived attempts at innovative nuclear power concepts become trivial with such an intrinsically safe reactor. Instead of regulating the defense in depth protection of a light water reactor, you are regulating a box of non-weapons-usable radioactive material, which, if correctly engineered, has no inclination to spread its contents outside its containment—something no more threatening to a dairy farm next door than a wind farm. But its high capacity factor means it runs all the time, and with a 30 year sealed lifetime, it beats any fossil fuels, even inexpensive shale gas. No proliferation of nuclear weapons or nuclear terrorism; no chemical or hydraulic potential to expel its contents, and a carbon footprint that looks like wind, solar, or geothermal deployable anywhere in the world, at any time. Other than the fuel inside, this bears no resemblance to Windscale or Chernobyl, not even Fukushima, or the scary but relatively benign Three Mile Island LOCA.
Finally, what about the cost? If this “new nuclear” doesn’t compete in the market now, it will never get built. Along with its small size, this technology, in decreasing risk and even eliminating expensive components like those necessary to handle the pressures of light water reactors, will be competitive even with the short-lived inundation of cheap shale gas we see currently in the domestic energy market. I personally believe that the implications of such a project mean it shouldn’t be a completely privately funded effort, but the technology must be a competitive, money-making proposition in the free market if it is to be federally subsidized. Correctly designed, this technology will be competitive and the way to bring this to market is what the Department of Energy has already proposed for the development of more traditional Small Modular Reactors: a cost matching agreement with private investment.
Maybe it’s my age, or perhaps my brain is just wired differently, but I don’t agree with the cynicism sometimes passed around when it comes to new generation nuclear technology. Whether it is safety, cost, politics or just public perception hurdles that must be overcome, someone always has a reason why not to do it. The same goes for just about any technology, even something with as friendly a face as solar power. But I refuse to accept this defeatism. I believe that our only true limitations are the basic physical principles that govern the natural universe. All other challenges just require clever engineering and the will to press on, and they can be overcome. Thankfully we were given a powerful tool in the basic physics of nuclear structure. And I think we’d be foolish to not take any opportunity we are given when it comes to these basic principles, to explore them and utilize them to the fullest.
I am a fan of renewable energy, solar in particular, when deployed in the right geographical location, but I deeply believe that we cannot eliminate the pollution to our environment with this approach exclusively. I also believe that in a couple of decades fusion power will reach the grid, hopefully with my own contribution, and that this could truly be the abundant, waste-free energy holy grail that will keep our civilization trucking on long into the future. But there is a complicated series of steps to reach this goal, and even if we reach breakeven on fusion power tomorrow, we still have a long road ahead of engineering challenges to see its implementation. In the intervening years, however, whether you live in a small village in Africa, or small town America, I have no doubt that your life, and the future of our species, will be forever changed for the better by Small Modular Reactor technology.