Big nuke vs little nuke: How the nuclear establishment is stifling innovation

21 February 2012 “We just need millions of dollars to crack fusion, when the international community is talking about billions,” says Dr Philip Wallace, scanning FaceTime for my reaction from his office on an industrial estate in Richmond, Washington State….

21 February 2012

“We just need millions of dollars to crack fusion, when the international community is talking about billions,” says Dr Philip Wallace, scanning FaceTime for my reaction from his office on an industrial estate in Richmond, Washington State. Wallace is president of nuclear startup Helion Energy, founded to commercialise the work of “maverick scientist” Dr John Slough, inspired in turn by research from the 1960s into confining plasmas.

Helion made headlines in New Scientist last year after claiming in a peer-reviewed research paper that they had developed a working “Fusion Engine” that had already “performed fusion” on a small scale by colliding together balls of plasma at high speed. The paper then went on to show that with $20 million (£12.6 million) and an engine only three times larger, they could achieve in less than two years what ITER, the $15 billion (£9.45 billion) international fusion project, hasn’t been able to: break-even. This is fusion‘s holy grail — the point at which the experiments generate the same or more energy than they use up. Once the energy the reaction produces exceeds the energy needed, fusion power becomes a reality.

Yet despite the potential of this technology, says Wallace, “the clear message we get from the government is that they just want people to work on solving the severe technical problems experienced by projects like ITER, and they are not interested in alternate solutions. “Even though in our version, seven out of ten of these problems don’t exist; we don’t solve them, we avoid them.”

Wallace and Slough aren’t alone. They are just two examples of a new breed of nuclear entrepreneur who by “walking the line between scientists and salesmen” have set up more than 15 nuclear startups — three of them dealing with fusion — scattered mostly along the US and Canada’s “nuclear coast”, from San Diego to Vancouver. They aim to develop what has been labelled “unconventional nuclear technologies” in order to solve the world’s impending energy crisis.

Technologies such as the fast neutron reactor or alternative fuels like thorium, which were quickly forgotten (some perhaps for good reason) when our love affair with uranium began, now offer the real possibility, they believe, of cheap, clean, safe and small-scale nuclear power essential for our energy-hungry way of life as we pass peak oil. Yet, like the fusion engine, these alternative technologies are resisted by the big reactor manufacturers and foot-dragging governments, which seem wedded to the conventional, very expensive, uranium-fuelled, water-cooled reactors that the public loves to hate, and that, according to the World Nuclear Association, account for about 90 percent of the civilian reactors (those used for non-military purposes) in the world today.

Their brake on innovation is reinforced by venture capitalists who prefer to dream of making fast bucks by finding the next Facebook than waiting the ten or so years for a new nuclear product to come to market. Like Wallace and Slough, John Gilleland battles “big nuke” through the newspaper headlines as he aims to “solve the world’s energy problems”. This is perhaps easier to do when you are CEO of the Bill Gates-backed, Seattle-based TerraPower and your product is a travelling wave reactor that can run largely on depleted uranium, the waste by-product of uranium enrichment, of which there are untold tonnes in the world. This sort of reactor can, in theory, take thirty to forty years to consume all the fuel packed in them, compared with the two-year cycle of conventional reactors.

“The conservative nature of the large nuclear companies and the slow pace of the government is not encouraging to the most creative people in the field,” Gilleland says. “A young company like ours is not a patient company.”

It is particularly difficult to get things done rapidly in a culture that has not experienced true innovation and fast-track capture of improvements for many decades. “So when you come out with an innovative design like the travelling wave reactor and an aggressive time-line like ours in this cultural environment, people will think you’re crazy. But we look at it more like a challenge. The more that people know about what we’re doing and our goals, the more they believe in TerraPower’s chances to really transform nuclear energy,” Gilleland added.

For Mark Halper this shouldn’t be a surprise. Halper is the author of the report by clean-tech analysts and consultants Kachan & Co, entitled Emerging Nuclear Innovations: picking global winners in a race to reinvent nuclear energy. “The big three of Westinghouse Toshiba, Areva and General Electric Hitachi have been building uranium-fuelled, water-cooled reactors for ever, and so they have a huge vested interest in keeping it this way. As indeed does the whole industry, from the mining companies to the regulators, and the government as well.” This, Halper believes, has “resulted in a value chain that discourages innovation even though several of these technologies are better and go back 60 to 70 years”.

“So even if you could build an unconventional reactor, you couldn’t run it as, even if the regulators did approve it, it would take seven to eight years for the registration process to be completed.” Although big nuke is “a huge ship to try and turn around” the “noise level is growing” and there are “a lot of talented scientists, physicists and engineers” working and wanting to work on these kinds of projects.

“It won’t be long before one of these companies does come through and does a Google on the established industries,” Halper maintains. He may be right, with news that the US’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be split into separate branches for conventional and unconventional nuclear to expedite the revolution, and that up to $904 million (£650 million) of US government funding for small modular reactors may be opened up to all reactor types.

For Philip Wallace, a small slice of the funding pie would go a long way, convinced as he is that “just because holy grails are holy grails it doesn’t mean they can’t be achieved”.