Saturday, September 3, 2011

The MSR and the Veil of Secrecy

Sometime, not long after my father went to work as a chemist in Oak Ridge, I asked him what he did at work.

"That is a secret," he told me. His secret employment lead to the development of reactors for submarines. Later the same work lead to the development of civilian power reactors. Then his secret work turned to Molten Sale Reactors and the potential to build atomic powered bombers.

How secret his work was can be judged, by a document I found among his papers. That document recorded on data set numbers left out of a report because they were considered too sensitive to include in the report he had written for the AEC. All he would tell his family about what he was doing where the letters "ANP".

Gradually the veil of secrecy under which my father work was lifted, and the product of his research was opened to other scientists without regard to security considerations. During the 1960's ORNL scientists, working on Molten Salt Reactor technology, were quite open about their research, and their work product was distributed to anyone who was interested.

When Kirk Sorensen founded Energy from Thorium, he included an open science forum, which allowed anyone who was interested in MSR technology to openly talk about it. This began to change a couple of years ago, when Kirk left NASA for employment with a private business. It is probable that the words proprietary concerns were mentioned to Kirk. Other words may have been mentioned as well. Then a year ago, the Chinese appeared at an ORNL conference on MSRs. They did not have much to say, but they were listening intently.

The significance of Chinese interests were revealed earlier this year, when the Chinese announced that they were planning to develop Thorium Fuel cycle MSRs. They used words like intellectual property rights, and the whole game changed. Yesterday I pointed to a quote by Kim Johnson that illustrates how much things have changed in a short period of time:
Sadly however, I can no longer post important details Freely. Serious Foreign competition could very well, in a few years' time, leave the US so far behind in our own Fluoride-Energy tech we'd never recover economically.
People are starting to hold back information.

People who in the past held jobs that had nothing to do with MSRs, now are finding MSR related employment. As they do, they start withholding information. I am not scolding them, just pointing out what is happening. I could talk about who is doing this, and speculate about what they are not saying, but it is probably best to leave those questions alone.

This is, of course, a sign of progress. A sign that what I have worked for during the last 4 years is starting to come to pass. The unintended consequence of a success that can be laid at the feet of free information, is that the very same information begins to dry up.


NNadir said...

Well Charles, I came across one of your father's papers yesterday, ORNL-TM-1543, while searching for certain properties of molten lead.

It was pretty cool.

I said to myself, "I know his kid!"

Kim's stuff aside, one can find out anything one wants to know. The trick is to be creative with it.


Charles Barton said...

NNadir, I figure things out, but my inclination is to not talk about things, when there are confidentiality considerations. I have an idea about what certain people are doing, but I feel constrained from writing about it right now.


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