Sunday, November 8, 2015

My Fathers Reactor but not My Father's Reactor Industry

This post focuses on the Transatomic Power story and its implications for the human future.  But first I must go back to the past and some of the reactors my father worked to develop.  This turn to the past will lead to Transatomic Power and the role it founders desire to play in the future of humanity.

Between 1950 and 1969, My father, C. J. Barton, Sr., played an important role in the development of the MSR at ORNL. He created the carrier/coolant salt formula for both ORNL MSR prototypes, pioneered research into the use of plutonium as a MSR fuel, and made other MSR proposals that still might have significant future consequences.  He created the FLiBe formula used on the extremely successful ORNL MSRE.

At the time my father was working on MSR formulas, a new Nuclear Power Industry was emerging. That Industry was being created by various companies that had previously built fossil fuel powered ship propulsion systems as well as fossil fuel fired electrical generating plants.  The First Nuclear era reactors where born out of the United States Navy's desire to revolutionize the way submarines were powered.  Alvin Weinberg, of ORNL, had invented the Light Water Reactor and passed on the idea to Hyman Rickover.  Rickover was an ambitious go getter and within 6 years of getting Weinberg's suggestion, the first nuclear submarine was steaming into the Atlantic Ocean, the first Navy warship to not use fossil fuel generated power in the 20th century.  Soon companies with names like Babcock & Wilcox, Westinghouse, Combustion Engineering, and General Electric, manufacturers of Navel fossil fuel powered propulsion systems and large fossil fuel powered electrical generating plants, went into the civilian nuclear power plants business.  The word manufacture did not exactly fit what these companies did, The designed reactors, and set up networks of of parts manufacturers, and created recipees for putting the parts together, to make a civilian nuclear power plant. The reactors themselves, together with their housing and cooling system, were to be set up from the parts that were to be assembled on site, into massive structures.  All this was very complex and required millions of hours of highly skilled labor.  As safety concerns grew during the 1970's new complexities were added to the nuclear design.  After the Three Mile Island accident added nuclear safety features increased the complexity of nuclear power systems even more.  Once considered a source of cheap electricity, the light water reactor began to be considered a white elephant.  Although reactors proved to be very good low cost sources of base load carbon free electricity, and operators discovered that by paying careful attention to nuclear safety rules, they could actually make more money, than careless nuclear management would, they did not attract market interest because of high initial costs.

Still in 2007 when I began to look at low cost solutions to the problem of Anthropogenic Global Warming,  I began to realized that the LWR might not prove the best route to solving the problem.   I was particularly impressed with Professor Per Peterson's work on the cost lowering potential of Molten Salt cooled reactors to lower nuclear manufacturing costs. This led me back to my father's second reactor, the Molten Salt Reactor, which I quickly realized had revolutionary potential.  The path to solving the current energy crisis, a crisis brought on by the inevitable consequences of our present global addiction to burning fossil fuels for energy.  I stipulated that any energy solution must be low cost, highly and quickly scaleable, and safe both in terms of adverse consequences to human health and so safe that its operation should not lead to accidents that take human lives.  Actually first generation nuclear safety appears to meet the health and safety goals, but does so through adding to reactor construction costs.  By turning to advanced safety features we may be able to accomplish acceptable health and safety goals, at a lower cost and perhaps a much lower cost than is possible with Light Water Reactor technology.  Finally, it is highly desirable to make nuclear technology sustainable.  In the case of nuclear, that would require sufficient nuclear fuel to produce massive amounts of electricity and industrial heat sustainability over periods of thousands and perhaps millions of years.  Some people would say, the requirements I would place on MSR technology is impossible to meet.  I would answer that the secret of how to do this was discovered during the Manhattan Project, and has been known to some nuclear scientists ever since.

So years after I as a 65 year old man launched out on an intrepid adventure to help educate humanity in the Molten Salt Reactor potential, I see unfolding before us the fruits of the adventure.  The first fruit I want to talk about is Transatomic Power. I pick Transatomic because the opening page of their web site proclaims that they boldly intend to go where no man or woman has gone before, into a new energy world.  The statement in very large type face reads:


Now that is ambitious.  But what makes the program more remarkable is the team of people who are setting out to create abundant energy and heal the world. The Transatomic web page introduces its team, the people who are so hugely and boldly ambition.  The team includes two MIT minted Nuclear engineers, Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, a vetran venture capitalist, Ray Rothrock, a successful start up specialist, who has worked with translating MIT developed inventions into marketable products, Russ Wilcox, and finally a freelance energy industry lobbyist, Windolyn Holland.

In addition to these 5 people, Transatomic announces:
Transatomic Power is looking for highly motivated engineers who want to use nuclear power and their scientific ingenuity to help save the world. Current openings are listed below. If you are interested in working for Transatomic, please send a resume and cover letter to . . . 
Needless to say, the size of the added work force is very modest.  Transatomic is looking for a thermodynamics engineer and a nutronics engineer.   Thus they intend to double their engineering team.  In addition, Transatomic tells its potential new employees what it hopes to accomplish with their labor.
Transatomic Power’s overarching goal is to raise global standards of living by bringing the world clean, low-cost electricity. We believe that nuclear power is the clear way to achieve this goal. Transatomic’s advanced molten salt reactors dramatically reduce the cost of nuclear power with a streamlined, passively safe, and proliferation-resistant design. Our reactors have the flexibility to consume both the used nuclear fuel generated by commercial light water reactors and low-enriched freshly mined uranium. We are looking for highly motivated engineers who want to use nuclear power to help save the world.
Transatomic Power is backed by Peter Thiel’sFounders Fund, a San Francisco based venture capital firm that emphasizes transformational technologies and companies. Other investors include Acadia Woods Partners, Daniel Aegerter of Armada Investment AG, Ray Rothrock of Venrock, and other individuals. Our advisory board includes the former Chief Technology Officer of Westinghouse, the deputy director of the Idaho National Lab, the 2012 – 2013 President of the American Nuclear Society, and the head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. We are based in Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA.
There you have it.  Transatomic is on fire with a revolutionary plan to save the world.  It is the same revolutionary plan that I began to see in 2007, but then I saw it because my father was one of the people who helped to lay the foundation between 1950 and 1969.  If you want to learn more about the Transatomic plan and their progress towards meeting it, look at this page.

I covered Transatomic first because its web site is quite transparent.  We know who they are and what they see as their mission.  They are a part of what we refer to when we say "the Nuclear  Industry" but doing business in a way that differs drastically from the dying 20th century Nuclear Industry.  Their CEO is a woman, Leslie Dewan, and she has a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from MIT.  I hope that she will transform human life on earth and can serve as an example and role model to young women everywhere.

I hope to live to see the Transatomic story unfold until the new world it seeks is launched.

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