What’s Clean, Reliable, and Saves Lives All Over?

The following are transcripts of our three-part podcast series covering nuclear power. The transcripts have been edited for length and clarity. For full episodes, check out the SpaceshipOne podcast page here.

In Episode 3, Part 1, Paloma and Anna introduce the topic of nuclear power, share myth-busters about the clean energy source, and announce the new Got Nuclear? project.

[Paloma:] Hi, Anna! I heard you wanted to talk about something today...

[Anna:] Yeah, so over the past year or so, I've learned more and more about nuclear energy— atomic energy— the splitting of the atom— as a climate solution. It's actually been providing reliable, clean electricity for decades, and I think it deserves more attention. I just wanted to kind of get your opinion on it, Paloma.

[Paloma:] Alright, I'll admit, I've bought into a lot of pop culture about this. When I think of nuclear, I think of Chernobyl and Hiroshima and all the stuff that was happening in the Cold War. So one of the biggest consequences, like one of the biggest fears, aside from nuclear weapons, has been just nuclear waste. Like all this mystique— all this mythology of how bad it is— distracts from how it could be a really cool solution for our energy demands.

[Anna:] Yeah, exactly. So, in the US, all the nuclear waste that's ever been produced— these little tiny, solid pellets— would fit in a football field.

[Paloma:] Wait, seriously?

[Anna:] Yeah!

[Paloma:] That's crazy!

[Anna:] And get this: in the US, there's never been any leakage or spill that has harmed anyone.

[Paloma:] Honestly, that's so relieving to hear, because I think it was literally just a few weeks ago, where there was an oil refinery that spilled into the Bay Area...

[Anna:] Yeah.

[Paloma:] And I feel like I've heard about these stories so much— in the Gulf of Mexico, and God knows how many places.

[Anna:] Yeah, exactly. Fossil fuels produce waste in the form of oil spills. So I think we have to view nuclear energy in the context that it's in, which is alongside all these other energy resources, including fossil fuels. Aging nuclear plants get shut down too early, and they're not replaced with renewables; they're replaced with fossil fuels. And that just contributes to more air pollution and climate change.

[Paloma:] That really sucks to hear.

[Anna:] Yeah, you know, there's a lot of hype around renewables, like wind and solar. But nuclear plants get replaced by fossil fuels, just to be clear, because obviously the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. And battery storage is just not where it needs to be to make up for that unreliability, yet. Nuclear plants are operating almost all year round— more days out of the year than solar farms, wind farms, etc. And the solar and wind farms take up so much land area, while nuclear plants actually can operate on a way smaller land area and produce millions of times more energy.

[Paloma:] In my time in the environmental sphere, it’s been just like, "Renewables are good! And renewables are only wind and solar." Which isn't true. There's also hydro power. There's geothermal. But, “Wind and solar are really what's going to save everyone!” Again, not true.

[Anna:] No, yeah, I totally bought into that.

[Paloma:] It's just exhausting; we’re forgetting about so many other sources of energy, and then nuclear gets this weird side-mention.

[Anna:] Yeah, nuclear has been providing all of this clean energy for us since the sixties— can we at least give it a little shout out? And I'm still learning about nuclear and how to communicate about it in a way that's compassionate and meeting people where they're at. You know, we shouldn't diminish people's concerns around safety. But it's important to point to the data and to the evidence that nuclear power is one of the safest energy sources out there. All energy sources have their pros and their cons, their risks and rewards, right? And with nuclear energy, a lot of what we hear is all about waste and radiation. But those aspects, while they're valid to be asking about, are such a small part of what nuclear actually means.

[Paloma:] Yeah.

[Anna:] Radiation is all around us. It's in a banana. And in fact, eating a banana exposes you to more radiation than if you lived near a nuclear power plant for a year. And getting a CAT scan exposes you to so much radiation— way more than even a nuclear power plant worker is exposed to. And the alternative to nuclear, right now, and for the foreseeable future, is fossil fuels, which are killing way, way, way way more people than nuclear ever has, or probably ever will...

… Part of the reason why I wanted to talk about nuclear energy today was because recently, SpaceshipOne has helped launch this new initiative, [GotNuclear,] informing people about the benefits that nuclear brings, including lives saved from air pollution that would have been caused by fossil fuels, had nuclear not been in the picture. So, there’s this map that has all the reactors and links on the reactors to tweet to elected officials near that reactor, congratulating them for saving all these lives. We thought that'd be a cool way to raise awareness. And GotNuclear is actually doing a Nuclear Appreciation Month campaign during the month of March.

[Paloma:] We really just want to celebrate. Nuclear might not be as close to my heart as it is to yours, but I'm coming around a bit. It's like the secret superhero of energy resources.

[Anna:] Yeah, exactly! So as part of Nuclear Appreciation Month, we're helping release this new documentary that talks about all the nuclear plants that have gotten shut down in Germany and have been replaced with coal. And deaths from air pollution have gone up by over 1,000 people a year in Germany. And that's entirely preventable. I think what helps prevent it is accurate information and honest conversation around what it actually means to be a clean energy source. And nuclear has been that, and could continue to be that in Germany, if not for misinformed public outcry. So it'll be an interesting documentary— very telling of where we're at.

[Paloma:] And hopefully, this can be a step towards keeping clean energy around!

[Anna:] Yeah, nuclear saves lives!

[Paloma:] Nuclear saves lives, and also, we gotta save nuclear.

[Anna:] Yeah, so I wanted to talk to someone who actually works at a nuclear company and is involved in new nuclear technology, because the fact is, there has been almost no innovation in the nuclear industry up until like, 10 years ago. When you take that into account, you realize the potential for these new advanced reactor designs to make nuclear even safer, even more energy-efficient, and can even recycle the spent fuel rods, or what people call waste, as the fuel for these new reactors. How cool is that?

[Paloma:] I mean, bringing nuclear into the 2020s is definitely long overdue.

[Anna:] Yeah, exactly. So I'm super excited to interview Canon Bryan, who's the Chief Financial Officer of Terrestrial Energy, a nuclear innovation company that's focused on the molten salt reactor, which we'll learn more about in the interview!

[Paloma:] Alright! Sounds really cool.

In Episode 3, Part 2, Anna speaks with Andrew, a nuclear engineering student at the University of Michigan, and Canon Bryan, CFO of Terrestrial Energy, about the next generation of reactor technology, as well as the next generation of young people working in the industry, who're motivated to serve their communities and help build a brighter future for us all.

[Anna:] So, I know the nuclear power industry hasn't done the best job of engaging with the people they serve and spreading awareness about its benefits to our lives. Canon, I'd love to hear about what you're seeing around advocacy for nuclear energy and where you see it heading?

[Canon:] It has been appalling. Our industry gets an F minus for the last 40 years. I think one of the biggest ways in which our industry failed is, it failed to try to build community with the public. It provided no motivation for the public to want to learn about this technology.

People have to want to know about the things that are important in their lives: where energy comes from, where food comes from, where water comes from. These are all critical to our survival as a species and the ongoing functionality of our society. So it would really behoove us to learn a thing or two about nuclear. But people have had no inclination to do that, because the industry has not created the right environment for that.

But it is a fact: the more you know about nuclear, the less afraid of it you are. In all the communities where nuclear power plants are operating, the people go to work at those power plants every day, or they live in a household where someone works at the power plant. Every day for 40 years, they make a nice salary; they see their tax dollars going to their local education system, getting a great education for their children.

They know that the power plant is safe. Of course, no one's ever been hurt in the US by a nuclear accident; the casualty rate is 0.0 for civilian nuclear energy. The people living in those communities live that data every single day, and they are not afraid of it. In fact, they love it. If it ever had to leave, like some plants that have been closed prematurely due to weird market anomalies, the level of grief that happens in these communities is immense.

[Canon:] I am quite interested in advocacy. I am on the board of directors of an NGO called Generation Atomic, a grassroots environmental pro-nuclear advocacy group. I'm also on the board of advisors of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear, an environmental pro-nuclear NGO, chiefly oriented around young people working in the industry.

The task for our industry is clear, and the motivation of the latest generation of people in the industry is considerable. And it is a very different type of motivation. With prior generations, you had professional engineers, mostly, who were in it for a paycheck, a stable career, and a nice pension. They didn't really give a hoot about what the work meant for their community or for the world at large.

That is totally different today. If you look at students that are getting into nuclear STEM nowadays, they have a vision. They have a cause that they're fighting for. We can ask Andrew, who's doing it right now: why are you going to school for this?

[Andrew:] Definitely. I grew up understanding that climate change is real, and that fossil fuels is kind of a dying industry, so I always wanted to get into alternative energy sources; it really seems like the future of it all. As I was getting closer to college, I'd started researching it and realized that nuclear seemed like something that I’d enjoy doing, reducing carbon emissions and all that. I really want to help the future of the world if we want to keep the world around as long as we do. And it just called to me. That's my main motivation behind it, is just trying to help the planet, in my way.

[Canon:] The answer that I get is almost always the same: we are doing this because of the climate; we are doing this because of energy inequality. And it's that kind of mindset that is really going to allow the people working within the industry to identify with the communities in which we seek to have these power plants— all of this will come together in a great community-building exercise.

[Andrew:] As someone who didn't come from necessarily a STEM-based background, how did you end up in the nuclear energy field?

[Canon:] I found myself working as a financial analyst, with a lot of the work that I did involving the analysis of natural resources; that includes mining, energy, forestry, fishing, etc. And then, in 2004, I started a uranium mining company. We were one of the first companies to bring a new uranium mining project to public markets, and the success really fueled my interest in nuclear, obviously.

What I saw was a technology that was really exceptionally good, but it had a few things that people didn't particularly like about it. That was a perfect opportunity for innovation— to improve upon something in order to have an energy source that is really head-and-shoulders above everything else.

[Andrew:] As the technology has developed, have you kind of seen those attitudes shift more positively towards nuclear energy?

[Canon:] Yes, and it's all being catalyzed by innovation.

When I first got started in nuclear, there was no such thing as innovation. There were no new non-incremental designs that were being developed by anybody; it was just not happening, it was unheard of— okay, maybe in the lab somewhere, some utterly non-commercial projects were being worked on by scientists.

Around the early 2010s, the first couple of early adopter innovators were starting to raise capital to try to bring these technologies out of the lab and into the market. And as the decade went on, it was clearly becoming a trend: more and more companies were resurrecting more and more of these old technologies, that were developed back in the 50s and 60s, that never had the opportunity to get commercialized.

There was nothing wrong with these technologies; they were great technologies, and in a lot of cases, they were actually really well proven by the lab work and by prototypes— in some cases, rather large substantial prototypes, including the Experimental Breeder Reactor Part Two at the Idaho National Labs, which operated for 30 years.

These technologies were now being rediscovered by a new generation of the nuclear industry who saw the same opportunities I saw. These new ideas and innovation are really what is helping to change public opinion about nuclear energy.

With conventional nuclear technology, though it has worked beautifully for the past 65 years, there's too much disinformation that's been allowed to spread, and it's taken too much root. The beauty of innovation is that you don't even have to address those points, right? That's history, that's old news; you can just look at innovation and say, "Hey! You know, there's a whole new technology here!"

Innovation is always an opportunity to write a new narrative, but in this case, it's really turned the narrative on its head to really come out for nuclear as a benevolent technology, which it most certainly is, and these new technologies are making that case even stronger.

And, from a community relations perspective, it is definitely advantageous to have an industrial facility that does not look like a conventional nuclear power plant, with the giant domes and the giant cooling towers. You can strip all of that stuff away and in fact, build an aesthetically pleasing building, so that it looks warm and inviting. Psychologically, there will be an effect on the community. People will see that building and they will not feel threatened.

If you haven't seen it before, you should take a look at one of our peers in the industry, a company called Oklo, based in California. They’ve designed a micro-reactor system and their first commercial product is called the Aurora powerhouse.

It looks like an A-frame ski lodge, where I'd want to go in and spend time in front of the fire reading a Dickens book or something. That is the opportunity that nuclear innovation offers. It's a relatively superficial aspect of it, but I think it's a pretty important one too.

[Anna:] I have seen some designs for the Terrestrial Energy molten salt reactor facilities; are you hoping to have a similar design aesthetic?

[Canon:] Yes. I'm glad you asked that. As a matter of fact, we are working with the same architects that did the Oklo design. We will be rolling out, sometime in 2021, a beautiful new architectural plan for our facility. Keep your eyes open for that one.

[Anna:] So, how does a molten salt reactor work and how is it different from a conventional nuclear reactor?

[Canon:] The fuel form is a uranium fluoride salt, in a liquid form, at high temperature— extremely different from the conventional fuel form for nuclear energy, which is a solid ceramic pellet form of uranium oxide, operating in a water coolant/moderator. In the molten salt reactor, the coolant is the fuel and the fuel is the coolant, so uranium is the fuel element and the fluoride is the coolant element, but the two have a highly inert bond— in other words, it’s extremely difficult to separate the fuel from the coolant.

The operation at high temperature is really important, and a dramatic departure from having a water coolant, which is chemically not very stable and has a very limited thermal range. Water will only stay water until up to 100 °C, whereas molten salt has a thermal range in the liquid phase of almost 1,000 °C that creates a lot of safety advantages that are embedded into the technology. The massive engineered systems that they have to apply to water in order to make it hotter than 100 °C and have it continue to be in a liquid phase are extraordinary. You have to apply 160 atmospheres of pressure inside the reactor vessel.

Well, if you have a fuel form that can operate naturally at a high temperature, then you don't need to have that pressure in the reactor vessel. A molten salt reactor will operate at ambient pressure, which is really helpful because one of the reasons you have these big containment domes surrounding the reactor core is to prevent any kind of a pressure-related accident. If you don't have pressure inside the vessel, then those physical forces that are trying to push the radioactive materials out don't exist. That's nice from a safety perspective.

And when you are able to strip away all of these massively engineered safety protocols from the design, what that means is that you can strip away massive amounts of cost. Nowadays, you can build a natural gas plant from start to finish in under a year, more typically around two years. That's what we're up against. We have to be able to compete with that if we want to be in the market.

And we have to be able to compete with the capital cost of a gas plant, too, and those are routinely built for under a billion dollars. That means we have to be able to build nuclear plants for under a billion dollars, and that is precisely the economic proposition that is offered by molten salt reactors— because of the simplicity, because of the immense passive safety features which are baked into the rudiments of the design, which is based in that unique liquid fuel form.

[Anna:] The fact that it's low pressure, yet produces so much energy— that means it's very energy-efficient, right?

[Canon:] It's definitely more energy-efficient, because it's operating at high temperature. It gives you massively improved thermal efficiency if you want to make electricity. In a conventional nuclear power plant, your thermal efficiency when you are converting that heat to electricity is typically around the 32% range. The thermal efficiency for our high-temperature system will be in the 45% range. You are generating 50% more electricity per unit of fuel. That's 50% more revenue.

[Andrew:] Do you see the molten salt reactor, as an energy source, becoming more popular over the next five to ten years? Or do you think it's going to take longer for it to gain traction, financially as well as socially among the people that it will be serving?

[Canon:] Frankly, it’s a little difficult to address that point on one specific technology. But, I think the sector as a group is going to emerge as a very important investment class. In fact, a number of these technologies have a lot of really interesting applications, like primary manufacturing, chemical processing, those types of things. There are a number of projects that are being developed simultaneously now, around the world, accessing capital at the same time. We just have to keep doing what we're doing and carrying these projects forward to fruition. And if these technologies do what we say they're going to do, then the markets will be there, absolutely.

In Episode 3, Part 3, Anna interviews Mathijs Beckers, a Dutch energy analyst, writer, and filmmaker who specializes in nuclear energy. Learn more at the E-Lise Foundation and watch Mathijs’ new documentary, Atom Exit.