The Perils and Promise of Youth

By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor

One of the perks of writing the Nuclear Reactions column for Power Engineering is that I get to write about a wide variety of nuclear-related topics. I also get the opportunity on occasion to point out linkages (or differences) between seemingly unconnected topics. This column squarely fits into this latter category.

Two recent items caught my attention related to the “next generation” of nuclear professionals that prompted me to opine here on the perils and the promise of youth.

The first relates to Transatomic Power, a nuclear startup spun out of MIT in 2011 to pursue commercialization of a molten-salt reactor that purportedly could run on spent nuclear fuel at efficiency levels many times higher than conventional reactors. A white paper published in 2014 claimed that the reactor concept would be able to “generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light water reactor.”

Transatomic became something of a sensation in the nuclear and new energy fields, leading to an influx of venture capital that has sustained the company’s growth and evolution over the past several years. The promise of recycling nuclear waste added green cachet to the company, burnishing a favorable public image.

That cachet has taken a hit in recent months. As reported in MIT Technology Review in February, the company is backtracking from certain claims based on an analysis by Kord Smith, an MIT professor and nuclear physics expert. “In early 2016, we realized there was a problem with our initial analysis and started working to correct the error,” said Transatomic CEO Leslie Dewan in an email response to MIT Technology Review.

The efficiency claim has been dramatically reduced; instead of the 75X advantage, Transatomic now lays claim to only “more than twice” with its reactor concept. Just as striking is the company’s retraction regarding recycling; Transatomic now states that their design will not reduce stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel or even use them as a fuel source.

To its credit, Transatomic has owned up to the errors and re-done its analysis acknowledging the “reduced” advantages. And if Transatomic can develop a reactor that increases efficiency by even 2X, that would remain a remarkable technical achievement.

The second item relates to a new mobile phone app that attempts to apply millennial technology to nuclear advocacy. Most of us have probably had conversations with strangers or casual acquaintances where nuclear power has come up and we’ve struggled to find just the right way to convey its attributes while simultaneously highlighting its stellar safety record and acknowledging the potential risks. It’s a tricky balance and has to be tailored to the person you’re talking to.

Generation Atomic, a non-profit nuclear group that uses “gamifying” techniques to enhance advocacy, released its Atomic Action app in early April. The app transforms potentially difficult advocacy conversations into interactive, digitally enhanced conversations. Users accumulate points through various actions: for example, 5 points for checking into the app daily, 50 points for watching a video on nuclear power, 500 points for knocking on doors, and 2,500 points for posting a selfie with a legislator. True to its gaming origins, the app includes a leaderboard tracking user progress.

“In a 2014 global poll on peoples’ views of different energy sources, only 28% of respondents had a favorable opinion of nuclear,” said Generation Atomic co-founder and organizing director Tay Stevenson. “In our early modeling, we were hoping we could get positive responses during 35-40% of our conversations. After three months of piloting with student volunteers knocking on hundreds of doors in State College and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we are seeing 50-55% of people sign up as supporters.”

According to Google Analytics, the app had more than 335 users in the first two weeks after its release, but Generation Atomic expects that to grow quickly. “Currently, our only campus chapters are at University of Pittsburgh and Penn State,” said company founder and executive director Eric Meyer. “However, earlier this month we were holding advocacy trainings at the American Nuclear Society Student Conference and there was a lot of interest in starting chapters in Indiana, Florida, and other states in the fall. This summer we’ll remain focused on building the pro-nuclear constituency in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states where nuclear is at great risk of early abandonment right now.”

For both of these items, what stands out to me is the enthusiasm for nuclear demonstrated by these young professionals‚Ķand soon-to-be professionals. So keep knocking on those doors, Pitt Panthers and Penn State Nittany Lions! And on behalf of the nuclear community, Ms. Dewan, we forgive you. Don’t lose your fervor and love for nuclear – just remember to check in with the graybeards along the way.

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