Nuclear Power Can Save the Poor and the Planet | James Walker | EP 447

Nuclear Power Can Save the Poor and the Planet | James Walker | EP 447

Coming up (00:00:00)

  • Nuclear power has suffered from bad PR, partly due to government involvement and incidents like Fukushima and Three Mile Island.
  • However, nuclear power has a better safety record than wind and solar, and new technologies like small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors are even safer.

Intro (00:00:31)

  • James Walker, a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nano nuclear, is interviewed about the company's development of portable microreactors.
  • Microreactors offer the potential for low-cost, resilient, and widely distributable nuclear power, which could help alleviate poverty and promote environmental sustainability.
  • Providing affordable energy to impoverished communities can encourage them to prioritize environmental concerns, making poverty reduction a key factor in achieving environmental sustainability.

The applications of micro reactors (00:02:20)

  • Nano Nuclear is developing micro reactors, which are smaller than small modular reactors (SMRs) and have a power generating capacity of less than 20 megawatts.
  • Micro reactors are ideal for remote areas, such as mining sites, First Nation communities, and island communities, where they can provide reliable power for 15 to 20 years.
  • The power density of nuclear fuel is very high, making micro reactors a highly efficient source of energy.
  • Micro reactors are reliable and portable, as demonstrated by their use in nuclear submarines for over 70 years.
  • Distributed nuclear power systems offer advantages such as their potential use in isolated communities and the possibility of creating a resilient networked power grid.
  • Micro reactors can provide countries with sovereignty over their power supply and have the advantage of multiplicity of provision, similar to the distributed system for fossil fuels.
  • The Polish government is considering using micro reactors to address grid shutdowns and ensure a more consistent power supply.

Micro reactors cannot have a core meltdown (00:09:15)

  • Micro reactors are very safe because they cannot generate enough heat to melt the reactors.
  • Even in the worst-case scenario of a coolant leak leading to a core overheat, the micro reactor will passively cool down and shut itself down.
  • Micro reactors are not susceptible to solar flare-induced shocks.

How basic reactors work (00:10:49)

  • Refining nuclear fuel heats it up due to radioactive fusion.
  • In a big reactor, rods are used to control the fission reaction rate.
  • A simple nuclear power source could be pellets of enriched uranium in molten lead balls, generating steam and running a generator.
  • This design lacks water circulation, but pumps could be used to move hot water.
  • NASA's Voyager spacecraft uses plutonium to generate heat and power.
  • A lead-lined uranium pellet design requires more fuel and a larger reactor, leading to design challenges.
  • Material science advancements, such as "tofu" (uranium encased in lead), are addressing these challenges.
  • James Walker's technology involves using nuclear power to produce hydrogen.
  • Hydrogen can be used as a clean fuel source, replacing fossil fuels.
  • The process involves using a nuclear reactor to heat water and produce steam.
  • The steam is then used to drive a turbine, generating electricity.
  • The electricity is then used to power an electrolyzer, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.
  • The hydrogen can then be used to power vehicles, generate electricity, or be stored for later use.
  • Walker's technology aims to provide a clean, reliable, and affordable energy source.

Why Nano Nuclear’s designs put them ahead (00:14:45)

  • The nuclear reactors are designed to be highly portable, fitting within an ISO container and capable of being transported by various means, including truck, train, ship, and even helicopter.
  • Two technical teams, one from the University of California, Berkeley, and the other from the University of Cambridge, collaborated on the reactor designs.
  • The US team's design utilizes a solid core and circulated air for heat removal, eliminating the need for pumps and coolant.
  • The University of Cambridge's design employs a uranium dioxide fuel rod surrounded by solar salt, creating natural circulation to remove heat from the fuel rods.
  • Both designs generate electricity using turbines powered by the heat from the reactors.
  • James Walker, a former physicist at Rolls-Royce who worked on the design of next-generation nuclear reactors for submarines, is now aiming to enter the commercial nuclear power market with these innovative reactor designs.

Bringing a new renaissance to the U.S. nuclear industry (00:19:45)

  • The speaker and their organization entered the nuclear industry around 2020.
  • The U.S. nuclear infrastructure had atrophied due to the ability to source enriched material from Russia.
  • The speaker saw an opportunity to build their own fuel fabrication, deconversion, and fuel transportation systems.

Why isn’t nuclear power everywhere? (00:21:05)

  • James Walker lives in Vancouver, Canada.
  • Saskatchewan has unparalleled uranium reserves that are not being utilized efficiently.
  • Despite being the safest energy form, nuclear power has suffered from bad PR due to government involvement and incidents like Fukushima and Three Mile Island.
  • The public's fear of radiation, which is an invisible danger, may also contribute to the resistance to nuclear power.
  • New Scale, the first company to license an SMR, faced criticism due to higher-than-expected megawatt generation costs.
  • Lack of infrastructure and support within the country for manufacturing fuel and parts increased costs.
  • Nuclear power should be the cheapest energy form, but high upfront capital costs distort the picture, especially in large projects where financing costs can make up 70% of the total costs.

Energy equals wealth, wealth allows for long-term thinking (00:25:03)

  • There's a direct relationship between energy and wealth.
  • As people get richer, they become more environmentally aware.
  • Providing inexpensive energy to the world's poor could help them escape poverty and start caring about the environment.
  • Micro reactors could provide consistent power to remote areas, leading to long-term strategic thinking.
  • Poverty leads to short-term thinking and environmentally damaging decisions.
  • Nuclear power can provide a reliable and portable source of energy to help people escape poverty.
  • As people get richer, they become more environmentally aware and start taking a long-term view of the future.
  • Providing inexpensive energy to the world's poor could help them escape poverty and start caring about the environment.

The bizarre alignments of the Green Lobby, making things worse (00:29:34)

  • The environmental cost of poverty is higher than the environmental cost of wealth.
  • The Green Lobby in Germany campaigned against nuclear power and pushed for renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
  • As a result, Germany became reliant on fossil fuels, including coal from Poland and nuclear power from France.
  • The cost of power in Germany increased, and the country is now in the process of de-industrialization.
  • Germany's energy per unit is now among the world's dirtiest due to its reliance on fossil fuels.
  • The Green Lobby's policies have failed on both economic and environmental fronts.
  • Some states, like California, shut down their power plants and rely on power generated from other states like Utah, which uses coal.
  • Engineers are practical and their work is based on whether it works or not, unlike politicians who can posture and engage in political correctness.

Building the necessary infrastructure, hurdles, and strengths (00:33:30)

  • Canada has a strong position to build its SMR industry due to its existing nuclear infrastructure and expertise.
  • The Ontario area has invested in nuclear power and has a substantial portion of its energy from nuclear sources.
  • Canada has developed its own reactor designs, making it less reliant on widely used designs.
  • The US is facing challenges in developing its SMR industry due to a lack of fuel and infrastructure.
  • The US government has recently provided funding opportunities to build conversion, deconversion, fuel fabrication, and enrichment facilities to reduce reliance on Russian uranium.
  • Germany lost its sovereignty due to its reliance on Russian gas, highlighting the importance of energy sovereignty.
  • Some green policies are seen as narcissistic posturing rather than genuine efforts to do good.

From the ground to the reactor, how Nano Nuclear refines fuel (00:38:58)

  • Nano Nuclear sources uranium from Central Asia, where most of the world's uranium is currently mined.
  • Uranium mining can take up to five years from a green field deposit to a mine, so there is a risk of supply disruptions if uranium prices drop during that time.
  • Nano Nuclear has reached out to the largest uranium materials broker in the world to ensure a supply of uranium.
  • The immediacy of supply from Central Asia is what drove Nano Nuclear to source uranium from there, but domestic supplies would be preferable due to reduced geopolitical uncertainty.
  • Countries like China and Russia also source uranium from Central Asia, creating competition for material.

A stable supply, enriching yellow cake uranium (00:43:45)

  • The speaker's company can source uranium and convert it into uranium hexafluoride gas.
  • Uranium hexafluoride gas is easier to enrich than yellow cake uranium.
  • The company plans to build infrastructure to convert uranium hexafluoride gas back into a solid form, such as uranium dioxide or uranium metal.
  • The company also plans to build a fabrication facility to tailor the uranium to the specific needs of different reactors.

Transportation of materials: problems and solutions (00:45:44)

  • Patented technology for a transportation system to move enriched uranium (Halo material) up to 20% around North America.
  • Designed a transportation cask (CK) that fits within a truck to meet road regulations and safety scenarios.
  • The transportation system is not only designed for their micro reactors but also to service slightly larger reactors (SMRs).
  • They plan to collaborate with competitors and benefit from their success in building out the infrastructure and generating more money within the industry.
  • Uranium supply from Central Asia is reduced to yellow cake by leaching.
  • Yellow cake is transformed into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) which can be concentrated and converted back into 20% enriched uranium.
  • Enriched UF6 can be safely transported by rail, ship, car, or train.
  • Depending on the destination, the 20% enriched UF6 may need to be converted into uranium dioxide hydride or other fuel forms.
  • They are building a deconversion plant to convert the gas into other forms for easier fabrication into the final uranium form desired by customers.

Progress toward full utilization (00:50:19)

  • The company is working on four key areas to make nuclear power more accessible: supply, transportation, fuel formulation, and reactor construction.
  • Transportation is expected to be the first commercially viable aspect, with a potential timeline of licensing completion in 2023, manufacturing facility buildout in 2026, and commercial vehicle deployment in 2027.
  • The main regulatory challenge lies in applying civil power plant regulations to micro reactors, which are distinct products.
  • Jurisdictions that recognize the novelty of micro reactors and are willing to create new safety-based regulatory frameworks could significantly expedite deployment.
  • Nuclear power offers substantial economic opportunities, and discussions are underway with potential jurisdictions to overcome regulatory hurdles.
  • Despite bipartisan support in the United States, implementing new nuclear energy policies faces funding and approval challenges.
  • Creating a new regulatory framework requires funding and can be time-consuming due to bureaucracy.
  • A well-prepared and concise regulatory framework document could facilitate the approval process and gain legislative support.
  • A joint government-industry effort, without collusion, could accelerate nuclear power development and deployment.
  • A formal document outlining safety criteria and deployment processes for nuclear reactors could be provided to interested legislators within a few weeks.
  • Nuclear power has the potential to alleviate poverty and address environmental concerns.
  • Clear differentiation between nuclear power and other energy sources is essential for effective policy-making.
  • Excessive red tape can hinder the progress of the nuclear industry.
  • Economic prosperity and environmental consciousness are correlated.
  • Cheap and abundant energy is crucial for addressing poverty and environmental sustainability.
  • Fossil fuels pose geopolitical and pollution challenges, while nuclear power offers a viable alternative.

Is nuclear power safer than solar and wind? (01:02:30)

  • People installing solar panels often fall off roofs, making it a dangerous job.
  • Wind power also has a significant number of accidents during installation and requires constant maintenance.
  • Both solar and wind are unreliable sources of energy, as they depend on the weather.

Phasic energy isn’t going to cut it (01:03:09)

  • The fundamental problem with a renewable grid is the phasic nature of the power, meaning it is intermittent and unreliable.
  • Backup systems, such as natural gas or fossil fuels, are needed to support renewable energy sources when they are not producing power.
  • Building and maintaining two parallel systems (renewable and backup) is inefficient and costly.
  • Remote communities that rely on diesel generators for power face high costs and logistical challenges.

We cannot eliminate the use of fossil fuels (plastic, fertilizer, etc.) (01:06:02)

  • Fossil fuels have been a great asset to humanity and completely eliminating their use is impractical.
  • Some fossil fuel products, like plastics, cannot be easily replaced.
  • Nuclear power can be used as a chemical production base, such as for fertilizer.
  • Burning fossil fuels for energy is not ideal when they can be used for chemical production.

Building a better grid, the price drops at scale (01:07:24)

  • If regulatory hurdles are cleared and mass production of microreactors is achieved, the cost of nuclear power can be significantly reduced.
  • Microreactors are simple enough to manufacture, allowing for easy mass production.
  • Economies of scale kick in at around 15 reactors per year, making them cheaper than diesel generators in remote locations.
  • With domestic uranium production, upgraded enrichment facilities, and mass manufacturing, the price of nuclear power can continue to decrease.
  • As the cost of nuclear power decreases, so will the cost of SMRs, making them more competitive in major grid systems.
  • A more robust and cheaper nuclear power system can have beneficial effects.

Public relations and espionage concerns (01:10:49)

  • Nuclear power can alleviate poverty and save the planet by providing a reliable and clean energy source.
  • The fear of nuclear technology can be addressed through accurate information and legislation, as the risk of hijacking a nuclear truck is minimal due to the uranium not being weapons-grade and requiring a multi-billion dollar facility to extract.
  • Nuclear reactors cannot explode, and dirty bombs made from reactor uranium are less dangerous than conventional bombs.
  • Microreactors, like the Zeus reactor, have simplified designs with almost no moving parts, making them more reliable, easier to manufacture, and less prone to overheating and melting, eliminating the need for complex safety systems.
  • The Three Mile Island accident was caused by a dislodged sensor that affected the flow and created a runaway effect, leading to a core melt, but no one died in the incident.

If you really care about the environment, lift people out of poverty (01:18:33)

  • Nuclear power can provide a reliable and increasingly low-cost universal power grid, especially for isolated communities and mining enterprises, as micro reactors are easily transportable and don't require extensive transmission lines.
  • Nuclear power can free up fossil fuels for use as chemical precursors and potentially enfranchise billions of people around the world, lifting them out of poverty.
  • Access to energy is crucial for poverty reduction and environmental concern, and nuclear power can contribute to resilient wealth and a better future for future generations.
  • The key to human progress is the ability to feed and power ourselves, and incremental improvement in an intelligent manner is the goal.

Overwhelmed by Endless Content?