Thursday, August 21, 2014

Small Nuclear Reactors? Why Not Mini?

upowerMore from the world of venture capital :

Less than a couple hours ago, we were highlighted in a TechCrunch article disclosing that UPower is a Y Combinator company.  This article is currently trending at story number 1 in HackerNews.

Almost all of that is way too millenial for me, but it does raise the question: what is UPower? and Y Combinator, for that matter?

Let’s start with the second part first:

When Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham passed the keys of his uber-successful seed accelerator program to Sam Altman in February, he did so with an eye on the future.

Graham’s interest was largely in internet startups, but Altman seems to have a taste for nuclear energy and biotech:

“I’ve always loved it when we can fund companies that, if we don’t fund them, they won’t exist,” Altman said in an interview with Re/code on Tuesday. “No one is funding energy, and I think it’s a good business and really important for the world.

“Really important for the world.” It has kind of an adolescent twang to it – though he is is, after all, right. That tone, though, seems contagious. Here’s Helion Energy’s David Kirtley talking about fusion:

“Fusion is fundamentally safe. There’s no chance of meltdown, no carbon dioxide. But at the same time, it’s really hard.” The crowd chuckled. “It’s really hard,” Dr. Kirtley repeated.

It’s actually kind of charming and brings venture capitalism and nuclear energy closer to a youthful impulse to change the world -  it may be really hard, but it’s really important. Although Y Combinator invests some money into the startups it supports, its main function is to get the companies together with venture capitalists and other investors.

The startups move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which we work intensively with them to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present their companies to a carefully selected, invite-only audience.

That brings us to UPower, which presented its idea on one of these demo days.

“Our target demographic is people off the grid,” says Jacob DeWitte, UPower CEO and co-founder. “Think of remote communities in the Northern Arctic or Canada. All of these places that aren’t connected to large continental grids rely on diesel generators for energy. … We can bring them power in a small package and get them energy they couldn’t have before.”

These aren’t small reactors, with which they clearly have some commonality, but personal nuclear reactors. I took a look  at UPower’s web site to get a fuller sense of it. It’s a trifle vague at this point.

UPower technology enables an always on, container-sized, truly carbon-free and emission-free nano-nuclear battery for remote and distributed generation where energy costs can exceed 30 cents/kWh, and power is needed 24/7.  The generator is a containerized unit that provides over a decade of energy without refueling, and can generate electricity for 40% less than competing technologies in these markets.  The UPower generator is powered by a unique compact, solid state, micro reactor that produces over 1 MW and can cogenerate process heat.

Sort of like a less intrusive solar panel on the roof. If I understand correctly, the reactor uses thorium and tungsten (formed into a “pixie stick”-like fuel rod) and is cooled by a “proprietary technology” – a heat sink, perhaps. Vague, yes, but early enough to keep questions about regulating and licensing these items at bay – not to mention non-proliferation concerns. All in good time.

I’ve been intrigued to see venture capital extend itself into the nuclear world. On first blush, it seems an extension of the interest in green technologies. Altman says as much and notes that investors have been spooked by the collapse of a few such companies – maybe that caused the turn to nuclear energy, which is green and mature, though Altman doesn’t say so.

If the idea of micro reactors sounds unlikely, consider biotech:

Glowing Plant, another startup in the biotech space, is focused on the genetically modified plant market, making “living air fresheners that don’t need chemical replacement cartridges, real cow’s milk without the need for dairy farming, and the ability to turn plants into useful fuel.”

Writers Kurt Wagner and Lauren Goode note that the audience hearing the Glowing Plant pitch were clearly uneasy with it – because it introduces ethical and moral issues regarding genetic tampering. The name Glowing Plant is almost provocative in this context. Even if you think fear of Dr. Moreau-like horrors is overblown, running these ideas past the public can be difficult.

All these ideas seem both promising and outlandish. They can be how the future is made or springboards to more practical applications (or complete dead ends, to be honest). What Y Combinator does is a working definition of “early days.” It’s interesting to see nuclear energy in the mix.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

In a Puff of Solar Smoke

One could use a story like this to slag solar energy, but that’s not the point:

According to the Associated Press, up to 28,000 birds per year might be meeting an early death after burning up in the focused beams of sunlight, with birds dying at a rate of one bird every two minutes. The burned-up birds are being dubbed "streamers," after the poof of smoke produced by the igniting birds.

Assuming plant workers came up with “streamers,” well, that’s pretty tasteless. It gets (potentially) worse.

A quasi-food chain is being established around the solar plant, with predators eating birds and bats that burn up in the plant's solar rays chasing after insects which are attracted to the bright light from the sun's reflected rays. That prompted wildlife officials to refer to Ivanpah [the solar farm’s name] as a "mega-trap" for wildlife.

It turns out this is the consequence of what sounds like an interesting design. (You can view a very fancy Google Streets-style tour of Ivanpah here. Note that the towers are not numerous amongst the many solar panels, but I assume it is the “power towers” that get hot enough to evaporate birds.)

The state-of-the-art Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), which opened in February, is the world's largest solar plant to utilize "power towers,"  skyscraping structures that receive beams of focused solar rays to generate electricity.

Energy plants that pull water from rivers can have an impact on fish, though not at a level that impacts the overall piscine population of the river – the percentage of fish affected is vanishingly small compared to the number of fish in a given environment.

That might apply here, too, though no one seems to have researched the issue in any depth.

Unfortunately, the USFWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] doesn't yet know the full extent of the solar facility's impact on bird populations, and is calling for a full year study of the death toll at the site before the plant's operators are allowed to construct an even bigger "power tower" solar plant between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border, the Associated Press reports.

A small percentage of birds caught in solar conflagration may or may not be considered too many. But what would be completely unacceptable is if the Joshua Tree solar array causes problems for the raptors known to be there (golden eagles and peregrine falcons) – that would likely lead to considerable protest from their human admirers. That’s what USFWS won’t allow.

In sum: no energy source known to man is completely benign – there’s a reason “harnessed” and “energy” often go together – but most, including nuclear energy, have been harnessed and their potential impact on wildlife mitigated significantly. Some water bodies around nuclear energy plants have increased their fish cohort and become angler destinations. Something similar can happen with these “power towers,” too. Fewer puffs of smoke, retiring the term streamers. It’s a difficult problem, perhaps, but (let’s hope) solvable. Let’s see what happens.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What the Energiewende is Costing Germany

BMW knows the way to Carolina.
Some interesting thoughts about Germany's Energiewende from John Hulsman in The Telegraph (emphasis mine):
Third, wholly botched energy reforms, wherein Germany abruptly turned away from nuclear power without putting anything economically sustainable in its place (instead touting that some day, somehow wind and solar will make economic sense) has left the country at a permanent, seemingly long-term economic disadvantage that simply cannot be overcome. German energy prices are fully three times as high industrially as those of their American competitors. As I say to my somewhat nervous German colleagues, "You are all talented, but you are not three times more talented than the Americans."
As I've said before, we've seen other marriages of German engineering and American muscle that seem to have worked out just fine. Why not come to South Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee, where new nuclear plants are being built right now and the electricity is reasonably priced?

Monday, August 18, 2014

New to the Nuclear Industry, Advocating for the Future

The following post was provided by Christina Baworowsky for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. Powered by Our People is part of the Future of Energy campaign that NEI launched earlier this year. This promotion aims to communicate innovation in our nation’s nuclear energy industry in the voices of the people working within it. 

Christina is NEI’s federal programs coordinator. Though she is new to NEI, Christina has a long history of involvement with nuclear energy, from learning about it from her uncle as a child to writing her senior thesis on it.

For more on this promotion, take a look at the featured content on our website and follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Christina Baworowsky
When people ask me how I wound up working in governmental affairs at a nuclear energy trade association at the age of 22, they are usually surprised when I say it is because I wrote my thesis on nuclear power. When I was a senior in college, I decided that I wanted to answer a lot of questions I had about the role of nuclear power in America. Some students thought about writing about the founding fathers of the country, but I decided that the founding fathers of nuclear were way cooler. I began reading hundreds of articles that ranged from saying that nuclear power is dead in the United States to saying that we will soon have a nuclear renaissance.

I should probably backtrack by explaining why I like nuclear, and why nuclear matters to me. When I was young my uncle, who is a nuclear engineer, exposed me to the world of nuclear energy. He worked at Zion Nuclear Power Station in Zion, Ill. until it was decommissioned in the late ’90s. Unlike some kids who thought that nuclear power plants were like the negative image that The Simpsons portrayed, I knew from a young age that it was nothing like that and the plants were safe with highly skilled workers.

Statistically, the more a person knows about nuclear power, the more likely they are to support it. I support nuclear energy because I believe in it. There is no other source of energy that can provide baseload power any time of day in any weather with no emissions. I think we must expand nuclear in this country because it is the only real way to make a huge impact in cutting carbon emissions.

In my role at NEI, I support our governmental affairs team. I organize meetings for committees made up of other companies that are involved with nuclear power, I help coordinate events for DC’s chapter of U.S. Women in Nuclear and I also help all of our team members find the research and materials that they need to be effective lobbyists. On Capitol Hill, there is a constant battle for funding for research and construction and making sure that legislation benefits, not impedes, the nuclear utilities and suppliers.

So, how would I innovate in nuclear? I want to leverage my passion for this industry to influence views on Capitol Hill of what nuclear power facilities are like (clean, safe, efficient) and the way that our government views the role of nuclear in its energy portfolio (largest clean air source the nation has). I advocate for the expansion of nuclear programs and projects. I want a nuclear renaissance. It all starts by me getting my foot in the door and learning as much as I possibly can about energy policy in America. I may not be able to directly influence decisions today that will affect policy, but the hard work my NEI and industry colleagues and I are doing now will help us advance nuclear energy's future.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nuclear Technology’s Trail Out of the Valley of Death

When Bill Gates became Chairman of the Board of TerraPower a few years ago, the potential role of angels and venture capital to push energy technology forward became more apparent. Gates became involved with TerraPower because

of his belief that nuclear energy will play a key role in addressing the imperative to move to low-carbon or zero-carbon energy. Because energy is a critical element in global development, he has personally supported numerous businesses working to develop safe, affordable and environmentally-friendly sources of electricity. He is an advocate for dramatic increases in government spending on energy research and is a founding member of the American Energy Innovation Council.

Another Microsoft veteran, Nathan Myrhvold, is TerraPower’s Vice Chairman of the Board, so perhaps collegiality and friendship also play a part. In any event, they have helped TerraPower move forward.

Gates would be classified as an angel, an individual who materially contributes to startup projects. Venture capital played a part, too, with Charles River Ventures and Khosla Ventures working with TerraPower.

In startups, most definitely including technology startups, there is much discussion of the so-called “valley of death.” Forbes’ Martin Zwilling describes it thusly:

The “valley of death” is a common term in the startup world, referring to the difficulty of covering the negative cash flow in the early stages of a startup, before their new product or service is bringing in revenue from real customers. 

Zwilling continues:

According to a Gompers and Lerner study, the challenge is very real, with 90% of new ventures that don’t attract investors failing within the first three years. The problem is that professional investors (Angels and Venture Capital) want a proven business model before they invest, ready to scale, rather than the more risky research and development efforts.

Zwilling is offering advice to small entrepreneurs – and mostly steering them away from venture capital as antithetical to riskier new projects. That would seem to leave technology projects in the valley.

Investing in science and energy innovation is slowly swinging back into fashion in Silicon Valley. It seems like this is partly because of a backlash against the idea that Silicon Valley hasn’t been funding the world’s more difficult problems, and instead has been making easy money on things like social media apps.

That’s from Gigaom’s Katie Fehrenbacher, who uses the recent funding of Transatomic Power as the hook to launch an examination of venture capital and nuclear technology projects.  She focuses largely on a company called Helion Energy, a fusion project, and mentions TerraPower and General Fusion in passing. We looked at the Transatomic deal here.

Evan a few swallows don’t make a spring, but maybe it’s time to get out the binoculars as more birds flock. The projects described by Fehrenbacher are variegated in terms of technology – new ideas, revivals of older ideas, some fanciful ideas (fusion, of course – kidding!). It reflects the interest in nuclear as a “low-carbon or zero-carbon” producing energy source, perhaps a broadening of interest by venture capital firms and maybe more aggressive fundraising by project leaders. As a trail out of the valley of death, it’s encouraging - fewer brambles along the way, anyway.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fictional Dystopia and Nuclear Optimism

8_bigstock_Power_Distribution_Station_Wit_7397523Michael Solana has an article in Wired that tackles the trend in fiction, especially science fiction, toward dystopia. He contrasts the hopeful, forward-looking science fiction of an earlier day to the current interest in zombies and hellscapes. This is his view of the earlier period:

Simon Lake—American mechanical engineer, naval architect, and perhaps the most important mind behind the development of the submarine—said of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life.”

He offers Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry and even Jonathan Swift as examples of forward looking authors. Of course, H.G. Wells was pretty good at creating man- or alien-created heaps of rubble – see the Shape of Things to Come or War of the Worlds – and one of Swift’s most famous pieces involves cannibalism. Let’s not even get into the Morlocks and Eloi.

The author does allow that dystopia has always been an element in science fiction. His point is that it has now overwhelmed everything else.

Once a literary niche within a niche, mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity by nuclear weapons, computers gone rogue, nanotechnology, and man-made viruses in the pages of what was once our true north; we have plague and we have zombies and we have zombie plague.

Here’s a Time top 10 of post-apocalyptic novels, which includes books from as far back as 1951 (Day of the Triffids).

Interestingly, Solana does not include domestic nuclear energy as a

dystopia motivator and I’d venture that nuclear war doesn’t have the cache it had during the cold war – On the Beach, Five, etc.

And that’s when he gets to his prescription:

Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again. 

This seems to me a very straitened view of the fictional landscape – he uses The Hunger Games and The Road as his examples of modern dystopia – and while some such works are cynical, others use their awful future worlds to show how humans prevail over adversity, a perennial theme. Fiction needs conflict, of course. Even when scientific advance is shown as a potential good – from Frankenstein to 2001 to Minority Report - technology introduces unintended consequences. It’s as old an idea as technology itself.

Nuclear energy has generally done fairly well in this formulation – aside from the video games series Fallout. Back to the Future uses it for time travel and the water fission project in Chain Reaction would be a boon if Morgan Freeman weren’t so evil. True, Chernobyl Diaries imagines mutated things with a taste for foolish young adults, but Cloud Atlas teases an evil nuclear energy facility only to make the real villain threatened big oil. Even in the fifties, radioactively derived creatures were joined by medical mishaps and alien invasions to provide thrills.

So, I don’t know. I guess I don’t agree with Solana’s article, though I appreciate his preference for optimism. It might just be that he’s ready for a new pop paradigm. A few years ago, Solana might have zeroed in on vampires – today, it’s dystopia. Too much can be too much – consider it the workings of the market combined with what’s plucked out of the cultural ether. One usually has only to wait for a fad to die out. This ruined world too shall pass.

But read it and see what you think. For those interested in a more positive view of science and nuclear science in particular, what would be some fictional exemplars? I brought up a few from the movie world, but what about novels? plays? operas? 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Nuclear Design is the Most Rewarding Career I’ve Had

The following post was sent to us by Bechtel’s Angela McAlpin for NEI’s Powered by Our People promotion. Powered by Our People is part of the Future of Energy campaign that NEI launched earlier this year. This promotion aims to communicate innovation in our nation’s nuclear facilities in the voices of the people working at them. 

Angela is a civil engineer and has worked in the nuclear industry for 13 years. She recently supported a one-of-a-kind nuclear pipe replacement project and is currently working on the Generation mPower small modular reactor project.

For more on this promotion, take a look at the featured content on our website and follow the #futureofenergy tag across our digital channels. 

Angela McAlpin
Sometimes, I feel like a forensics investigator—the ones you see on TV who pore over files and mull over case details until the pieces of the puzzle come together to reveal a picture. The dedication and attention to detail needed to solve crimes appeal to me as they are the exact characteristics needed to be an effective engineer in the nuclear industry.

I have worked across a wide variety of industries, designing structures for solar and fossil power plants, waste treatment facilities, underground communication services, chemical demilitarization facilities, missile defense buildings and nuclear power plants. Out of all these industries, nuclear design is the most challenging and rewarding.

The nuclear industry holds the highest expectations of quality and safety in engineering design calculations. Every detail is scrutinized with an intense amount of rigor. Our work is triple checked, and is then subjected to reviews by peers, management, clients, and third-party industry personnel. The checks and balances are not just about adding conservatism, they are about getting the design right, and for me, that is the most exciting aspect of my work.

I recently finished an assignment as the civil and structural engineering supervisor on a first-of-a-kind project replacing a large Essential Service Water (ESW) system of an operating nuclear plant. The ESW supplies cooling water to the plant's heat exchangers and other components. I managed the civil and structural design documentation and client/construction interfacing for the project.

To support the ESW replacement project, we reviewed old drawings and photos; we talked to Bechtel engineers who designed the original plant; and we interviewed staff at the current operating site. When the design documents were complete, I was absolutely certain they were up to the standards and expectations of the nuclear industry. I was particularly proud of the final calculations and drawings because I knew how much time, effort and scrutiny was required to get to that stage. The successful construction completion of the project was a tremendous feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Nuclear is a crucial part of the nation’s energy mix because it’s clean, efficient power. With so much diligence, ingenuity, coordination and inspection put into nuclear design, people should feel comfortable knowing they have a safe source of power in their community. For the detail-focused, problem-solving civil engineers out there, a nuclear facility design will always be an assignment worth looking forward to. In fact, I now happily lead the conceptual structural design of an underground small modular reactor, and I have a blank piece of paper this time!