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Published on September 11th, 2008 | by Rod Adams


Answer to an Amory Lovins Disciple Who Believes in Conservation, Solar, Wind and Micropower

September 11th, 2008 by  

In addition to my efforts on Green Options publications like CleanTechnica, I also publish a blog titled Atomic Insights. On that blog, I have recently been engaged in a conversation with a reader named Gordon, who is a believer in the energy supply systems that Amory Lovins has been advocating for more than 35 years. I addressed this response to Gordon, but it is a more generally applicable response for anyone who wants to follow the non-nuclear “soft energy path”.


One thing you apparently do not understand about nuclear fission is that it can come in a variety of sizes. Not all plants are the extra large central station power plants that you are discussing.

I am currently the only (unpaid) employee of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. We have not yet gained sufficient investor traction to move forward with our design, but our plan is to produce plants in sizes ranging from about 1 – 50 MWe.

Our plants will use long-lived reactors as heat sources for turbo machines that closely resemble the gas turbines engines that have enabled low capital costs for systems burning natural gas. Our advantages will be that our heat costs about 1/3 as much, it will be available anywhere in the world, and it does not release any greenhouse gases at all.

Though Adams EnginesTM are pretty far off at this point – my stubborn streak has interfered with my ability ability to raise sufficient capital – there are better organized companies that are pursuing similar concepts.

Hyperion Power Generation, for example, is focusing on a heating unit that is small enough to fit on the back of an over-the-road truck that can produce 70 MW of thermal energy constantly for several years. I spoke to the company founder for The Atomic Show Podcast and he explained how his company is establishing the supply chain needed to build 4,000 units that will be able to provide heat for about $3 per million BTU. By comparison, liquified natural gas sold in Japan last week for $20 per million BTU.

Hyperion’s patented technology was developed by a Los Alamos National Laboratory team led by Otis (Pete) Peterson and is backed by Altira Group LLC.

They are the real deal and have designed a system that meets every design criteria that Lovins could want – except the fact that it uses nuclear fission as the heat source. After reading Lovins’s work dating back more than 35 years, I know he has a firm aversion to that basic physical phenomenon.

Hyperion is not alone in thinking that small, simple, passively safe fission power plants can change the world. I also spoke recently to the CEO and the Chief Technology Officer for NuScale Power, a company that grew out of a research project at Oregon State University.

Their system, originally called the Multi-Application Simple Light Water Reactor (MASLWR), is designed to be built in a factory and transported to a site on a ship, train, specialized truck or barge ready to produce 45 MW of electricity. The entire nuclear steam supply system will be in a container that is 60 feet long and 15 feet in diameter.

Again, NuScale is up and running with a good chance of success. The CTO began his career with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has taught engineering at Oregon State University for more than 20 years. The CEO – Paul Lorenzini – was the president of PacifCorp and was lured out of retirement by his belief in the idea that the system could meet a real and pressing market need.

I know some of the members of the team that is now doing the detailed design and will be leading the licensing effort. They are some of the smartest and most innovative engineers I have met in the nuclear industry. NuScale is backed by CMEA Ventures.

Like many evangelists, Amory Lovins preaches a message that has a certain attraction and even some validity, but because he is a professional anti-nuke he has assiduously avoided the only known technology that could make his post-fossil fuel, distributed power system actually workable. I have told him – in person – at least twice about the existence of small, distributed nuclear fission power plants, but that message has apparently not been received.

There is no such thing as “firmed wind” or reliable solar power in a world where windless high pressure areas often rest over entire countries for days to weeks and where the sun sets every single day and is interrupted by dense clouds on a regular basis.

Highly sophisticated wind-based transportation demonstrated its very real limitations compared to even primitive coal-fueled steam engines more than 150 years ago, but nuclear fission power is currently propelling some of the fastest and most reliable ships on the ocean.

Emission free nuclear fission power has been proven reliable at the North Pole, in Antarctica, Alaska, Siberia, and other remote locations where the weather is harsh and deadly. In many remote places, the only way to use less power is to avoid going there, but sometimes that is not an option.

When you or Lovins claim that you can always fall back on grid power or even distributed combustion based “micropower” people like me and Atomic Insights readers see that as an acknowledgment that you plan to always have a large component of fossil fuel in your future power and energy systems.

Since most of us believe that the world is going to use more energy in the future, not less, we see that vision as a de facto endorsement of an ever increasing dependence on a depleting and polluting fuel source. In the case of Lovins, I believe he knows that he is really selling coal, oil and gas. I am not sure about you yet.

Fission makes that continued, nearly exclusive dependence unnecessary. The grid that I envision includes some large central station nuclear power plants like those being built by Areva, Westinghouse, Atomstroyexport, GE, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi. Those plants will fit into our existing, expensively constructed grids to provide stability and replace the coal and natural gas fired power plants that currently provide 70% of the electricity in the US. It also includes lot of small nukes like those advocated by Hyperion, NuScale, Toshiba, and Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. to supply power to places not reached by the existing grid and to fill in weak spots or incremental growth in grid supplied areas.

My future energy visions includes distributed nuclear fission power on ships, nuclear fission powered electrified trains, plug in electric vehicles, and possibly even atomic turbine engines directly powering large aircraft. There are sufficient stores of uranium and thorium in the world to supply the kind of abundant, reliable power system needed to enable human comfort, ingenuity and development for thousands of years.

PS – I am under verbal non-disclosure agreements with two more companies that should be announcing their entries into the small nuclear power plant market by the end of this year. There is plenty of room for more entries, the potential size of the market is measured in the trillions of dollars.

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About the Author

loves and respects our common environment, but he has a fatal flaw in the eyes of many environmentalists -- he's a huge fan of atomic energy. Reduce, reuse, and recycle have been watchwords for Rod since his father taught him that raising rabbits is a great way to turn kitchen scraps into fertilizer for backyard fruit trees and vegetable gardens. They built a compost heap together in about 1967, when he was 8 and when Earth Day was a mere gleam in some people's eye. During his professional career, he has served in several assignments on nuclear submarines, including a 40-month tour as the Engineer Officer of the USS Von Steuben. In 1994, he was awarded US patent number 5309592 for the control system for a closed-cycle gas turbine. He founded Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. in 1993, started Atomic Insights in 1995, and began producing the Atomic Show Podcast in 2006. He is currently an active duty officer (O-5) in the US Navy. He looks forward to many interesting discussions.

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