October 13th, 2016 — On the first day of NSO, I received a phone call from the Stanford Energy Club. Due to my strong passion for green energy resources, especially nuclear energy, I applied for an officer position the moment I received an email from the SEC. Apparently, the president was interested in my proactivity and interest in nuclear energy and wanted to meet with me. I immediately dropped the clothes I was unpacking from my luggage and ran to Tressider. Yes ran, not biked unfortunately. During our meeting, the president discussed this quarterly lecture series, E360, in which we bring panelists to shed light on complex issues and general misunderstandings of the role that energy resources play in the global and local politics. This quarter’s topic was Advanced Nuclear Energy. Since I described my passion for nuclear energy in my application, we thought it would be nice if I could help organize this event as my intro to the SEC as a possible segway into future work with nuclear energy as the SEC does not have a nuclear division (also, the SEC is predominantly composed of grad students, and they wanted to expand to include more undergrads). I was practically jumping in my seat when I said yes.
Our panel brought together three phenomenal speakers. I learned so much about how Advanced Nuclear differs from conventional nuclear energy in the sense that advanced nuclear focuses on Generation IV reactors, which feature revolutionary technology that increase energy and cost efficiency, decrease safety hazards and risks, and expands availability and operating life. I heard the panelists explain their revolutionary reactors and how their technology can provide a safe, sustainable, and powerful energy resource in places of high demand. Due to the size of their modular reactors, the companies gained the unique ability to relocate reactors strategically on the grid to provide energy in places with high demand for energy. Furthermore, the size of the reactors decrease capital required for production and maintenance. In addition, its small size enables it to be located on secure locations such as military bases without fear of catastrophic event. The depth of the materials that could be released in case of problem, would not require an emergency planning zone.
CEO Simon Irish explained that Terrestrial Energy’s Molten Salt Reactor could produce up to 400MW in terms of thermal energy. He explained that the output of their MSR comes in the form of both electrical and thermal energy. The molten salt reaches temperatures 600-700C. Conventional reactors only create around 253C, which is not sufficient to drive chemical synthesis. He strongly emphasized that one of the great benefits of the MSR is the molten salts that can be produced. The energy produced from the reaction can be saved, stored, and transported in the form of salt for later use. He mentioned that this advanced nuclear technology can work synergistically with other renewable energy sources such as solar power. While solar power can cover energy demand in the day time, it is unable to provide energy during peak hours once the sun has gone down. The molten salt produced by the MSRs come into play here. The stored heat from the MSR can be used to drive turbines to generate power to feed the energy demand while the sun is down. In addition, the MSR uses a liquid fuel that has many commercial merits.
Chief Nuclear Officer Dr. Eben Mulder showed that X-Energy’s Pebble Bed Reactor is an intrinsically safe reactor-meaning that the reaction does not depend upon human action, thus minimizing chance of human error. He explained that they began work by developing a test reactor to produce fuel. Their fuel is composed of small 7g pebbles that have been coated with low enriched uranium (15.5%) via vapor disposition. One pebble contains enough fuel to produce 27mW hours, which is equivalent to 2billion tons of coal. The pebbles created by X-Energy are the fuel units that can be utilized by all small modular reactors. Dr. Mulder explained how his reactor was designed based upon marketing principles. The size and scale of the reactor was specifically chosen in order to decrease capital utility while maximizing energy output and mobility. Furthermore, he added that the fuel used for energy production could be recycled, and if you operate a reactor with the duration (very long) of their fuel cycle, the waste products that could be utilized for weapons is consumed as fuel.
Our wonderful moderator, Jessica Lovering Director of Energy of Breakthrough Institute, skillfully posed questions and guided the discussion to address the economics, motivation, and design behind advanced nuclear reactors. Her questions included: Where did the motivation for advanced nuclear energy come from? Do you see yourselves competing with Natural Gas Industry? How do you see your tech working with renewable energy moving forward? Questions from the audience included: How do you approach the issue of radioactive waste for weapons development? Is the 15.5% enriched uranium is unique to your reactor design?
After the event, many of our students got chat in person over pizza with the Director of Energy of Breakthrough Institute, CEO and CFO of Terrestrial Energy, and Chief Nuclear Officer of X-Energy. As I exchanged contact info with people who wished to collaborate on future nuclear events, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be in this position. After everyone left, I couldn’t believe the event was over. It was then that I realized the abundance of opportunities Stanford has to offer and my love of the SEC. This club was my unorthodox intro to college. It kept me so busy that I forgot about missing home. It opened up my network to so many people and opportunities. It gave me a structured yet flexible learning environment. It gave me mentorship and execution through an unforgettable experience. It gave me assurance that energy is my true passion. It gave me assurance that Stanford is where I belong.
Nathan Kong is a freshman studying Material Science at Stanford. He organized this quarter’s E360 lecture series by inviting a three person panel of nuclear energy specialists and 73 guests to campus all in his first month of college.