Ep 04: Eric Loewen - Scientist, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy
Q – Intro to Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: Tell us how you got here.
Eric Loewen: Eric Loewen was originally a math and chemistry major at Western State College in Colorado. He worked as a summer chemist intern at an oil shale company, but was recruited into the Navy nuclear power program. This allowed Loewen to take a big jump as a liberal arts major with the Navy’s training. Loewen liked the technology and wanted to see it progress in the United States, leading him to leave the Navy pursue higher education at the University of Wisconsin. He received his master’s and started work on his PhD when he got an opportunity to work for a startup, Molten Metal Technology, as they started to get into the nuclear waste sector. The company went bankrupt after five years, leading Loewen back to the University of Wisconsin to finish his PhD, taking him to the Idaho National Laboratory as a scientist for seven years. He completed one year as a Congressional fellow as part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is the umbrella for all the professional societies and scientific organizations. Loewen served as the legislative assistant on climate change to Senator Hagel. Like a lot of authorization language that gets passed, the U.S. climate policy was not implemented because it’s not backed up by the appropriations and priorities shift. The framework works on the metric of greenhouse gas intensity, specifically CO2 emissions divided by economic output. This allows countries, industrial segments, and cities to compare themselves to each other.
7:13 Q – Fast Spectrum Reactors
Bret Kugelmass: How did you combine your climate path and your nuclear background?
Eric Loewen: When Eric Loewen worked in D.C. as a fellow, he wanted to work in nuclear issues and chose to work with Senator Hagel on climate change. After finishing his fellowship, Loewen returned to Idaho National Lab and an opportunity came up to work for General Electric. In 2005, the Department of Energy changed their approach and called it the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. This program was developed to get back to a fast spectrum reactor, with high energy neutrons, and use it to recycle used fuel. A country that wants the benefits of a no-carbon nuclear power plant doesn’t need the front end of enrichment or the back end of reprocessing. The United States or other nations would supply the fuel and take it back. When Loewen interviewed with General Electric (GE), they wanted him to bring Power Reactor Inherently Safe Module (PRISM) back off the shelf. PRISM was initially invented by GE in 1981 and was under the umbrella of the program that included the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. While Clinch River was trying to get a bigger sodium-cooled reactor, PRISM was trying to go smaller and able to be manufactured with inherent feedbacks in the reactor. Inherent feedbacks means a reliability on physics. When power goes up, temperature goes up and causes the reactor core to expand, makes more neutrons leak out, and makes power drop. While Eric Loewen was at the University of Wisconsin, he was a senior reactor operator at the small reactor on campus. The reactor could be brought to a certain power, an operator would eject a control rod to make the power spike by a factor of 100, and the power would turn back around because the fuel is uranium hydride and it had inherent feedbacks. In the design process, inherent feedbacks must be validated and re-validated when the reactor is operating so people feel comfortable.
11:25 Q – General Electric’s Nuclear History
Bret Kugelmass: What is General Electric’s role in America’s nuclear history?
Eric Loewen: GE started looking at the fission process when a famous paper got published by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, which also included research by Lise Meitner. These three people discovered the process called fission around 1938-1939. In 1939, GE’s research center near Schenectady, New York decided to look into the technology. GE is a technology company always looking for the next big thing. During the early 1940’s, GE was looking at how to harness fission, initially looking at a sodium cooled reactor concept. After World War II, Captain Rickover was sent to Oak Ridge National Lab to learn about technology and get a steam plant inside a submarine. The first contact went to GE to develop a sodium-cooled plant and the second contract went to Westinghouse to develop a pressurized water reactor. President Eisenhower, when he gave his Atoms for Peace speech in 1952, wanted a technology that wasn’t militarily derived. At the National Reactor Test Station in Idaho this same year, Sam Untermeyer thought to boil the water in the core, which became the boiling water reactor. The very first reactor that made electricity for a town was a boiling water reactor and the technology was pushed to General Electric by the federal government to commercialize and show the U.S. had a peaceful path forward. The U.S. has about 70% pressurized water reactors and 30% boiling water reactors. Humans were chemists for 3,000 years. The first thing they learned how to do was oxidation, which was fire, and fermentation, which was alcohol. This uses the binding energy of electrons. About 75 years ago, humans discovered there was a binding energy that holds the inner nucleus together, which produces 200 billion times more energy when those bonds are broken. The first attempt to do this is with water-cooled reactors and it used only 1% of available energy in the uranium. Eric Loewen thinks technology needs to move toward better physics, in a fast spectrum or high energy neutron reactor system.
Q – Development of Nuclear Technologies
Bret Kugelmass: Conceptually, what are the pros and cons of thermal spectrum reactors and fast spectrum reactors?
Eric Loewen: Conceptually, airplanes had propellers out front, but then a jet engine was invented and allowed humans to travel faster and carry more passengers. The fundamentals of flight are still the same. Water-cooled reactor experience can be leveraged into fast spectrum reactors. The quality programs and reactor control directly overlap. Changes in fast spectrum reactors include coolant, no moderator, and a different fuel type and fuel enclosure. Water reactors operate at 300 degress Celsius; a typical sodium-cooled reactor operates at 500 degrees Celsius, creating more steam cycle efficiency. Gas-cooled reactors get up from 700-1000 degrees Celsius, bringing an even better thermaodynamic efficiency. When Eric Loewen was working in Senator Hagel’s office in 2005, he became aware of the technology readiness levels because he was keeping up on different energy projects. The Department of Energy (DOE) environmental management was missing on milestones and having huge cost overruns on their cleanup activities. The report said technologies are being picked that are immature or the scaling laws are not understood, causing cost overruns. NASA was already using technology readiness levels. When Loewen took his job with General Electric (GE) in 2006, part of the deliverables were to rate their technologies to the technology readiness levels, copied over from NASA readiness levels. GE reordered the levels and submitted them to the DOE, who proceeded to update their readiness levels. Loewen doesn’t like tech readiness levels because it provides an excuse to get to another level, requiring a large roadmap or developing problem. If a company is ready to start the licensing process, that should be the metric, rather than the quantitative, qualitative, and rather subjective tech readiness level. The previous chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Chairman Burns, announced the NRC is open for business for advanced reactors. The different advanced reactor companies starting the formal engagement is the way to move forward. The NRC has a good learning culture and will get faster and faster as they explore these other technologies.
22:34 Q – Nuclear Market, Policy, and Perception
Bret Kugelmass: Are there any other policy changes that need to fundamentally be overcome in order to get the public on board with nuclear technology?
Eric Loewen: The concept of radiation and what is a safe level got biased very early to take a very simplistic approach, the linear no-threshold theory (LNT). Everything in life has a hermetic effect, meaning dose is everything. Our bodies adapted to radiation exposure, from the sun and the ground, and didn’t get a “sick sensor” for radiation detecting because it wasn’t a threat to our survival, like temperature sensors in our fingers. As President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), Eric Loewen looked at low dose radiation and addressed some of the data and misconceptions. He has also spoken on getting rid of the approach in the nuclear industry for radiation workers called As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), where every year you need to get less and less dose. Instead, Loewen advocates for operating to the safe limits in the regulations and moving forward. The nuclear industry is one of several different ways to generate electricity. When there was a large increase in nuclear in the 1970’s, the electricity growth rate was 7-10% a year. When Three Mile Island happened in 1979, people point out that 100 nuclear power plants got cancelled. What they don’t realize is that 200 coal plants on the books also got cancelled because the load growth went to 5%. Today’s load growth is 1% or flat. If you’re a utility that sells electrons to your customers, you don’t need more power plants because your product doesn’t have demand in the marketplace. In 2008, before the collapse of the stock market, there were 23 new build projects, but were cancelled because of capital dried up and the load growth was not there. PRISM started in 2006 when General Electric brought it off the shelf with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. The program stopped when President Obama was elected office, but there was a lot of activity in the U.K. to look at plutonium disposition. The U.S. showed up to talk about a PRISM solution, which was one of three solutions considered. GE participated in some of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) advanced reactor grants to improve their electromagnetic pump and update their probabilistic risk assessment tools.
28:52 Q – Evolution of Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: Where do you see some of the most advanced work being done in the nuclear industry?
Eric Loewen: There is some activity in Congress of the versatile neutron source, as they realized nuclear needed to make a jet engine equivalent in the industry to begin testing. PRISM should be that tool because it’s been through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) review from 1987-1994. GE is ready to go into that licensing process and support different technologies with a test reactor. This facility should be a private-public partnership close to something that would be done commercially and would be able to help advance a lot of different materials. The human society has evolved as great chemists. The three scientists that decided to shoot a neutron inside a neutron to see what happened in 1939 gave a gift to human society. This new energy source needs to be safely and economically explored. Nuclear is at the early stage of the technology and later generations will look back, wondering why there was so much fear about a great, abundant energy source that could be used to help save the world.