Jan 24, 2018

Ep 03: Todd Allen - Professor, University of Wisconsin

University of Michigan
Play audio

Show notes

Q – Intro to Nuclear

Bret Kugelmass: How did you enter the nuclear space?

Todd Allen: Todd Allen received his undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering at Northwestern University. After graduation, Allen spent seven years as a Navy nuke submarine officer. During his last two years, he taught physics at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and decided he did not want to stay in active duty. Allen went to the University of Michigan to pursue his PhD as a nuclear engineering material scientist and, on a parallel track, stayed in the Navy for another 17 years upon which he retired as a reserve captain. Commercials plants are much larger in size and are designed to slowly start up and make electricity for longer periods of time. Navy plants are smaller and are designed to be flexible. A submarine must be able to go from slow to fast very quickly, leading to different design requirements on the reactor. After receiving his PhD, Todd Allen got a job as a research scientist at Argonne National Lab’s West facility, which has since become part of Idaho National Labs, where he spent seven years. Allen got an offer to join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin and spent 10 years on that staff. In 2008, Idaho National Labs turned their test reactor, which had primarily been used by the Navy, into a user facility open to universities and others across the country. Allen joined as their first director in 2009.

5:32 Q – Nuclear National Labs

Bret Kugelmass: What had been the function of these labs up until that point?

Todd Allen: In the early days, the Idaho National Lab was designated the national reactor testing station and was a place where anyone could go build their prototype reactor. There was a lot of interest from the Atomic Energy Commission, which is now the Department of Energy (DOE), as well as commercial companies and the military. Once light water reactors started being commercialized, a lot of the other commercial interests were faded away and most of the nation’s nuclear knowledge was left with the national labs and the universities. In the early days, uranium was thought to be a very scarce resource and being able to optimize the use of it was a big deal. The cladding, which is the tube that contains the fuel, is the factor that limits the life of the fuel. Over the years, the national lab system has done development on sodium-cooled reactors and high temperature gas-cooled reactors. There is a huge amount knowledge and capability that sits at the national labs and universities that are enabling to today’s commercial actors. A lot of fundamental physics can’t be changed. The labs looked at combinations of what is a good coolant relative to removing heat and not interfering with the neutrons. Decisions about what they focused on were based on which combination appears on the shortest technical path to get a new system to deployment. The fastest mover was the U.S. Navy and Rickover had to decide which direction he wanted to go, eventually deciding on water-cooled. An infrastructure was established that is building a supply chain for water-cooled reactor. President Eisenhower opened up nuclear technology for commercial application through Atoms for Peace and the fastest technology to be built was water-cooled reactors. Because it there was believed to be a uranium shortage, it was thought for a long time that the follow on technology would be sodium-cooled fast reactors to recycle the fuel from light water reactors. After uranium was determined not as much of a driver, there was not as much of a need for sodium-cooled reactors. In light water reactors, pellets of fuel are inside a metal tube called cladding. Triso fuel are tiny kernels of uranium oxide or uranium carbon oxide oxygen mix and the kernels are surrounded with layers of carbon silicon carbide.

12:43 Q – Generation IV Nuclear

Bret Kugelmass: What other technologies have the national labs experimented with over the years?

Todd Allen: One novel thing that came out of the early 2000’s was the idea that, instead of dissolving the fuel into a salt, the salt could be used as a coolant. This idea came from collaboration between San Dia National Lab, MIT, and UC-Berkeley. The tribal knowledge of salt reactors was that it was a 40 year development problem because salt is very aggressive, corrosion wise, and materials must be developed to last 40 years. Some companies think that it is easier to engineer out of the corrosion problem by designing modules that are good for 7-10 years. During his last couple years at Argonne, the Generation IV roadmap was in development. In 1998, the federal government had gotten to a point where they had zero dollars funding research in advanced reactors. At the time, climate change was not a strong a discussion point, a Republican Congress wanted to cut programs and spending, and a Democratic political rotation didn’t like nuclear and felt like current reactors were doing fine. Later on, people started realizing there was still a lot of hope in nuclear engineering and a need for development. In international commerce, you would like to sell products to the global civil sector to set the standards. Allen worked his way into being on the leadership team for the Gen IV roadmap and got involved in advanced reactors. In the early 2000’s, there was a big boom in the number of young professionals that wanted to go into nuclear by a factor of four. Some of the things considered seminal moments for people that were anti-nuclear were history book stuff, but people began to look at it from a climate perspective and they were not burdened by past discussions. Idaho National Lab helped start the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) into a national use facility. Todd Allen spent three years there as the deputy director and was invited to spend a year in D.C. with Third Way. This gave Allen a chance to get embedded in the D.C. policy space.

21:01 Q – Third Way’s Nuclear Advocacy

Bret Kugelmass: What is Third Way’s mission?

Todd Allen: Third Way has been around 10-11 years and is meant to be a centrist, more moderate approach to politics. The clean energy group in Third Way supports the philosophies that climate change is real, it needs to be addressed, and all the tools in your tool belt should be considered. There are plenty of advocates for solar and wind, but not enough advocacy for big technology such as nuclear and carbon capture utilization. They wanted to be able to make an argument in policy space that we should be doing things to make sure we don’t close those options. Third Way is not anti-renewables, but instead supports all things that are low-carbon solutions. Third Way is a policy group and didn’t know a lot of technology, so they wanted to partner with a lab and started discussions about what would become the first Third Way Summit in D.C. Allen knew about some technical areas to help them out and was brought an understanding of the Department of Energy (DOE) and how the administration spent research money. Todd Allen and Third Way did an article on opening up the innovation pipeline and trying to get the university programs to be less directed and instead presenting a goal and asking programs how to fix it. Third Way continues to push the Department of Energy (DOE) to be less descriptive in their tasks. They also wrote a piece on what young entrepreneurs wanted the federal system to do to take their idea to commercialization, which won a think tank award. Third Way also wrote pieces on how they wish the DOE’s research portfolios were constructed differently to get a better value out of it. Allen also started a program called The Nuclear Futures dialogues, which invited non-engineers to a targeted discussion on a specific topic, such as markets. Years ago, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) used to do an R&D summit. Third Way also did a policy-based summit. There are two separate events that are planned together within a week upcoming this spring. The next Nuclear Futures discussion will be in the summer. For the original discussion, the market experts came in not believing in a future for nuclear due to their view of nuclear as large, gigawatt scale generation plants and didn’t see the U.S. building more of those. They had little knowledge of the advanced nuclear discussion and new companies trying to build different sizes and fitting into markets. The market experts left the meeting thinking there may be a different future for nuclear.

28:14 Q – How to Foster Nuclear Innovation

Bret Kugelmass: What other ways could the DOE structure their dollars or efforts to foster the nuclear industry growth?

Todd Allen: The federal government spends on the order of a billion dollars a year on research and development (R&D). It has never been as driven by an aim to commercialization as a commercial company would. Projects were getting done in different categories, but were very disconnected. Todd Allen believes that if the Department of Energy (DOE) is going to define R&D programs or do private-public partnerships, the number one factor of deciding who to work with should be how much private money that can be brought to the partnership. This partnership would respond to the amount of interest in a technology, instead of letting government money be the chooser. This set up is commercially driven and recognizes that a huge amount of knowledge and expertise exists in the national lab and university systems. Private-public partnerships can be done with R&D, task incentives, production tax credits, investment tax credits, and licensing support. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) commissioned a local consulting company to look at 65 years’ worth of federal incentives categorized by energy sources. Oil and gas, coal, and renewables had a much larger fraction of money in incentives, such as tax credits, that keep it in the commercial space. All the nuclear money went to R&D. People who live in the research world are less interested in developing a commercial product, but instead want to solve a 65 year molten salt corrosion problem instead of trying to design around it. Third Way also works in the regulatory space. The funding structure for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was set up in a way that makes it difficult to spend money on advanced reactors, since a majority of funding comes from the current operating fleet. Congress’ last budget allocated $5 million to give the NRC time to start training staff to do things. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must have a funding stream that allows it to pay staff. The NRC is very good at bringing in technically savvy people that learn the technology and think about it well. Because so many of these things are not in a single space, but are spread out across commerce, DOE, and NRC, someone is needed at the White House level to coordinate across these groups. There needs to be a good interagency approach. Without the right incentives, each business line will go off and do their own thing to optimize themselves, which might not optimize the system.

Q – Incentivizing Nuclear

40:08 Bret Kugelmass: What are your thoughts on incentive prizes in nuclear?

Todd Allen: Incentive prizes are something needed in the energy space. The most famous incentive prize is the Orteig prize, which gave money to the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The prize was less than people spent trying to get the prize, but it became an ego thing. If someone can define the right technology goal that has an awesome public story behind it, it incentivizes people to want to win the prizes and drives innovation around it and sets up a competitive structure. The bigger you make the prize, the easier it is to tell the public story, but sometimes it takes multiple years for someone to win the prize. Gen IV made a mistake by approaching the story like technologists and defined better as safer and cheaper with less weapons proliferation and less waste. This made people view current technology as being not safe. There must be a community that steps up and says they want to buy that product. Third Way tries to be very neutral and not supportive of a specific company. Whoever it is must figure out how to build fast and build many, which may mean smaller. Modularity, in the sense of the ability to upgrade, is also important. These folks will also look at different markets where they can make money and recognize how quickly markets change.

Sign up for our newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.