This article was written in 1995 by Rod Adams, now a Managing Partner of Nucleation Capital, who, at the time was the founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., having just completed twelve years of service in the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program, with much of that time, living within a few feet of a nuclear power reactor. Adams Atomic Engines was possibly the first advanced nuclear venture ever formed with the aim of enabling the broader use of nuclear power across more industry sectors. Unfortunately for everyone, Adams Atomic Engines did not survive the Navy’s recall of Mr. Adams to naval service, but this early experience cemented his belief that only competitive markets could enable the kind of technological refinement and problem-solving thinking that has allowed men like Edison, Bell, Ford, and Gates to produce revolutionary products.
The first Atomic Age began with high hopes, but it has languished, being replaced in succession by the Space Age, the Computer Age, and the Information Age. Atomic planes, trains, and remote power stations discussed by 1940s visionaries were never built. Atomic powered ships, able to operate for years without refilling their fuel supply have seen limited civilian and military application. Most are now museums or being laid up as anachronisms. Nuclear submarines, powered by compact engines able to push their massive bulk at high speeds for years without any atmospheric intake or exhaust are widely thought to be expensive Cold War relics with no real mission or lesson to offer.
Was it all hype? Were Dwight Eisenhower, Al Gore, Sr., Isaac Asimov, Alvin Weinberg, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Lewis Strauss, and H.G. Wells all wrong in their predictions for a new source of abundant energy? If not, how did the present stagnation in the industry happen?
First the facts. Uranium is abundant. One indication of the enormity of the resource is that the United States has an existing stockpile of enriched uranium large enough to fuel over 1000 Trident class submarines for fifteen years. Another indication is that the price of natural uranium has fallen so low that domestic mining companies are crying for protection from foreign “dumping.”
Uranium, thorium, and plutonium are concentrated energy sources. One pound of any of them contains as much potential energy as 2,000,000 pounds of oil or 2,600,000 pounds of high grade coal.
Uranium, thorium, and plutonium have all been used as fuel in fission reactors. Fission waste products weigh less than the initial metal used for fuel and are compact enough to be completely retained within the reactor core. Each year, we produce approximately 4,000 tons of spent fuel from all 108 nuclear electric plants in the U.S. while a single 1,000 megawatt electric (MWe) coal station produces that much ash every day.
A 1,000 MWe nuclear power plant uses about seven pounds of fuel each day and produces no carbon dioxide. A 1,000 MWe coal plant burns 11,000 tons of coal and produces 42,000 tons of waste gas every day.