If Nuclear Power Has a More Promising Future ... Seth Grae Wants to Be the One Leading the Charge

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By Leslie Allen
Sunday, August 2, 2009

In a drab Moscow building set amid acres of Cold War architecture, Seth Grae peers down through 30 feet of water into IR-8, an old nuclear research reactor. In IR-8's glowing blue maw, he sees the future -- one he claims will revolutionize the way we think about nuclear power.

But at Grae's corporate offices in McLean a few weeks later, the talk turns to cars.

It is a balmy spring morning outside. In the news, the price of crude oil seesaws, and oil-rich Bahrain baffles the world by announcing its intention to develop nuclear power. Inside, Grae is unreeling a pitch for potential investors -- in this case a half-dozen investment bankers and money managers gathered around his conference table.

Cars and nuclear power plants both run on fuel, he begins, and aims his analogy straight ahead. Cars that once took leaded gasoline now run on a newer, less toxic and environmentally more benign gas: unleaded. The same concept holds true for the 104 nuclear power plants that supply 20 percent of this country's electricity, Grae says, as well as for the dozens of new reactors expected to come online worldwide in the next few decades.

"Everyone knows nuclear plants run on uranium, right?" Grae continues, and then launches into a litany of uranium's persistent problems. Nuclear plants in service today run on a fuel mix that generates enough spent uranium and plutonium to build dozens of nuclear weapons each year in the United States alone. That waste will remain highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. It already adds up to more than 78,000 metric tons, with highly uncertain prospects for safe, long-term storage.

But what if these very same nuclear power plants were able to run on a different fuel mix? A mix that: first, would generate only a minor amount of waste, if any, that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. Second, could destroy tons of plutonium instead of generating it. Third, would produce less than half the volume of current fuel waste, which would remain radioactive for only a few hundred years. And, fourth, is made from an element far more abundant, less radioactive and cheaper than uranium: thorium.

And what if the technology had already gotten positive reviews from the American Nuclear Society, the World Nuclear Association and, in particular, from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world's nuclear watchdog, which, in a 2005 report titled Thorium Fuel Cycle -- Potential Benefits and Challenges, called it "an attractive way to produce long-term nuclear energy with low radiotoxicity waste?"

You'd have the nuclear equivalent of unleaded gas, in Grae's analogy.

Glancing around the room with a small smile, Grae is more than ready for skepticism. He's heard it many times over the years while explaining the new nuclear fuel that his company, the Northern Virginia-based Thorium Power Ltd., has been testing in Russia for several years and that he says will be ready to license for commercial use within a decade.

One banker says flatly that many investors believe nuclear power, any nuclear power, is an "outdated technology." Grae, 46, who holds both law and business degrees, answers smoothly, occasionally deferring to Thomas Graham Jr., a courtly Kentuckian who is the company's executive chairman of the board and a retired ambassador. During his long State Department career, Graham participated in the negotiation of every major arms control and nonproliferation agreement drawn up over about three decades. (Hans Blix, who was director general of the IAEA and the United Nations' chief weapons inspector for Iraq from 2000 to 2003, is a senior adviser to the company.)

By the time Graham excuses himself to attend another meeting, almost every question has been put to rest, it seems, but one: How come no one's heard of this technology?

***


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