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?
Under the "Atoms for Peace" program, the era of commercial nuclear power formally began in 1954. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in Colorado at the time, waved a baton-shaped "neutron wand" (with a light bulb attached to one end for futuristic dazzle) that activated a radiation detector that flipped a telephone switch that started a robot bulldozer that broke ground 1,200 miles away at Shippingport, northwest of Pittsburgh, for the first U.S. commercial reactor. Adm. Hyman Rickover, the "father of the nuclear Navy," headed up the whole project. But the reactor itself was designed by Alvin Radkowsky, the Navy's top nuclear scientist and the inventor of its seagoing reactors.
Years earlier, Radkowsky had been Edward Teller's star student at George Washington University. Unlike his mentor, who invented the hydrogen bomb, Radkowsky never designed nuclear weapons. But he did have a special interest in thorium, a slightly radioactive metal found commonly in sand, seawater and rock. It glows brightly when heated and has been used for, among other things, Coleman lamp mantles.
Like some other early reactors, Shippingport ran uneventfully for a few years on thorium-based fuel. But in civilian reactors, thorium was soon eclipsed by uranium. The United States and the Soviet Union, along with a few other countries, had already built vast infrastructures to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, which provided full-blown uranium-based industrial complexes. Also, Cold War powers believed they could muddy the waters of intent by enriching uranium for military purposes and for civilian nuclear energy in the same buildings.
With thorium in its core, Shippingport became the first U.S. commercial nuclear plant to be decommissioned, in 1982. But by then the whole industry had turned on its head. Nuclear's growth in the United States was already slowing for a mix of economic reasons in the late '70s. In 1979, the near-core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear station near Harrisburg, Pa., dealt the industry's prospects a body blow by turning public opinion against it.
And that is where those prospects have mostly stayed. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees nuclear power plants and materials, has not issued a construction permit for a new commercial plant in more than 30 years, since 1978. The Westinghouse Electric Co., which built Shippingport, hasn't received a firm order for a new reactor in the United States since 1987, though it has signed initial contracts for six.
Most experts agree that for many years major nuclear engineering firms invested little in the kind of research and development that propels technology forward. "In the past 40 years, we got crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, airbags and all the rest," Seth Grae says. "Cars changed more in 40 years than nuclear reactors did."
Aside from a few physics courses at Brandeis, about as close as Grae had come to the nuclear industry before getting involved with thorium was as a law student working pro bono for refusenik Soviet scientists. In 1991, when he first met Radkowsky, Grae was a bored associate at a Manhattan law firm, spending his days on a grab bag of international business clients ranging from video game startups to cement companies.
Meanwhile, Radkowsky, an observant Orthodox Jew, had moved to Israel from Silver Spring and was teaching part-time at Tel Aviv University. But he never lost his passionate interest in thorium.
His old mentor, Edward Teller, had reignited it in 1983. Radkowsky and Teller had stayed in touch since they first met at GWU. It was Teller who had seen the potential in his quiet, awkward young master's candidate, urging him to continue for his PhD. When Radkowsky emerged from Catholic University with his doctorate during the Depression, Teller helped him find a job troubleshooting for the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
It was also Teller who, after World War II, mentioned Radkowsky to Adm. Rickover, who was barreling ahead with a controversial new program to power submarines and carriers with nuclear reactors, and was looking for an out-of-the-box thinker. Radkowsky-designed naval reactors have never suffered an accident.
But late in life, Teller became convinced that surplus plutonium from old nukes or spent fuel posed a grave threat of falling into the wrong hands and triggering a nuclear catastrophe. When he contacted Radkowsky in 1983, he urged him to revisit his early work with thorium and come up with a new fuel design that wouldn't produce weapons-usable materials in its spent fuel -- and that, in fact, might be used to start getting rid of bulging stockpiles of nukes in the United States and Russia.
Radkowsky himself also envisioned a new nuclear fuel that would allow even unfriendly governments -- Cuba's and North Korea's topped the list in those days -- energy-generating capacity without creating weapons-usable materials. "If we don't put a stop to conventional uranium cores now, nuclear terror will ensue, and the use of legitimate nuclear energy will be barred worldwide," Radkowsky said in a 1997 interview.
Eight years after his meeting with Teller, he was ready to start applying for patents and getting on the road to commercialization. Radkowsky was no businessman; he had no idea how to go about locating the expertise he needed. But he did have a wide network of friends and acquaintances. One was an Israeli investor who knew a New York real estate developer who knew Grae and had done business with his father, Joel, a high-tech entrepreneur and developer. Word got back to Radkowsky about Seth Grae, whose cases dealing with international law, high-technology companies and Russian refusenik physicists seemed to intersect in a relevant way.
"One day, I was sitting there in my office and in came a fax from Alvin, describing this new technology," Grae recalls.
Radkowsky's thorium project just didn't sound that promising -- a mix of has-been and pie-in-the-sky. It definitely didn't sound like billable hours. Grae turned him down. But Radkowsky persisted. Gradually, the two fell into step. Grae asked Radkowsky to recommend the best nuclear physics texts, which he read one by one at night after work.
In 1992, Radkowsky Thorium Power Corp. slipped into the world largely unnoticed. (It moved to Northern Virginia in 1996.) Joel Grae, Seth's father, became its first president; Seth started as outside counsel; the family's friends were its board of directors. "No one knew anything," Grae says.
Back in Israel, Radkowsky spent long days in his lab and paced the floor into the night when he got home, trying to work out his fuel design. In New York, Seth Grae's fax machine periodically spat out Radkowsky's latest thoughts, rendered in multipage single-space type. Back at his day job for the time being, Grae began looking for a nuclear research lab to partner with. Representatives of the Kurchatov Institute -- the Russian Los Alamos -- were in the United States actively seeking just such partnerships.
Grae decided to check it out. What he found was not just an opportunity but also a lucky break. Kurchatov had dozens of highly respected nuclear scientists; relationships with other good research facilities around Russia and in the United States; and support from the U.S. government, which wanted to keep Russia's post-Soviet nuclear workforce gainfully employed.
In 1994, Seth Grae quit his law firm job, met his future wife, went on two dates with her, and then left to spend a frigid winter in Moscow. There, he rented an apartment just outside Kurchatov's gates and went to work every day for two months with Alexei Morozov, chief scientist of the new thorium project. When Radkowsky visited, the two would take long midwinter walks and make the rounds of Moscow's concert halls and restaurants.
Grae loved being at Kurchatov, and he enjoyed Moscow. But back at home, things didn't seem quite as rosy. "No one would listen to them," says Alfred Rubin, an early board member and investor. "A nuclear company with a new concept was not well received."
"Everybody thought we were crazy, without exception," Grae says. "We were the two men from Mars."
In 1995, Radkowsky tweaked his fuel design into something close to what Thorium Power has today. His new "non-proliferative" fuel involved a concept known, with almost storybook simplicity, as a "seed and blanket" design. Thorium can't sustain a chain reaction on its own. It needs something else -- a very small amount of a fissile material, such as uranium, whose nuclei can be split more readily -- to kick-start the reaction by bombarding the thorium with spare neutrons. So Radkowsky wrapped clusters of "seeds" -- fuel rods made of uranium and zirconium -- in much larger "blankets" of rods made of thorium oxide pellets. The unique reaction that followed, he believed, would result in real improvements over the standard all-uranium nuclear fuel.
His goal was that no weapons-usable plutonium be generated in the reaction, and that any weapons-usable uranium isotopes produced be consumed in the process. Radkowsky's fuel would leave comparatively little waste and less radioactive waste. Among other intriguing characteristics, it also would have a fuel cycle that would allow most of its fuel to last several years longer than uranium fuel in a reactor core before needing to be replaced and stored. Though other countries, such as Canada and India, were experimenting with thorium, Radkowsky's formula was the only one that could potentially be dropped into existing light-water reactors, such as the U.S. fleet of nuclear power plants.
And if the "seeds" were made of plutonium from old nuclear weapons (or from nuclear waste from civilian reactors) instead of uranium, then thorium could theoretically create electricity while disposing of old nuclear weapons. It was a prospect that would later land Thorium Power in the middle of an inside-the-Beltway slugfest.
As Radkowsky's new fuel designs began hurdling testing milestones, Grae and Radkowsky went on the road for long stretches. At universities, they paid calls on eminent nuclear physicists, who occasionally suggested alterations in the fuel design; Brookhaven National Laboratory was officially providing technical advice.
In the Navy's nuclear program, it had taken just a few years for Radkowsky to see his designs move from drawing board to deployment of the nuclear-powered Nautilus and Seawolf submarines. He thought the same could happen with his thorium-fuel designs -- and was frustrated by a lack of the support that would have made it possible. Meanwhile, investors and board members began to wonder when they'd see some outside backing. "There was a limit to how far the company could go on borrowed money," board member Alfred Rubin says.
At this point, Thorium Power has not been analyzed by any major financial institutions.
Grae had become the company's president in 1997, when his father returned full time to his work with medical startups. By 2001, the company had shed "Radkowsky" from its name, though Alvin Radkowsky was still its chief scientist. But with his designs completed and the patents approved or applied for, Radkowsky's role was evolving into that of an elder statesman. Still, the two men remained close.
Radkowsky had always been exceptionally vigorous, so when he entered an Israeli hospital with pneumonia in 2002, Grae was not terribly concerned at first. But Radkowsky's sudden, unexpected death from a heart attack a few weeks later shook him.
"Alvin was a humble man who contributed a great deal to the world," Grae says. "It was a time to reflect on a remarkable life."
Earlier, in September 2000, the United States and Russia had signed an agreement committing each to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. (That would still leave enough to readily build thousands of new nuclear bombs in each nation.) Originally, both countries were to dispose of most of the agreed-upon material by turning it into a mixed uranium-plutonium oxide fuel (MOX), based on technology developed by the French government-owned nuclear firm Areva. But MOX produces two-thirds as much new plutonium as it burns, resulting in a net increase. Critics also worried about proliferation risks, since spent MOX fuel can be separated and its plutonium used for weapons.
In 2004, Congress appropriated $4 million, through the Department of Energy, to explore thorium's potential to get rid of weapons-grade plutonium. Most of that money was directed to support the ongoing research at the Kurchatov Institute. The rest would go to the Westinghouse Electric Co. to evaluate thorium fuel independently.
Early the following spring, Westinghouse's report landed back at the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which handles the disposition of excess uranium and plutonium. Thorium-based fuel, the report concluded, could destroy much more plutonium than MOX and do it three times faster than MOX at a third of the cost, leaving much less toxic waste behind. Unlike MOX, it wouldn't require that new plants be built to manufacture the fuel, either.
"It was a great idea for disposing of nuclear weapons," says Regis Matzie, then Westinghouse's chief technology officer. "It could just burn the heck out of that plutonium."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has supported a number of high-technology initiatives over the years, is an advocate of thorium technology. "It's unbelievable," he said in an interview. "If NNSA could give a valid argument against thorium, I'd like to hear it. But they couldn't."
Hatch was referring to a report that NNSA issued shortly after Westinghouse's. The assessment concluded that the thorium technology was "unproven" and "not suitable" for disposing of the surplus military plutonium.
The Westinghouse report "was based on what the Russians claimed," says a NNSA official who requested anonymity. "We wanted to 'trust but verify' -- see the technology." He says officials were denied access to Kurchatov's tests three times.
The NNSA report said the technology also "shows no clear cost advantage over competing technologies" and that the concept entailed "a relatively high technical risk of failure" when compared with other technologies.
The position that thorium is not sufficiently tested has also been cited in the industry, where the French version of MOX -- though designed to burn plutonium from spent commercial fuel rather than weapons -- is at least familiar. With thorium, on the other hand, "there is no track record of performance," says Felix Killar, a director of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry association. But Mujid Kazimi, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, is confident that "the use of thorium limits additional plutonium production."
Hatch offers an explanation for the NNSA's resistance. "All agencies are filled with bureaucrats who are simply unwilling to take chances."
In 2007 and 2008 (the latter along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), Hatch introduced legislation providing $250 million over four years to support thorium use. In June, the landmark American Clean Energy and Security Act passed the House with a requirement that the Department of Energy explore thorium. The Senate version is expected to be brought up on the floor this fall.
But can Americans ever be coaxed into embracing nuclear power again, with or without thorium? Global warming has altered some people's perceptions about nuclear power: What was long regarded by many as a dirty and unacceptably dangerous business, from the mining of uranium through the disposal of highly radioactive waste, is now more widely seen as a greener alternative to fossil fuels that produce planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Others, however, say nuclear power is no panacea. To avoid global warming's catastrophic consequences, "we have just 20 years or so to turn it around," says Christopher Paine, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "In that time, nuclear can make only a very modest contribution." Lead times for licensing and construction of new nuclear plants can run to decades. There is a bottleneck in the creation of reactor vessels and components, and as the U.S. nuclear workforce ages, expertise is rapidly being lost.
Americans also may balk at funding new plants, which would carry price tags in the billions and be supported partly by generous federal incentives. And looming over it all is the question of safety. Experts generally agree that nuclear plants are much less accident-prone than they were even a decade ago. But nuclear physicist Ed Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says "safety, security, proliferation and waste have still never been addressed to the level that they should be." One of his worries with Thorium Power's formula is that when a very small amount of uranium is used to prime the thorium, it is enriched to a level approaching weapons-usable grade.
Like many industry experts, Seth Grae believes that possibly half of all the new commercial nuclear reactors built in the next 20 years will be in countries that have none yet, places such as Vietnam, Argentina, Turkey, Belarus, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates? Its proven oil reserves, mostly in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, are estimated at about 100 billion barrels. But oil, for as long as it lasts, is more profitable as an export. What to do? The supply of gas is limited; imported coal, another option, is dirty; wind, undependable. You can invest billions in solar generation, as Abu Dhabi has. And you can develop policies to explore nuclear power.
When Abu Dhabi's government heard about thorium, it called in Thorium Power. The company helped the government develop a policy as it began to explore a nuclear future. Among other safeguards, the policy commits the UAE to buying nuclear fuel abroad and returning it when it's spent. In doing that, it becomes the first country to renounce its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, which cuts off its means of making its own weapons. It has agreed to intrusive and unannounced inspections by the IAEA.
The policy "is very far-reaching, a model that other states going into nuclear energy could use," says nuclear expert Matthew Bunn of Harvard University. It now also forms the basis of a new nuclear-cooperation pact with the United States, awaiting congressional action -- controversial because of the UAE's ties to Iran -- that would help the UAE become the first Arab country to develop nuclear power.
One thing the UAE's policy did not commit to was thorium itself. Instead, David Scott, director of economic affairs for the emirate of Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority, calls Thorium Power's fuel a "long-term solution." In the meantime, though, the UAE has hired Thorium Power to help it develop a framework for its civilian nuclear industry.
Last January, Seth Grae moved into a spacious office at the brand-new Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. in Abu Dhabi for a temporary sojourn. Obstacles in other countries, such as huge upfront costs, don't necessarily apply here. Nor does public opposition to nuclear power, since the UAE has neither the democratic institutions nor the free-speech traditions that would make it a factor.
With the UAE aiming to have at least one nuclear power plant ready to go online within a decade, the brisk pace of business around Thorium Power's Abu Dhabi offices slows only when Muslim colleagues retreat to the prayer room at various times of the day. But in general, "the day-to-day is much the same as in Virginia -- meetings, conference calls, government relations -- business," Grae says.
Or at least a more globalized version of Virginia. He still travels to Moscow occasionally. Likewise India, which is interested in thorium-fueled reactors. He fields inquiries from other countries that want to develop a civilian nuclear power industry. Grae has even gotten a general query or two from U.S. utility companies. Every so often, in Abu Dhabi, he takes a moment to look out beyond its mirror-faced buildings to the Persian Gulf and the tankers that carry 17 million barrels of oil each day toward the Strait of Hormuz, and from there, to the world beyond.
Leslie Allen is a writer in Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.