Could this man really save the world?

Posted on August 11, 2014

Could GE Hitachi’s Eric Loewen deliver the next generation nuclear reactor capable of providing the clean energy the world desperately needs?
By James Murray, Business Green
August 6, 2014

No one does hyperbole quite like journalists at men’s lifestyle magazines. Every suit is the sharpest, every woman the most beautiful in the world, and every actor the next Brando. So what does a men’s lifestyle magazine do when it chooses to profile an engineer working on a next generation nuclear technology? They label him “the Man Who Could End Global Warming”.

“The man who is going to save the world is an ordinary-looking man,”declared Esquire magazine in a 2009 profile of GE Hitachi’s Eric Loewen. “He’s average in height, with an average face. He has blue eyes and sandy hair. He wears eyeglasses. He’s forty-eight years old. He looks like the kind of guy you’d see buffing his car in the driveway or shopping for a new grill at Sears, a classic all-American Homo suburbanus, but in fact he is a former officer of the United States Navy with a Ph.D. in a fiendishly complicated type of engineering. He is low-key and unassuming, with a quiet midwestern sense of humor. He loves to surf and ski and cook and drink martinis and host large groups of people for long meals, spreading newspapers across the table to catch flying scraps of crab.”

And yet here is the funny thing. The world-saving moniker that Esquiremagazine’s John Richardson imposed on Loewen may not be entirely hyperbolic. The new reactor technology Loewen is working on with his team at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is not going to single-handedly save the world, but it might just make a huge contribution to that distant goal. “It is a burden that I carry and I appreciate that John Richardson had done that to me,” says Loewen of his super-hero billing, demonstrating all the under-stated charm that, in fairness, Esquire managed to capture. “It has been my mission for eight years, but when I look back when I got into this business when I was 20 years old, all the work I have done has kind of prepared me for this time.”

“This time” refers to the long-awaited opportunity to deliver the PRISM integral fast reactor that has been in development since the early-1980s – an opportunity that last month saw Loewen visit the UK to give evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee of MPs. GE Hitachi is one of three developers in the running for the contract to handle the disposition of the UK’s waste plutonium, competing with rival bids from Canadian firm Candu Energy and French engineering giant Areva. Earlier this year, the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) threw a competition that appeared to be stacked in favour of Areva’s MOX project wide open, with a report that declared that all three projects presented “credible reuse options” for the country’s plutonium stockpile. “We note all the technologies being considered have pros and cons and that no ‘perfect’ solution exists,” the report added, “it may be that a multi-track approach offers best value for money.”

Loewen admits each of the three projects have contrasting merits, even if he is jokingly reluctant to name GE Hitachi’s competitors. “For UK citizens, you are in a perfect spot,” he tells BusinessGreen. “In January, [the government] issued a report that said we have three credible options for the disposition of plutonium. We are going to continue to evaluate them, so we get more data, for the next two years or 18 months. And then they talked about how to run a competition between the three. That is a great position for you, because before in 2011 you had selected one option.”

To illustrate the point, Loewen relates how he found an afternoon during his trip to the UK to tour the Museum of London. “If you remember the famous engineer Bazalgette, who helped you with your London sewer system back in the 1860s, that was one of 150 different options for ways to construct a sewer system,” he says. “You went with Portland cement and on he went and it is an infrastructure that still exists today.”

However, if the prospect of a competition to determine the best reactor for processing plutonium is a welcome development for GE-Hitachi, Loewen is keen to see the specifications for the bidding process established. “The challenge is going to be, what are the requirements for the best project?” he argues. “What do you want? Do you want to disposition it as fast as you can? Do you want to make the most electricity out of it? Do you want the least amount of environmental footprint? Do you want the least amount of fuel you have to put in a geological disposal facility? Do you want one that generates the most amount of revenue? Those are the things the public discussion needs to be around, because each team offers something a little bit different.”

The “something a little bit different” PRISM offers is, according to Loewen, the potential to deliver a next generation reactor that could simultaneously process waste plutonium and generate clean energy at a level of efficiency never before seen in the energy industry. “A current water cooled reactor uses one per cent of the available energy in uranium, they throw the rest away,” explains Loewen. “PRISM uses 99 per cent of available energy. When we look at sustainability of energy systems in the future you want to get the most efficient option. It is like cars, do you want to drive around in an old Ford Buick that gets 10 miles to the gallon, or do you want to get in a hybrid that goes 40 miles per gallon?”

So, what exactly is PRISM and what allows it to deliver such staggering levels of efficiency? Inevitably, you need to be an actual nuclear scientist to understand the finer details, but Loewen does a good job of dumbing it down to an under-graduate level. “PRISM was a reactor concept developed, originally by Argonne National Laboratory in the 1980s and it is better known in the environmental press as the integral fast reactor,” Loewen explains, embarking on a short history and science lesson. “What it does is it takes different sorts of fuel materials such as plutonium or used nuclear fuel, it casts that into a metallic fuel, it puts it in a reactor that has liquid sodium as a coolant – and if you have liquid sodium as a coolant then the energies of the neutrons are higher so you can use a different fuel source. That is what is unique about it.”

The other unique development is what results from that fuel – energy extracted at remarkably high conversion efficiencies and relatively “benign” waste material. “The [metallic] fuel has a lot of fissions in it and then those smaller elements – cesium, krypton, rubidium, those Superman type materials – are waste products,” continues Loewen. “After a while you need to take that fuel out and we do a chemistry process called electro-chemistry where you use a molten salt bath and about 4V of DC voltage to separate the constituents. [You then] recast the fuel with the material that is still useful, and the small elements we put into a ceramic and metallic waste form. Those two constituents – the metal and the ceramic – after 300 years are less radioactive than the uranium ore mined from Canada or Australia… The waste from a radio-toxicity standpoint and leachability is very benign compared to other technologies.”

It all sounds a bit too good to be true. A reactor that runs on radioactive waste, generates zero emission power at ultra-high efficiencies, and produces waste that is nowhere near as dangerous as the radioactive waste we currently have to process. “You are going from one per cent [energy conversion] to 99 per cent,” explains Loewen. “The waste products that come out of the one per cent are radioactive for 300,000 years, out of the 99 per cent it is 300 years. Can humans make a structure that can last 300,000 to a million years? No. For 300 years? Sure, you can see them outside.”

But if PRISM promises so much and has been in development for so long, why hasn’t it been delivered yet? And can the project address the perennial safety and cost concerns that come as part of the package with any nuclear project?

Loewen is adamant the technology is proven and that the reason for its slow progress to date can be boiled down to one word: politics. “All good democracies have elections,” he declares, recounting how the conflicting approaches to nuclear power adopted by Presidents Reagan, Bush (both of them), Clinton and Obama meant PRISM saw its funding cancelled and reinstated at least four times over the past 30 years.

However, Loewen is confident the technology is now ready. “In the case of PRISM, its technical underpinnings come from experimental breeder reactor number 2 that operated for 30 years,” he says. “It comes from the advanced liquid metal reactor programme that ran in the United States for 10 years and spent billions of dollars. It comes from some other testing that we did with Japan. So that provides the technical underpinnings, and at this point PRISM is ready to go into the licensing process, and once you get your permits then you do the final design… Has it been proven? The answer is emphatically yes. It is a test reactor that ran for 30 years, which put electricity on the grid in the state that I used to live in Idaho.”

With the Obama administration having scrapped funding for the project, the opportunity is there for the UK to exploit. Loewen makes no attempt to hide the fact that the UK’s plans for plutonium disposition could provide a “lucky break” that finally allows GE-Hitachi to build PRISM, killing two birds with one stone as it processes radioactive waste and demonstrates a next generation nuclear reactor. But he also insists there is a strategic opportunity for the UK.

“You get this beautiful synergy of using PRISM, a small modular reactor, to fix a [waste] problem and then explore if we could use this to make all this other electricity with the integral fast reactor approach,” he explains. “That is where you get George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, those sort of people excited about the technology… Then the UK is the first vendor. Just as you guys invented the jet engine, you become the key supply chain.”

And what of the all-important safety concerns? Loewen offers a boilerplate nuclear industry defence of its track record that will do little to win over the sector’s detractors. “As professionals, we are always trying to prove the technology,” he says of the sector as a whole. “All the reactors are safer, because we’ve learnt… We’ve improved, just like any other technology that we have. All reactors that we build now are safer than the ones we have before, just as the cars you drive now are safer than the one you travelled in as a child.”

But more convincingly he can also explain how PRISM includes a host of unique safety features that make a Fukushima-style disaster almost impossible to envisage. “With nuclear power one of the things you have to deal with from a safety standpoint is after you turn it off it still generates heat, and if you don’t remove that heat you’ll have core damage,” he explains. “That happened at Three Mile Island, that also happened at Fukushima. Those two systems, those two types of reactors, needed to have pumps that were run by electricity to do that cooling. PRISM uses no pumps, no valves, it just has a natural circulation of cold air coming down and hot air rising. That system is always online. I don’t need any valve or pump or automatic system to make it work. That is one safety feature that is fundamentally different to any other reactor.”

Regulators have spent years looking for safety flaws, and according to Loewen they are yet to identify any. “When we took the design to the nuclear regulatory commission in the 80s it was hard for them to look at it because if I have an active system with a pump and a valve they can look at it and inspect it,” he recalls. “This thing is just a concrete structure where air goes down and back up. They spent a lot of time saying, what happens if you put it on the coast and it corrodes, what happens if you put it in the desert and there’s a wind storm, what happens if you have a snow storm? So, finally when they got done trying to break it they said, ‘actually, this is a pretty good system – in fact we can block 75 per cent of the flow and it will still work’.”

The other major challenge facing modern nuclear developers is whether they can deliver clean energy competitively in an age when renewables costs are falling fast. Loewen is reluctant to provide much detail on the precise economics of PRISM, but he stresses that it is an entirely different proposition to EDF’s controversial plans for a new reactor at Hinkley Point, not least because it could deliver both plutonium processing and clean energy. Any assessment of the costs needs to be understood in this context, and intriguingly Loewen suggests PRISM could be adjusted based on what the government wants to see from the project. “We have the ability to change the amount of energy we produce based on the criteria,” he explains. “So if you just want to disposition it as fast as you can, put it into fuel, put in a reactor, put it in the ground, we can go fast. If you want to make the most amount of electricity, we can maximise that. It depends on what the drivers are.”

More generally, he is genuinely bemused as to why the world would seek to tackle climate change without recourse to nuclear technologies. Next generation nuclear technologies, such as PRISM and Bill Gates’ TerraPower travelling wave reactor project, have the potential to deliver terrawatts of power, in contrast to the megawatts delivered by most renewables projects. “When we talk about what we want to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to be talking terrawatts,” Loewen argues, adding that PRISM offers an energy density renewables simply cannot match. “You’ve seen those comparisons of the acres it takes for a wind farm and a nuclear power plant. PRISM is five times more dense again than a water-cooled reactor… It is just a very elegant technology, that has kind of wandered along through different policy frameworks. I’m very honoured that I get to stand on the shoulders of a lot of giants to come back into GE in 2006 and pick it back up.”

Whether he is allowed to bring the long-running project to fruition now depends on the UK government and its decision on what it wants from its plutonium processing competition. As a result it remains as unclear as to whether Loewen and his team can really “end global warming” as it did back in 2009. But one thing is certain, next generation nuclear technologies are now firmly in the mix, as we all strive to identify the technologies that will “save the world”.