Director of NEXT Lab
February 10, 2023
Bret Kugelmass [00:00:59] So we're here today with Rusty Towell, who is the founding director of the Nuclear Energy Experimental Testing Lab at Abilene Christian University. Rusty, thanks for joining us on Titans of Nuclear.
Rusty Towell [00:01:09] Thanks for having me.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:10] Yeah, I always love to learn about new nuclear projects. There's always something cooking up around the corner and it's always so exciting. But before we get there, we'd love to just learn about you as a person. So maybe start us off with where you grew up.
Rusty Towell [00:01:23] So, I grew up in Abilene, Texas. I went to high school here in town and went to Abilene Christian University for my Bachelor's Degree in Engineering Physics.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:31] The adventurous type, I'd say.
Rusty Towell [00:01:34] That's right.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:36] Well, tell me a little bit about your upbringing. What led you down this path? Was it just always very university centered?
Rusty Towell [00:01:42] Oh, I always was attracted to solving interesting problems, and so the sciences were sort of my favorite thing. I'm a slow reader and writer, so I always enjoyed the science and the why. And so in high school, I had an opportunity to go to the Texas Energy Science Symposium. It was hosted at the University of Texas. And as a high school student, I got to learn about all the different energy sources out there and sort of the need for and the critical part of it and the promise that nuclear power held. And so, I talked to my high school science teacher and said, "What should I major in in college if I want to tackle the energy problem?" He said, "Well, nuclear is physics, so you should go into physics." So I jumped in physics and started down a path of research and education, and that's been great.
Bret Kugelmass [00:02:38] That's so cool. Tell me, though, the perspective of your average Texan about nuclear in the time that you grew up -- what was it like? Did people think much about it?
Rusty Towell [00:02:51] It certainly wasn't something that was in everyday conversation. Obviously, you drive down the road, you can see the oil pumps and so you knew the importance of oil to the state's economy and how it impacted our lives. Nuclear is pretty unseen, right? We've got four commercial nuclear power plants in the state of Texas that provide 10% of our electricity. Very constant and clean, but you don't hear much about it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:03:17] When were those built? What are the names of those plants and when were they built?
Rusty Towell [00:03:22] Comanche Peak outside Fort Worth, and then South Texas, a plant south of San Antonio, closer to Gulf Coast. I have to double check the dates. I'm thinking '70s, '80s time frame. But as a child growing up in the state of Texas, I never heard anything about them.
Bret Kugelmass [00:03:40] And then we're going to build another one at some point, right?
Rusty Towell [00:03:43] Yeah, so there's plans more recently to expand the South Texas plant. Like many times, they've build a site that's good for four power plants. They built the first two planning come back and add them later. There were plans to add them later, and I believe that was early 2000s, and then all of a sudden Fukushima happens and everyone becomes aware of nuclear and it's a bad time to think about it. And the plans that were moving forward, like those in Georgia, are over budget and behind schedule. And so all of a sudden, the economics of it make it a questionable investment.
Bret Kugelmass [00:04:16] Yeah, especially... I bet that the Texas energy market doesn't help just being so wild.
Rusty Towell [00:04:22] Well, I think that one thing we learned, unfortunately, very sadly that we had to learn this from the freeze that happened in February of '21, is that if you don't have reliability factored into your grid, then your grid is at risk. And we had hundreds of people die in the state of Texas because we prioritized the wrong factors in our electric grid. We prioritized only carbon free, but without thinking about reliability. And so if we can bring nuclear online that's both carbon free and reliable, then all of a sudden we could avoid that. And so, I would say the cost to Texas in human lives because we didn't invest more in nuclear was we ended up with hundreds of people dying because there was no electricity and it was freezing outside.
Bret Kugelmass [00:05:10] So crazy, so crazy. And we can get back to that in a minute. I'd love to hear more of your perspective. Also, you being a nuclear expert in Texas, I'm curious to know who reached out to you to learn more. But we can get that later. Keep us going through your journey, though. I want to understand your training and get everyone up to speed on that.
Rusty Towell [00:05:28] So, I got my physics degree from ACU, then joined the nuclear Navy. I was an instructor at the Navy's Nuclear Power School for four years. And so got firsthand...
Bret Kugelmass [00:05:40] Was that in New York? Where is the Nuclear Power School?
Rusty Towell [00:05:43] So at the time I was there, it was in Orlando, Florida. That base is no longer there. And so the Power School is moved around and now it's in the northeast, not New York, but in the Northeast, I believe.
Bret Kugelmass [00:05:57] So there's a few different facilities, though, I guess? Yeah, how is the Naval Nuclear Power School divided up? Do they have like an experimental facility, an educational facility? What does it look like?
Rusty Towell [00:06:06] So the typical training path... And I'm telling you everything from my time in the Navy, which has now been a few decades ago, so I'm sure there's been some changes. But enlisted persons or even officers go through their basic training and then they go through their advanced school for their specialty, if they're an Electrician Mate or a Mechanical Mate. And then they would go to the Nuclear Power School. So that's sort of a theoretical. It's very much like a university setting except sort of on steroids. So, the information comes at you fast and focused. And so in basically a semester, you get a couple of years worth of nuclear information. There's a lot of nuclear engineering type classes, but also the chemistry you need to balance the plant and all the controls. And so, a very focused theoretical classroom setting. And then after the classroom, they go to what they refer to as prototype, which is basically a docked nuclear power plant, nuclear submarine, where they get hands on experience with an operational nuclear reactor. And then, they finally get to their final station, a submarine or an aircraft carrier with a nuclear power plant, and they go through qualifications for that plant. So, it's about a two year process for someone from enlistment to actually getting to do something on a nuclear power plant.
Bret Kugelmass [00:07:27] Wow. And I've heard that before, that it's like the fast and furious, it's just like total... How do you do it, though? I mean, do certain people flunk out or something? How do you download so much information in such a short period of time? Like, I almost don't get it.
Rusty Towell [00:07:44] The nuclear program was able to select the very, very best and the brightest. And so only like the top half percent of recruits were eligible for the nuclear program. And then, you still started with about three students to end up getting one graduated. And so it is a very rigorous process.
Bret Kugelmass [00:08:04] Oh, you're saying a 3 to 1 ratio. But how big is the class size?
Rusty Towell [00:08:08] So the classes I taught were typically 25 to 30 people. So again, small class size. The Nuclear Power School is sort of in-class instruction. The students would get sort of... 7:00 AM to 4:00PM were their instructional hours and then they would study outside of that. And many of our students would log 40 or 60 hours outside of those classroom times studying. So, it was very intense. Especially on the enlisted side, you have these young sailors who graduated from high school and were lined up to go to college, but they said, "I'm tired of school. I want to take a little break." And so they join the military, they score very high. They get selected for this elite program, they jump in and then they're like in college on steroids, right?. And so they're not getting the fun experience that you think of as a freshman college experience, but they're very focused.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:04] Well, that's better. I think everyone should have to do that in college. Like, I don't understand how in college it's okay for just everyone to goof off for four years. Like, everything should be like a military school. For what you're paying, it just doesn't make any sense that it's any other way.
Rusty Towell [00:09:17] Absolutely.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:19] Okay. So you were an instructor there. What did you teach?
Rusty Towell [00:09:22] Math, physics and reactor principles were the courses I taught over my career.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:29] So how many years were you teaching there?
Rusty Towell [00:09:31] Four years.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:32] Okay, so you get to see a bunch of incoming classes. When you teach reactor principles, is there like a moment of glee in the students eyes when it finally clicks? What's that experience like seeing students come to realize what's happening inside a reactor core?
Rusty Towell [00:09:50] I don't know that it's unique to reactor principles. I mean, I think that's one of the joys of teaching, right? Whatever you're trying to teach, the moment the student gets it and they get that lightbulb moment, that's the reason you're a teacher, right? You love to be part of that, and if you can help motivate that, then that's the joy of teaching. Whether it's how to do long division or whether it's nuclear engineering, that's the joy of it. Certainly, the misconceptions that people come in with about nuclear power, the fear of it that, "Oh, my reactor is going to blow up," well, no, it's not going to happen. It's impossible. The physics is totally different. What it takes to sustain a slow release of energy from a nuclear power plant is totally different than a rapid bomb. And we always have students ask about, "Well, how does a bomb work?" Well, I'm here to talk to you about a reactor. And so we could never use the B-word, right?
Bret Kugelmass [00:10:47] Yeah, that's above your pay grade, young sailor.
Rusty Towell [00:10:50] But curious minds, right? And so you love the curiosity, but you try to explain how we want to have a slow, controlled reaction, not a rapid, out of control reaction.
Bret Kugelmass [00:11:02] Yeah, well, water does all of the heavy lifting for you, so it's not even that hard.
Rusty Towell [00:11:05] That's right.
Bret Kugelmass [00:11:08] All right. So you taught there for a while, then you went to get your Ph.D?
Rusty Towell [00:11:12] That's right. I went back to the University of Texas, got my Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics. I did several decades of work at National Labs doing basic research. The antiquark content of the proton, the spin structure of the nucleon. Things that, some day, when we understand it better, the world will figure out how to apply it and the world will be a better place because of it. But that that day is a long ways down the road, I have no doubt.
Bret Kugelmass [00:11:38] Yeah. And then you went to the labs also, is that right?
Rusty Towell [00:11:44] Yeah. I worked at Fermilab outside Chicago, I worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico, worked at Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. So, a lot of work at those labs. And even after I came back and took a professor at ACU, I still was involved in big international research projects at those accelerator facilities.
Bret Kugelmass [00:12:05] What was the most fun project that you were on?
Rusty Towell [00:12:08] I mean, probably... I was blessed to be part of a lot of them. And it's really the people that are fun. I mean, you work with people that are bright and talented, hard working, and at same time, provide some joy to work side by side with. So, probably my dissertation experiment. It was my first time really to be on a stage as a professional, and it was a smaller group. Sometimes when you get in larger and larger groups, it's almost overwhelming. But that was a small enough group, you sort of knew everyone. And that was special. I enjoyed that, working at Fermilab.
Bret Kugelmass [00:12:42] That's cool. And then all of this brought you back to Abilene Christian University, huh?
Rusty Towell [00:12:47] Yeah, that's right. So, I opened the door. There was a faculty position that came open. I came back here, and I continue to say what shaped me as a young individual is the chance to do real world work in world class facilities under a world expert mentor. If you get that opportunity, it shapes you. And that's what shaped and changed me. I was blessed to have professors that were really world class experts, and they would take me with them to world class facilities at these national labs, and I got to do things that... I remember the first time we were making a measurement, I was like, "Well, what is the answer?" They're like, "Well, the world doesn't know. No one's made this measurement before." And I said, "Well, what if we get it wrong?" "Well, then the world's going have the wrong information." I felt the weight of that on my shoulders. "Oh, we've got to get this right. No one knows the answer to this." Because, the whole time growing up, you're in lab and you do some measurement, you do some calculation, the last step is how does that compare to the real answer, right? And all of a sudden, I was in an environment where there was no real answer because no one knew it. And so that was exciting to me. And I remember the excitement of realizing that we've got to get this right because I don't want to put my name on something that's wrong. Of course, history's full of people that make mistakes that we learn from and grow. So that's part of the process and joy.
Bret Kugelmass [00:14:05] What specific values or phenomenon were you calculating?
Rusty Towell [00:14:09] Again, the spring structure of the proton or the antiquark content of the nucleon. These things that are very... What they call basic research.
Bret Kugelmass [00:14:16] That was at ACU, also?
Rusty Towell [00:14:18] That's right.
Bret Kugelmass [00:14:19] Okay, cool. So you were able to continue the throughline of your research, essentially. Okay, great. And then, at what point did that morph more into power reactor physics again?
Rusty Towell [00:14:30] So, conversations with wise people in the field saying, "What do you think about molten salt reactors?" This was a question, a side conversation during coffee break. I'm like, "We've already got nuclear power. It's the best there is. Keep rolling. Why do we need to change it? It's working." And they're like, "Well, what do you think about molten salt?" I'm like, "Well, why do you want to heat a coolant, heat a substance to make it a fluid, to use it as a coolant? I mean, that doesn't make sense to me." And eventually, I was shamed, actually, by the man that actually started the physics department here at ACU. He said, "Well, if I buy you a book, will you read it?" And at that point, I felt shameful enough that I should learn something more about it before I talked about it.
Rusty Towell [00:15:11] So I did some reading and I thought, "Well, this is very interesting." And I had a sabbatical coming up where I had some projects to work on, but I also had a little free time. And I said, "I'm going to use some of that free time to learn more and dig into this." So, I started looking into advanced reactors and specifically molten salt reactors. I attended a few conferences, read more papers, started looking into it, and I realized, well, this is an amazing opportunity. What was discovered in the '60s could really change the world for the better, and somehow we put it on the shelf because the military got what they wanted. They developed reactors for submarines, and then all of a sudden the development on nuclear power sort of came to an end. And we can talk about why or what happened there, but the bottom line is we quit innovating as a country. Once we got these nuclear powers in the '50s, '60s, we sort of just froze and we're still... You know, these wonderful nuclear power plants in the state of Texas that are providing 10% of our electricity, cleanly, reliably, safely, they haven't had any innovation for 50 years. And I think about my phone and how I don't want to use a 50 year old phone. My children wouldn't even recognize a 50 year old phone. So, I mean, why on earth do we want to use 50 year old technology for nuclear?
Bret Kugelmass [00:16:26] Yeah. We can have a little debate about this, though it is interesting that I think the ones in Texas are producing at like, $25 a megawatt hour or something like crazy cheap. That would be one reason to not innovate is to just get the basics right and get cheap energy at the end of the day. But we can come back to that. I want to hear a bit more, like structurally, how was your group set up, your molten salt group? What does it look like? Do you have Ph.D. students?
Rusty Towell [00:16:59] So, we started with really just a small research project. When I finally was convinced of the value of molten salt, I started sharing with other people. I was able to give a few talks and people were excited about it. So, we just started a small research group. So, a few faculty members with a little spare time, grab a couple of students who are going to lab and let's start melting salt, right? I mean, I'd never seen molten salt before, so let's start there. You look at the big picture challenges and say, "Well, we need instrumentation." Well, I'd spent all my career building instruments to detect little bitty particles and stuff. So, can we challenge this? Can we build an instrument to measure the flow of molten salt or the pressure? Even for those simple things, there's no off the shelf solution.
Rusty Towell [00:17:43] So, if you're going to measure the flow, you need to have something to flow molten salt. So we built a system to just melt and circulate salt, and then we worked on instrumentation. And as this grew, Department of Energy heard about what we were doing. They came and toured and they listened. "Well, what's your vision?" "Well, our vision is to advance this technology to bless the world with clean, safe, affordable energy and medical isotopes and high process heat that we can desalinate water. The world needs clean water and safe energy and medical isotopes, so if we can do that in an environment where we're also educating students, then that's perfect.".
Rusty Towell [00:18:23] So they loved our vision and they loved what we were doing, a little loop and circulating salt on campus. And so they said, "Come to D.C. and tell us how you're going to go from your little R&D project in your lab to actually deploying to the world and making the world a better place." So there was a group of us, President Schubert, the president of the university, the man that was funding the research through his foundation at the time and myself, we went to D.C. and said, "This is our plan. We want to go from our little loop to an advanced research reactor on campus. And then, we'll learn from that how to deploy to the world. That's our plan."
Bret Kugelmass [00:18:58] And when was this? When was this plan put forth?
Rusty Towell [00:19:01] 2019. So, this was January of 2019, when we made our trip to Washington, D.C. and had our meeting with Department of Energy. The lead individual for nuclear energy at NRC, that was Ed McGinnis at the time, was the one. And so we had this conversation and we said...
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:23] Hold on, and that means Rick Perry... Was Rick Perry the Secretary of Energy at the time?
Rusty Towell [00:19:27] That's right.
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:28] And from Texas, that's got to help.
Rusty Towell [00:19:31] Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, that was the connection. We had this lab work going here, and at the time we had a pretty small group. And we'd been in informal conversations about, "Wouldn't it be great to do something with our colleagues at the other universities?" And so we'd had some conversations but... We had a little open house of our lab and a state senator came through and she loved what she saw. And she said, "Hey, can I tell Secretary Perry about this? Because I have a connection with him." And senators don't care what you say, so she went off and told him. And so he called up and said, "What are you doing? I want to send someone down to tour." And so, yes, there was the Texas connection there.
Bret Kugelmass [00:20:14] Well, no, I mean, Rick Perry's a great supporter of energy in general. And to have the opportunity to present a Texas nuclear project I just think is so cool. That's awesome. Okay, so then what was the result of that? Did you guys get funding, get it all set up?
Rusty Towell [00:20:27] Well, so we didn't ask for funding. What we asked was if we build this university research reactor, will Department of Energy supply the fuel through the Research Reactor Infrastructure Program?
Bret Kugelmass [00:20:39] And what is the fuel that you needed the Department of Energy to supply?
Rusty Towell [00:20:42] So, we're looking at HALEU.
Bret Kugelmass [00:20:45] HALEU, can you spell that out for our audience, please?
Rusty Towell [00:20:47] Yeah, that's High-Assay, Low-Enriched uranium.
Bret Kugelmass [00:20:50] So like 19% enriched or something.
Rusty Towell [00:20:53] Right, 19% enriched. It's in a low-enriched category, but it's real close to that borderline. Above 20%, the military use high-enriched uranium. And that's what they used when they built one of these reactors at Oak Ridge National Lab in the '60s. The reactor experiment ran there for four years, but it used high-enriched uranium. And so we didn't want to use high-enriched.
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:15] And why do you need HALEU. Wouldn't it just be so much easier from a procurement perspective to do it with 5% enriched? Why do you need the 19%.
Rusty Towell [00:21:27] You could. Our goal here is to get a license from the NRC to build this. And if the NRC can license an advanced reactor... They've never done that before...
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:43] Have they ever even licensed a university reactor? I know they have a set of rules for it, but have they ever done it? Or is that the Atomic Energy Commission that did all of the previous university reactors?
Rusty Towell [00:21:53] So, they have done it, but it was the last new one to come online, I believe in the '70s. The youngest one to get licensed from the NRC was University of Texas, but it was actually sort of a move from their main campus to their research park in a different part of town.
Bret Kugelmass [00:22:12] I mean, have they ever done... The NRC as an organization, have they ever done, start to finish, the application for a university research reactor? Or was that one that you're referring to started before the NRC was?
Rusty Towell [00:22:27] No, these were done in the NRC time frame. So, the NRC has licensed research reactors, it's just not in the living lifetime of any staff member.
Bret Kugelmass [00:22:37] Interesting, interesting. I was under the impression that these were started before. But we can look into that, and we can double check that.
Rusty Towell [00:22:45] Certainly, plenty of them were. Absolutely. There were many that were. But there certainly are some that have come online since the NRC was in existence.
Bret Kugelmass [00:22:56] Okay. Did we ever get the answer to why not just work with an easier supply chain and not have to deal with HALEU, which everyone's competing for? There's limited supply; they're not even sure how they're going to make it. They don't even know what centrifuges. They've got to downblend a limited stockpile. Why not just do 5% and make everyone's life so much easier since you're taking on so many other technical challenges?
Rusty Towell [00:23:22] We could; it's possible. What it would mean is just this whole thing would have to be larger and therefore more expensive. You're reactor core, you need more moderator and the physical size commodities...
Bret Kugelmass [00:23:32] Yeah, but that seems like the easiest trade off in the world to make rather than compete with everyone for HALEU.
Rusty Towell [00:23:37] Yeah, well, the point is, we're really not in the same space with everyone else because our need is so small. We're talking about a small research reactor, one megawatt. When you're talking about these companies that have a vision of the very first advanced reactor that is going to be this large commercial scale reactor, then they need very large quantities. And many of them are wanting to produce solid fuel, and so they need to start with extremely sort of pure, never been in a reactor before fuel to license.
Rusty Towell [00:24:16] One of the beauties of a molten salt reactor that's liquid fueled molten salt is that as soon as you start to operate the reactor, your fuel salt is going to be some mixture of fission fragments and captured transuranics and your fuel. And so, it's going to very quickly sort of get dirty, your fuel bearing salt. And so it doesn't matter if it starts with a few impurities. So, there are actually several sources of enriched uranium that will meet our needs that don't meet other people's needs, and we need just a small amount. On a macro scale, 20% of even our low-enriched uranium in commercial power plants with 3% or 5% comes from Russia. So, 20% of our fuel for nuclear power comes from Russia and nuclear power provides 20% of the fuel in the country. So really, 4% of our electricity is at risk because of our supply to Russia. That's a macro problem that the Department of Energy's addressing and I'm confident they'll get there. We need just a small quantity of fuel for a very small research reactor at a university and there are multiple supplies of it. So, I think we will...
Rusty Towell [00:25:32] And this is exactly the discussion we had day one back in January of 2019 with the NRC. Can you provide 19% enriched uranium to us? And that day, there were at least three different sources that were identified. Literally that same day we had a meeting to answer this question. And so, the questions are... We're not asking for solid fuel rods like they use in commercial power or even in the other research reactors, the little trigger fuel elements that are used at all the other research reactors. So, it's not as simple as just putting in an order to buy some fuel. There needs to be some work. What's the form and how do we ship this new form and how do we then dispose of it? Those are all questions DOE needs to answer to meet our needs. And so we're working with them and having conversations about where we are and what our needs are. But the starting of this whole project was when DOE said, "Yes, this reactor will be part of our Research Reactor Infrastructure Program, and we're happy to work with you with fuel the same way we work with other universities."
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:41] Okay, so that's the fuel side. Are there other technical development paths that you're running in parallel while figuring that out?
Rusty Towell [00:26:46] Oh, absolutely. We're doing everything we can in parallel because what we want to do is we want to do in a few years what hasn't been done in decades. And so, everything is happening in parallel. We're thinking about fuel; we're also thinking about moderator, graphite suppliers and where can we get that, where can we get the fuel salts from, where can we get the materials, the structural materials? The design work is happening in parallel to the licensure work, which is happening in parallel to constructing the building that this will be housed in. And so everything is happening in parallel, and that's the only way we have a shot at moving this forward at a timescale that really is attractive, not only to us, but really to the need to deploy this technology to the world.
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:32] And what is that time scale? When do we think that your research reactor will come online in a critical manner?
Rusty Towell [00:27:40] So, best case scenario, everything works right, end of 2025 is a possibility.
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:48] End of 2025. So you've spoken to the NRC and they think that they can... In order to hit that 2025 target, when would you submit your license?
Rusty Towell [00:27:57] We already have.
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:58] The full application?
Rusty Towell [00:28:00] Well, we're going down the two part application. So construction permit, and then once that construction permit is granted, then we submit an operating license and that goes under review. So it's a two part application. The construction permit we submitted last August.
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:14] And that includes full design of your entire system?
Rusty Towell [00:28:17] Well, the construction permit includes a conceptual design. So it doesn't have detailed, as built drawings or something like that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:25] But does it have all the reactor physics specified, or no?
Rusty Towell [00:28:29] That's right. So all the reactor physics are there, specified. Even hazard analysis, things like that. And this is a public document submitted in August. It was officially docketed by the NRC in November and we were given an estimated 18 month review time.
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:44] 18 month review. And at the end of that 18 months, what happens?
Rusty Towell [00:28:49] So at the end of that 18 months, I mean, it sounds like it's "throw it over the fence and forget about it." There's an entire ongoing... They review it, they have questions. They ask us to answer the questions. We answer them, and back and forth. And so, there will be an interactive process for this 18 months. But at the end of that, they give us a construction permit that says "This is an approved design." So then we can start building it and we submit an operating license which says "This is how we will operate it." And the operating license will need a detailed design in there so we can give all the detailed, very detailed questions about how is it being built and how will we operate it. And we go through, again, a review process and dialog back and forth. And at the end of that process, they give us permission then to operate it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:39] And is there a reduced fee schedule from the NRC for university projects or do they charge you the same $300 an hour as they charge the power reactor companies?
Rusty Towell [00:29:48] Absolutely. It's a reduced fee schedule for nonprofit universities. The fee structure is zero. So this is being reviewed...
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:59] And have they given you an estimate? How many hours are you guys going to commit on your end in terms of back and forth? I mean, because you've got to bill that out probably to your university or something.
Rusty Towell [00:30:10] Well, this project is being sponsored by Natura Resources. So we have an industry sponsor that's supporting us through sponsor research agreements. And so we are sponsored. Our current scope of work is $30.5 million of support from Natura Resources. And so we have support, not just at ACU, but at our research alliance that includes the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Georgia Institute of Technology. So all four universities are being supported to work on this reactor. ACU has submitted the license, so ACU will be the license holder, but it's a research alliance work on it. The NRC, when they docketed it, they gave us an estimate that it would take them 15,000 hours of staff hours to review it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:30:57] 15,000 hours. And what's the majority of that? Is it just hazard analysis? What I've never understood is why aren't the claims for these systems just so simple. Like, you showed some basic movement of heat, some basic reactivity, some super basic bounding analysis for potential internal or external hazards. Where did the other 14,000 hours go?
Rusty Towell [00:31:28] It's a government agency, and we're following the licensing rules, and so there are a lot of things going here. There are a lot of things I never thought of that would be necessary that went into the construction permit. So we had to talk about, you know, what's the probability of an aircraft running into this building. Of course, we want to think about that. What about earthquakes?
Bret Kugelmass [00:31:54] By the way, what do you do about that airplane question? Because this I've seen trip up so many of the micro reactor concepts that are planning on deploying in the U.S. It seems to me that if you need a building that can withstand a 747 flying head on, full of fuel, that building alone is going to cost you, I don't know, a few hundred million dollars. No matter how efficient your reactor is, that destroys the economics. How are you guys handling that question, the airplane question?
Rusty Towell [00:32:26] Great question. And this also ties right back to your your comment earlier about the price point of current nuclear power. And what we see is that we can make things safer, always. Almost anything can be made safer, and usually it means there's more dollars associated with it, which drives the cost up. Which is not fair to look at it... It's not enough to say, "Can we make this safer and let's spend dollars." Let's step back and say, "If we have a finite number of dollars, as a society, where should we invest those?"
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:00] Totally agree, but the NRC doesn't think that way, right? Like, they're not allowed to via their mandate. Like, they have to do a LORA, and they're not allowed to consider a cost benefit analysis. Like, legally they're not allowed to. So how do you get past that? I want to hear specifically on that airplane question. What has your interaction been with the NRC to get past the airplane analysis?
Rusty Towell [00:33:21] So, a few things. We analyze airports around and what's a chance. And so, if you're right next to O'Hare and you have hundreds of airplanes coming in daily, then the chance of, in a flight path, that's very, very different than out here in West Texas. Abilene does not have an international airport, and so we don't have the number of large jets coming in like that. So we do an analysis that includes what are the types of jets and what's been the historical flight pattern of airplanes over our building. And then we go to the question of where is the fuel material? And we have a design where it's underground. And so really, literally the building could collapse around us without a release of material because we're underground.
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:10] And if you're underground, how do you deal with heat movement to the ultimate heat sink in the case of a building collapsing on top of it. Doesn't that create an insulative barrier?
Rusty Towell [00:34:21] Well, it certainly does. And so you have some duct work, right? And for our case, we're not high power. We're going to be maximum one megawatt thermal, and so actually you can cool that with just pulling in air and circulating it through and back out.
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:38] But this is what... And I'm asking because I'm hoping to help all of the micro reactor companies out there that are trying to get through the same line of argument, which I think is almost impossible. Because if an airplane crashes into your building, you can't rely on any structural system to move heat out of the building anymore. That duct work is gone. There's no airflow. So if there's a small amount of decay heat, and you're insulated by a collapsed building, what do you do?
Rusty Towell [00:35:06] You start at low power and then you go down to decay heat. That decay heat's so small. Actually, the thermal mass of the concrete around it can actually absorb that thermal load. Again, being subterranean you're going to have natural conductive heat loss through the concrete and into the ground. So that's our final... As long as we shut down the reactor, decay heat can be removed passively.
Bret Kugelmass [00:35:36] Okay, that's very interesting. Okay, so what you're saying is we have small enough decay energy such that even if the materials surrounding the reactor are relatively insulative, just the heat capacity alone is enough to offset your buildup and thus prevent any sort of further structural degeneration.
Rusty Towell [00:36:02] That's right.
Bret Kugelmass [00:36:02] Okay, I think that's a great argument. Though it's going to be hard for the higher power systems to make that same argument because their decay power is going to be relatively higher.
Rusty Towell [00:36:12] And this comes back to... NRC needs to evolve to be able to consider the cost benefit ratio. I mean, I think about the cost of lives in Texas because of lack of energy.
Bret Kugelmass [00:36:25] Listen, if they were to consider the cost benefit ratio, there would be no rules whatsoever. You could allow for a meltdown every single day of the year across the world. And because we know, Fukushima, zero people died, and the benefits far outweigh. Like, you're comparing zero people's deaths, even in the case of a meltdown, to the incredible benefit of clean, abundant, ever cheaper, base load, secure power. If they were allowed to consider a cost benefit, there would be zero rules, zero regulations on nuclear whatsoever. So that's why I think...
Rusty Towell [00:36:59] Rules really helped us make sure that no one died in Fukushima, right?
Bret Kugelmass [00:37:02] No, no. Every single safety system failed. No rules helped. Fukushima shows you what happens when three cores melt down and there are no safety systems left, including the roof, which blew off. And it's still zero deaths. Like, Fukushima proves no safety systems are necessary to guarantee a zero hazard to human health from a meltdown of three gigawatt scale reactors. So it's just like all these safety arguments... I mean, that's like one thing that I'll keep pushing back on because all these safety arguments are just absolutely ridiculous.
Rusty Towell [00:37:39] I agree with you 100%. The design of a reactor that was... Maybe not even safety features, but just the strength of the containment vessels and the reactor vessel, etc., those standards allowed for zero deaths.
Bret Kugelmass [00:37:57] No, I'm saying... My argument is the exact opposite because every one of those failed. The vessel melted through so it didn't need any ASME stamp on it, right? The ASME stamp did nothing. The building collapsed, right? Like, the hydrogen explosion blew off the roof. So no matter how strong you certified and how much you measured that rebar, no matter how much nuclear reinforced cut, none of it mattered. Literally, zero of it mattered and empirically demonstrated, zero people die from meltdowns. So, yeah. But okay, let's come back to your technology for a second. What is the salt itself?
Rusty Towell [00:38:34] So, we're moving forward with a pattern very, very similar to the molten salt reactor experiment at Oak Ridge. So, we're using the same fuel, same salt, same design, etc., except...
Bret Kugelmass [00:38:47] Talk us through. What is the salt?
Rusty Towell [00:38:49] So, the salt is a lithium fluoride beryllium fluoride with uranium fluoride added in as the fuel for the fuel bearing salt. So, FLiBe is sort of the short name for it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:38:59] And do you have to do anything in terms of enriching the lithium or beryllium? Like, what isotopes of lithium are you allowed to use in that scenario?
Rusty Towell [00:39:05] So, we need to use enriched lithium so we minimize the production of tritium. And so again, following the pattern from Oak Ridge in the '60s, that very similarly, enriched lithium is necessary to use.
Bret Kugelmass [00:39:18] Is that easy enough to procure? Can you just go to a normal chemistry shop to get that or does that have to be nuclear also?
Rusty Towell [00:39:23] You can't. You can go buy FLiBe but you can't buy enriched lithium. Right now again, we find ourselves as a nation in a situation where enriched lithium, to use in a nuclear power plant, which is used currently by the water-cooled power plants to make sure their water chemistry is maintained, they use some enriched lithium there, and our only source of that enriched lithium is either Russia or China. Because the processes used back in the '50s and '60s at Oak Ridge, those are environmentally unclean and basically outlawed, and so now we've outsourced those dirty processes. So, is the path forward continue to use FLiBe? If so, we need to come up with a source of enriching lithium. Or, we'll shift to a different salt that doesn't use lithium.
Bret Kugelmass [00:40:10] What are some other candidate salts?
Rusty Towell [00:40:12] So, there are a lot of possibilities. Most people jump in and say chloride or fluoride. We have more experience with fluorides and you trade hazards back and forth.
Bret Kugelmass [00:40:23] Yeah, what are the different hazards? Just that chloride reacts with water? Does fluoride react with water?
Rusty Towell [00:40:28] I mean, fluoride is very hazardous rate reactive whether it's fluoride alone or hydrogen fluoride. Both those are harmful to people and corrosive. Chlorine has sort of similar things, right? Chlorine, it's harmful to people. It also has different corrosion paths for the materials. Typically, fluorides are used for thermal reactors, chlorides are used for fast reactors. That's sort of the normal split. But if you want to stay in the fluoride salt but you don't want to use lithium, you can think about sodium. Again, it's not quite as good... Neutronics aren't quite as good, but you can overcome those. It's a similar discussion we had earlier about using low-enriched versus HALEU. You know, can we get by at 3% or 5% instead of 20% or 19%? And you can, you just have to make the core larger and larger so the neutronics work. And if you're thinking about small modular, then obviously you'd like to have a more efficient moderator or more efficient neutronics.
Rusty Towell [00:41:39] And there is a source of enriched FLiBe sitting at Oak Ridge. The FLiBe that they actually used in the '60s is still sitting there. And so, when we talked to Department Energy we actually said, "We need your help getting fuel. We also need your help getting salt. You have both of these in your nuclear labs. Is that something you can support us with?" And so that was, again, sort of from the beginning, design decisions. But our goal is to design it very similar to MSRE. So, it's a simple loop design, a core, a pump, a heat exchanger, a simple loop, and then it all drains in the drain tank. And so, where we can simplify it? Let's drop down and not use high-enriched uranium, let's drop the power by about an order of magnitude down to one megawatt. There's simplifying changes, but we also...
Bret Kugelmass [00:42:22] Do you have to restart the clock with the NRC when you make those changes? Do you have to resubmit the whole package again if you were to change the geometry and certainly the chemistry?
Rusty Towell [00:42:32] So, there are things that would trigger a complete redo, and there are things that can be accommodated as a shifted change. If we tweak the shape of our heat exchanger, I don't believe that causes a complete redo. I think if we were to say, "You know what, instead of using liquid fuel, let's go with solid fuel inside of our core," I think that likely would cause them to say, "Well, that's going to have implications on accident analysis and the whole core design, and we probably should just reset this." We haven't gone there, haven't tried it, but I think that's probably what the NRC would say. They allow some modifications as you go if they are within. And it goes back to your earlier question, do we have a detailed design? No, we have a conceptual design. And so, we will continue to flesh out that to a detailed design for the operating license.
Bret Kugelmass [00:43:29] And what about the other materials in the system? Can you use normal stainless steel for your piping or do you have different metallurgical requirements to deal with different corrosion factors?
Rusty Towell [00:43:43] So, we're using stainless steel 316H. That's the metal we're using. It's a qualified metal with understood mechanical properties at temperature. Obviously, corrosion is always going to be a question, and it will not have as good a corrosion resistance is as higher nickel content materials, but we're not building a reactor that we would like to operate for 40 or 60 or 80 years, we're building a reactor to demonstrate we can get a license to train students on to collect data for commercial deployment in the future. And so, we would love to build, license, operate this reactor for five years and learn what we can and say, "Hey, let's decommission and let's build a second generation reactor."
Bret Kugelmass [00:44:32] And how do you model the impact on the neutronics of corrosion. Given that you have this liquid core system, it's going to be pretty hard to filter out products. What's the strategy there?
Rusty Towell [00:44:46] So, one thing you can do is you can minimize corrosion dramatically by just... Corrosion doesn't occur unless you get oxygen inside the salt. So, if you can remove all the oxygen to start with and keep it out, then you can really minimize corrosion significantly. The effect on neutronics, you know, if you leach out a few elements out of your alloys and so your salt... Those are going to be such minor quantities, you're going to have very minor effects on neutronics. And so, you can model those relatively easy. Of course, the entire modeling of a liquid-fueled molten salt reactor is something we don't have near the suite of of simulation tools as we do for a pressurized water system with stationary fuel. It's a simpler problem, and it's a problem we've been working on for decades and decades. So, there is a lot of work to continuously improve the current models to allow for some of these changes. But you're right, salt chemistry evolution, not just from corrosion, but chemistry is affected by... That's where your fission fragments go, right? Every time fission occurs, you produce those fission fragments that are no longer locked up behind the cladding, they're in the salt, moving around. And some of those will bubble out as a gas. Some of them will plate out on different parts of the material and some of them will just stay suspended. And so, that is a large part of what this research reactor will do, carefully monitor those three domains and understand where the fission fragments move.
Bret Kugelmass [00:46:20] I think it's great. I think this is why we should be building experimental reactors for that exact reason, to learn and model, experimentally, how these systems work. I think it's brilliant idea. Tell me more about the other systems that you need to invent to make this work. What about pumps? You talked about pumps before. What about other things? Like, do you need specialty flanges, specialty valves, pumps, instruments, and how are you going to invent all this in the next two years?
Rusty Towell [00:46:47] Great questions. And that's where we started, right? Long before we even said, "Hey, we're building a reactor," we said, "Hey, if we want to help the industry, what can we do?" Instrumentation, flange, valves, sills, pumps, you know. And so we just started building little salt systems. And so we have a very robust set of R&D systems here. We have a whole series of different salt systems, starting from very small low temperature melting salts to larger and higher temperature. And so we're studying sills and flanges and filters and instrumentation and monitoring salt chemistry and techniques for monitoring the chemistry. And we're doing all that right here in labs at Abilene Christian University. We have 30 faculty and staff and 60 students that are working on it currently, here on campus.
Rusty Towell [00:47:34] A lot of those things are things you would like, and especially for a commercial deployment in the future, will be necessary. For a simple, small research reactor, you can design around a lot of those challenges. And so, would we love to have salt-leaded valves that could be used throughout the system? Absolutely. Could you design a reactor that doesn't depend upon, especially for a safety case, any salt-leaded valves? Yeah, you can actually do that. It's not quite as efficient; it's not maybe what you want to go with long term, but you can do that.
Rusty Towell [00:48:10] Flanges. We've been struggling with flanges. We've finally developed our own and we have a patent on a flange that will bolt two pipes together, let molten salt flow through it, temperature cycle, you know, 700 degrees, and then you can take it apart. And that's half of it. Can you put it together and it not leak? And then, can you take it apart after you have that little dried salt ring in there without a blowtorch. And so, we've got a solution to that. And that's going to allow maintenance to be easier, right? You don't have to weld everything together. You could imagine, flanging things is hard, so if you need to do maintenance in the future. Again, for our research reactor, probably not so important. We're okay with it not lasting 40 or 80 years, but if you think about commercial deployment and return on investment because it doesn't do you any good to produce energy if it's at a price point that people can't afford, then it drives them away. So we want to produce energy that's safe, clean, but also affordable. So, we're working on all these things.
Bret Kugelmass [00:49:08] I love the vision. That's exactly what you guys should be doing. I mean, that is like the purpose of research centers. My frustration, as you could probably hear it, but I hope you guys overcome this, so desperately hope you overcome this, is that you can create a sandbox to research and innovate and experiment. I want to see that reactor trip off and then you guys analyze and see, okay, we developed this here, and learn and then feedback into models. And then I want to see you guys invent these new flanges and valves and pumps that can be moved into industry, and who knows, maybe even moved into other industries too. Molten salt could be used for like solar, thermal, I don't know. But it's like, that is the purpose of research in universities. So I just so desperately want you guys to have that sandbox to play in. Okay, we're about out of time, so maybe I'll just leave you the final note. Where do you need help? To our audience, what can we do to help accelerate this vision of yours?
Rusty Towell [00:50:08] We've talked about a lot of things that are challenges for us. NRC needs to evolve. And I'll say, NRC has been working with us very well. The roadblock we feared it would be... It's still a challenge, but there is an attitude and a desire. Just like your desire to see us succeed, I think we're seeing that from the NRC. Now, can they maintain that through this long process of getting a license? And then can it scale up to commercial? I think they likely need some ability to consider cost benefits and things we talked about. So, I think there's some evolution there. Clearly, supply chain is a challenge, right? I mean, we'd love for some industry partner to stand up and say, "Even though there's not a business argument today for generating," fill in the blank, "pumps, valves, graphite, whatever, we can see the future and we're willing to invest today to help support that." We need more of that. We need public opinion just to say, "We value clean energy and we value safety and we're willing to take the time to be educated about radiation and learn that no one died in Fukushima." And while there were thousands of people who died in the tsunami and that's heartbreaking, people are still focused on a nuclear accident that no one died in. And so, you have this ability to educate, especially your audience, as we continue thinking about educating other people and saying, is there anything that's risk free in life? No. Are the risks there? Yes. But we can minimize those risks and we can bless the world with the output of this in so many ways. It is totally worth the effort.
Rusty Towell [00:51:48] And so, I appreciate the time, appreciate helping share what we're doing. We're excited about it. We come from a small university without the name recognition of others, but we're working with some real powerhouses. And we have a path forward; we're building a building to put this reactor in. We have a license with the NRC. We are moving forward with this in a way that no one else really is, and we're excited about that. And we're looking forward to having the sandbox and welcoming the world to come play in our sandbox.
Bret Kugelmass [00:52:18] Amazing vision. Rusty, I wish you the best. I think what you're doing is awesome. And it's people like you that are going to be driving humanity into the future. So, thank you again for all the hard work. Rusty Towell, everybody.