An Interview with a Nuclear Engineer
by Wylie Kalotay-Nemec
There is a common misconception about the effect of nuclear energy on the environment. A lot of people think that it is very dangerous and that it is bad for the environment which is not true. I interviewed Elysium Industries’ C.E.O and my soccer coach, Carl Perez. This interview has been condensed for clarity.
What exactly is your job?
I am the CEO and Co-Founder of a company called Elysium Industries. My roles encompass raising money from investors, informing politicians globally, and creating partnerships with industrial companies to develop a new class of safer and cleaner nuclear reactor power plants. If we want to fully decarbonize the world (electricity, industrial heat, and transportation), we will need about 5,000 Elysium reactors operating by 2050.
What made you want to get into the nuclear industry?
My family actually raised me anti-nuclear. I always believed that nuclear power plants produced uncontrollable quantities of highly radioactive waste, made weapons of mass destruction, and would eventually explode like at Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). I realized in my 3rd year of undergraduate studies that nuclear energy represented 60% of US clean energy. In fact, France relies on nuclear for 70% of their electricity supply and has some of the cleanest air in the world. It was one of the only countries to achieve zero-carbon electricity supply for several days during the first COVID wave (a goal we are trying to achieve in 30 years).
The amount of energy one consumes on average in a country directly affects their quality of life. Two billion people consume less energy in a year than your refrigerator. This means they have no cooking heat, no ability to refrigerate medicine, no lights around them (home, classroom, streets), no computers, no iPads, etc. Energy is the most valuable commodity in the world. Slavery unfortunately has been the main source of energy civilizations have used. Securing resources like coal, oil, land to build farms (food, solar, wind) [think South China Sea for offshore wind farms], water, among other crucial commodities represent the main reasons why there are conflicts globally. Even if some have tribal, caste, or religion undertones or marketing, all conflicts essentially boil down to securing a great quality of life for one's people.
The economy is defined as the "allocation of scarce resources." If everything is scarce, we all have to fight for it. What about defining it as creating abundance for all? My first major project was to build telecommunications infrastructure in the West Bank (Palestine) with both Israel and Palestinian financing (2013). Long story short, the project failed because we needed ENERGY for the towers! Then I worked on developing renewable energy plants in the Philippines in 2014. A typhoon destroyed all the renewable infrastructure (wind and solar farms) in the impoverished region of Tacloban. We decided to take a second look and build something more durable and resilient to weather conditions.
Is it dangerous?
This is where nuclear energy gets involved. I realized that there were more than one type of nuclear reactor built by the US government between the 1940s and 1970s. We currently only use water-cooled nuclear reactors with solid uranium fuel. This fuel can melt down at high temperatures and causes a chemical reaction with water leading to explosions we call "exothermic reactions." In the early 1950s, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its director Dr. Alvin Weinberg, concerned about the possibility of meltdowns, constructed a Molten Salt Reactor ("MSR"). What is so special is that it operates at low pressure (doesn't “explode”), uses liquid uranium (so meltdowns are impossible like at Fukushima), and can re-use nuclear waste. This technology's program lost its funding in the early 1970s (before any accident happened) mainly for political reasons. Dr. Weinberg was viewed as a "fear-monger" to the up and coming nuclear establishment. He said MSRs would be able to solve the nuclear waste and safety issues.
What is its effect on the environment?
Although the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other organizations have estimated that nuclear energy is the safest and cleanest source of energy, it is still perceived as the most dangerous. There are more fatalities from people falling from roofs or electrocution than any nuclear-related accidents. Fatalities from carbon emissions, pipeline explosions, and mining are obviously much higher. With that said, the anti-nuclear activist in me wasn't satisfied. As a result, I co-founded Elysium with nuclear reactor designers from the US Navy (reactors for submarines, aircraft carriers, and spacecrafts) to develop an up-to-date MSR that can recycle nuclear waste and weapons to make carbon-free energy for electricity, water desalination, among other end uses. If we used all of the nuclear waste in the United States sitting at our approximately 100 nuclear power plant sites, we would have over 3,000 years of clean energy supply.