Reducing global warming: 
unblocking a nuclear energy solution

with R. Bruce Vogelaar, Virginia Tech Physics
Friday, September 30, 2022 10:10 am
Randolph 100L

Reducing global warming: unblocking a nuclear energy solution

Nuclear energy has six-orders-of-magnitude higher usable energy density than chemical forms – so there is little wonder teething pains arise.  But global warming is already upon us, portending a much more severe pain.  Existing nuclear technology already offers a base-load capable energy source with essentially no carbon dioxide footprint – as demonstrated by existing light-water reactors (and advanced Gen 3+ and Gen 4 designs).  But broader adoption is clearly not just a technology issue.  Like in the tumbler lock shown above, success requires all the pins to line up correctly at the same time to mitigate: waste, potential accidents, up-front costs, weapons proliferation, and being achievable in a timely fashion.

Were today’s vision for the nuclear industry on track to provide such a solution, we should get behind it.  But elements such as 20% enriched fuel, or plutonium separation, or once-through waste burial, or even small-modular reactors (competing with wind/solar on their home turf), displace tumblers in the lock in ways we just can’t ignore.  Is there another avenue?  I argue there might be one (and we need to find out now), by merging physics (using super-conducting accelerators), chemistry (for high-temp fission product separations), and nuclear engineering (especially rapid modeling), coupled with needed policy advances.  It’s a vision I’ll describe – one that VT can actually lead, and just might help transform the world.

Bruce Vogelaar is a professor in the VT Physics department, and Fellow of the APS, working primarily in weak-interaction physics.  He was born in New Jersey, but raised in the Middle East and India, went to Hope College in Michigan, got his PhD at Caltech in 1989, was head of cyclotron operations and then assistant professor at Princeton, and came to Virginia Tech in 1998.  His NSF funded experimental programs have ranged from nuclear astrophysics, to detecting solar neutrinos, to testing fundamental symmetries using ultra-cold neutrons, to searching for dark-matter in the universe, and to accelerator upgrades.  Those are within his normal day job.  But he also led the competition to use the Kimballton mine near Virginia Tech as an NSF national deep-underground research facility,  launched the successful 'neutrino-initiative' within the Physics department, and has advanced within VT the concept of an accelerator-driven nuclear energy approach to address global energy needs and global warming, including several workshops on the topic.