Hosted by Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, the recent Halifax InternationalSecurity Forum brought together an impressive array of policymakers and thinkers from nearly forty nations. From the United States came Senators John McCain and Mark Udall, as well as such media luminaries as Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs, Steve Clemons of the Atlantic, David Sanger of the New York Times, and former CNN White House correspondent Kathleen Koch. Germany was represented by Parliamentary State Secretary of Defense Christian Schmidt and Die Zeit publisher Josef Joffe; and the British contingent was led by former Defense Secretary Liam Fox and top diplomat Pauline Neville-Jones.
But for my money, the show was stolen by someone who did not figure on any of the panels — Taylor Wilson, an 18-year-old nuclear energy entrepreneur. A Nevada-based scientific prodigy who built a nuclear fusion reactor in his parents’ garage at the age of 14, Wilson held court on the fringes of the conference, confidently dispensing wisdom on everything from nuclear terrorism to the future of the world energy industry. Named the Intel Young Scientist of the Year in 2011 and the recipient of a $100,000 fellowship funded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, he already has a lot to be confident about and sports an extremely-young-man-in-a-hurry manner that reminds some of the early Bill Gates.
A strong proponent of nuclear power, he is unfazed by last year’s meltdown at Fukushima that has proven so costly for the Japanese power industry. He points out that the Fukushima disaster resulted from a particularly unlucky concatenation of circumstances. “The Fukushima reactors were forty years old, and built to an early GE design that was one of the worst outside Russia,” he says. “Even so, these reactors actually withstood one of the biggest earthquakes in history. What caused the disaster was the tsunami which shut down their back-up power system. I am not a fan of old reactors but new ones can be built that have no meltdown risk.”
Wilson is betting that so-called fracking, the supposed wonder technology that is being touted as a new lease on life for fossil fuels, will have burnt itself out by the 2030s. Thereafter we are back to square one and that, in Wilson’s terms, means nuclear. He thinks that in the long run – say, after 2050 – new nuclear fusion technologies currently in the early stages of development will transform the world energy industry. In the meantime he is touting a genre known as small modular fission reactors. So small that they can be built in factories rather than on-site, they will be dispatched by train or even truck to their final destination. Wilson is developing a new version that will not need refueling – an advantage that will help minimize safety risks. They will be installed underground and will run for about 20 years before being shut down and sealed up. He is seeking about $20 million in venture capital to push the idea forward.
In the meantime the possibilities of small modular reactors have not gone unnoticed elsewhere. Among major corporations developing similar concepts are not least Tokyo-based Toshiba (in partnership the Westinghouse nuclear business which it now owns), Babcock & Wilcox, General Electric, and Fluor Corporation’s NuScale subsidiary.