Why this summer has given me optimism we can solve climate change

This summer I had the privilege of working exclusively on a research project for Nobuo Tanaka, former Japanese official, former Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and now Professor at the University of Tokyo. I was tasked with studying a little known energy producing technology by Argonne National Laboratories, home of America’s top scientists. Their goal was to create the perfect energy machine, one that would produce zero carbon emissions, one that could be mass produced in factories and deployed widely and quickly, one that could be fueled by waste, one that could be safer than the safest form of energy known to mankind.

I traveled to Tokyo where I attended two conferences. One of them was a closed doors technical discussion where the star was Dr. Yoon Chang, the world’s top expert of this technology, an American scientist. I witnessed the participants, mostly Japanese scientists, being awed by Dr. Chang’s brilliance. After the conference, I had the privilege of sharing a long taxi ride back to the hotel with him. He recounted the sad day when he sat in Congress listening to bogus statements from Senators who decided to terminate the funding for his project which was only five years away from completion and commercialization. The experimental version had run beautifully for ten years already, generating power for an entire town. They were just perfecting the technology to scale it up so that it could start powering the world at large commercial levels. Demonstrations in front of an international audience had gone very well. Japan had heard of this research, and provided a significant amount of financing for the project simply for the privilege to learn from it. But congress killed it in 1994. Yes, you read correctly, two decades ago, the United States was five years away from commercializing technology that would have probably made climate change a thing of the past today. The United States had to send the check back to Japan (and it literally was a check for $60 million), and in the end, it cost more to shutdown the project than it would have cost to continue by adding some funds to what Japan was contributing.

So, what was this plentiful energy generating technology? It is advanced nuclear energy. It went by the names “Integral Fast Reactor” (IFR) or “Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor” (ALMR). The program seems to have been terminated for lack of understanding by politicians thinking that because this technology burns existing nuclear waste, it could be used to make weapons. This technology however, has little resemblance to our grandfather’s “nuclear” (the light water reactor). The IFR doesn’t use pressurized water to cool the reactor, which has been the source of all accidents, not to mention manual safety methods that were designed before the computer age or before advanced knowledge of cooling methods that don’t require pressurizing water. It also doesn’t require mining uranium because it uses existing nuclear waste as fuel. Old nuclear reactors leave 99% of the energy unused. The IFR can instead burn almost all of the energy from the waste. And when it is finished, it leaves a small fraction of the waste that is radioactive for 300 years instead of 10,000 years, solving the problem left by old technology of highly radioactive waste. Russia and South Korea are making great progress on similar advanced nuclear technology and will eventually catch up with what the US had and probably export it to the world. But, can climate change wait that long? Also, one feature that the Russian’s aren’t addressing is preventing weapons proliferation. The IFR makes weapons proliferation virtually impossible. South Korea is trying to address this by attempting to replicate the IFR more precisely. But US scientists aren’t allowed to talk to Russian or South Korean scientists about their vast know-how.

The sad thing is that after this project was terminated, the Department of Energy essentially placed a gag order on all who had worked on this. They were not allowed to talk about it. But one man, Tom Blees, while researching a science fiction novel that he was working on, heard about this. He then spent the next 10 years on an investigative quest,pulling out information from various scientists, and eventually wrote a book called “Prescription from the Planet”. Soon after, famous NASA scientist, Dr. James Hansen read the book and realized that this was a great solution for climate change. He mentioned it on the “Charlie Rose” show which triggered a wave of enthusiasm, though limited. Then, last year, the award winning movie “Pandora’s Promise” featuring a number of environmentalists came out, and was shown on CNN. It does a great job showing the history of the IFR. Everybody who believes in climate change should watch that movie.

Today, the IFR is no longer a secret, people are hearing about it, conferences are being held, including one last year at the Center on Global Energy Policy. More and more environmentalists who were previously opposed to nuclear energy are coming out in favor of advanced nuclear energy, because they are realizing this is the only serious and certain way to address climate change in the foreseeable future. Nuclear energy has been demonstrated to be possible to scale up quickly and economically. This year former EPA Administrator and former Director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy under President Obama, Carol Browner, announced she was joining Nuclear Matters, a new organization that brings attention to the need for nuclear energy. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s largest environmental organization, has questioned traditional green opposition to nuclear. Even the New York Times Editorial which has traditionally opposed nuclear energy took the Chernobyl anniversary to call for more nuclear energy.

While in Japan I had the fortune to take part in a small private tour of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As we were driven through the now uninhabited area around Fukushima, it was easy to imagine the trauma caused by the fast forced relocation process. While various UN studies have concluded that there have been no deaths from radiation and no discernable changes in future cancer rates, the psychological impact to the Japanese people, on top of the earthquake and tsunami that killed over 18,000, must have been horrible. But I am confident that the Japanese people are resilient, courageous and believe in science. I am confident they will take the lessons from the Fukushima accident and lead the world. Nobuo Tanaka and myself, as his research assistant, are now working on an international cooperation proposal to clean up the debris from Fukushima by using pyroprocessing, one of the engineering marvels of the IFR, which separates the radioactive material, and prepares it to be burned on an IFR. So, not only can the IFR solve the problem of radioactive waste at Fukushima and save money by drastically reducing the amount of disposal eventually needed, but it can produce safe electricity for Japan as it makes waste less radioactive. South Korea has been making significant progress on technology that is very similar to the IFR, but without help from the US. The main reason given by US polticians is that the US can’t give excuses to North Korea, and “nuclear cooperation” is toxic in that discourse. By having South Korea advance their knowledge with US help in Japan, everybody wins, most importantly climate change mitigation.

Dr. Takashi Nagai, a Professor at Nagasaki University in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped, exemplifies the resilience, courage and believe in science of the Japanese people. Despite having a severed temporal artery as a result of the bomb, he went to help the victims even before going home. Once he got home, he found his house destroyed and his wife dead. He spent weeks in the hospital where he nearly died from his injuries. But just months after the atom bomb dropped, he said: “Everything was finished. Our mother land was defeated. Our university had collapsed and classrooms were reduced to ashes. We, one by one, were wounded and fell. The houses we lived in were burned down, the clothes we wore were blown up, and our families were either dead or injured.  What are we going to say? We only wish to never repeat this tragedy with the human race. We should utilize the principle of the atomic bomb. Go forward in the research of atomic energy contributing to the progress of civilization. A misfortune will then be transformed to good fortune. The world civilization will change with the utilization of atomic energy. If a new and fortunate world can be made, the souls of so many victims will rest in peace.” Dr. Nagai died in 1951 and has been given the title of “Servant of God” by the catholic church, the first step towards sainthood.

For more information on the IFR, you can read:

Plentiful Energy

Prescription for the Planet 


Cesar Penafiel

MIA Candidate 2015
Energy & Environment
School of International and Public Affairs
Columbia University