Nuclear fallout from U.S. government shutdown

Top level meeting with China was called off when Oak Ridge national lab closed during federal budget calamity.

"Pardon me boy, cancel the Chattanooga Choo-Choo." 

That's what U.S. Assistant Energy Secretary Peter Lyons could have been singing back in October, when the calamitous U.S. government shutdown forced him to call off a rare meeting with his Chinese co-chair on a nuclear power collaboration between the two countries, individuals close to the talks have told me.

Lyons and presumably Jiang Mianheng were due at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee (the same state immortalized in the 1941 Glenn Miller choo-choo ditty) to update each other on respective developments in a new type of reactor that radically departs from conventional designs. The "molten salt cooled" reactor augurs big improvements in safety, cost, efficiency, waste and weapons threats.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a key part of the collaboration, and was also the site where the U.S. developed a similar reactor back in the 1960s which it never deployed and the designs for which it is now sharing with China.

But something happened on the way to Tennessee: The U.S. government closed its doors for a couple of weeks as Congress failed to agree on a budget. That meant no meeting for Lyons and Jiang, an official with the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is the son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

I've sent several emails to Lyons and the DOE's press department asking whether they've rescheduled the meeting, and whether Jiang is indeed still the Chinese leader on the project (he was when it began two years ago). They have yet to reply.

To my knowledge, the meeting would have been the first between the two co-chairs since the collaboration's inception.

The two countries have, however, managed to gather at least four times together for technical workshops, and a fifth is planned for January. U.S. participation has expanded to include Bill Gates' nuclear company, TerraPower which has added molten salt to its alternative nuclear interest. San Diego-based General Atomics has also joined in the workshops. TerraPower and GA join Westinghouse, the Pittsburgh-based division of Japan's Toshiba which serves as the commercial adviser.

The original roster of U.S. universities involved in the collaboration has also widened to include the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and the University of New Mexico. They join the original three of MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin.

Molten salt cooled reactors, as well as molten salt fueled reactors, are two of several alternative nuclear designs that allow safe operations at much higher temperatures than conventional reactors - an advance that would significantly cut the cost of generating electricity by making it much more efficient. They could also be used as clean industrial heat sources as well as for electricity. For example, Jiang has promoted them for hydrogen and methanol production, as well as for coal gasification. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – Lyons' boss – expressed a similar vision a few weeks ago.

For more on this story, read my original report on the Weinberg Foundation web site.

Cover photo is from NRCgov via Flickr

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