Silicon Valley Startup Pro Shifts Focus to Nuclear Energy

By Paul Menser

An old hand at startups by age 31, Bret Kugelmass is not one to do things by halves. He believes climate change poses a mortal threat to humanity, and that the widespread adoption of nuclear energy is the only way to stem the tide of catastrophe.

Bret KugelmassAfter selling his high-tech company, Airphrame, in 2017, Kugelmass moved from Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C., setting himself up as president of the Energy Impact Center. Since October, he has been collecting interviews for his Titans of Nuclear podcast.

With his advocacy of nuclear energy, it was inevitable that a trip to Idaho National Laboratory (INL) would be in order. ANS member Todd Allen – formerly of INL and now with the think tank Third Way – recommended he visit Idaho.

“I had no idea of what to expect,” he said. His two-day visit in January included a trip to the Advanced Test Reactor Complex and Materials and Fuels Complex (“I didn’t know what a hot cell was,” he said). At MFC, he ended up being present for the first transient test in the newly restarted Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT).

Asked to describe what he saw in a word, Kugelmass chose “versatility,” which he considers key. “Versatility is about looking to the future,” he said.

The second day of the trip was devoted to recording podcasts with INL people, including

  • John Wagner, associate laboratory director for INL’s Nuclear Science & Technology directorate
  • George Griffith, INL small modular reactor technical coordinator
  • Hans Gougar, director of INL’s Advanced Reactor Technologies Division
  • Shannon Bragg-Sitton, lead of INL’s nuclear-renewable hybrid energy systems
  • Emma Redfoot, a University of Idaho nuclear engineering graduate student and a leader in the Students for Nuclear organization

In 2009, Kugelmass started as a mechatronics engineer for Nanosolar, a manufacturer of thin film solar cells. He then funded his graduate education in robotics at Stanford by simultaneously running an electric car R&D lab for Panasonic. After his master’s program, he started Airphrame, a company that designed the technology to control fleets of drones over the internet.

As he pursued those ventures, however, Kugelmass, in a growing state of concern about global warming, started studying carbon-free methods of energy production. This included nuclear.

“I had to revisit my assumptions and all the things I thought I knew about nuclear energy,” he said. He found both a severe disconnect and steep learning curve between nuclear and “tech adjacent” communities. These represent impediments to innovation, financing, and social acceptance.

In the end, he came to the conclusion that nuclear power is the only alternative for carbon-free energy on a mass scale. The waste problem is a problem, but not on the scale that opponents would have everyone believe.

“If anyone is willing to sit down for five hours and do the math, they will come to the same conclusion, that nuclear can do it all,” Kugelmass said.

With the Titans of Nuclear podcast, he has made it his mission to bridge the gulf by creating an “audio encyclopedia of the greatest minds in nuclear energy,” opening the field to environmental-minded technologists who might otherwise favor alternate approaches.

“Solar has done an incredible marketing job,” he said. “The fossil fuel industry has the best marketing minds in the world working for them.”

As for natural gas, embraced in the past 10 years as the alternative to coal, methane is even 22 times more pernicious a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide coming from coal-fired plants.

“We’ve got to bring the whole world out of poverty, and to do that we’re going to need energy,” he said. Uranium is not only loaded with millions of times more energy than fossil fuels, there’s also 25 times more of it in the crust of the Earth.

Kugelmass said his target audience is not people in the nuclear industry, but clean tech professionals involved in engineering and science and other fields. “I know how difficult it can be when there is a limited supply of talent,” he said. “I hope to open up the pool of available people.”

In his personal network, Kugelmass shares Stewart Brand’s 2010 book “Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary.” Brand’s environmentalist and counterculture credentials go back to 1968, when he began publishing “Whole Earth Catalog.” In 2009, he went public with his embrace of nuclear energy, telling Newsweek, “I’ve gotten to the point now that even if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases, and climate change were not significant issues, I would still probably be pro-nuclear.”

Kugelmass agrees with the conclusions in Brand’s book. “Environmentalists need to get their heads on straight,” he said. And for its part, the nuclear industry needs to embrace new thinking and articulate a clear, positive message.

“For every good idea, you need ten startups working on it,” he said.

Titans of Nuclear Podcast Schedule:

  • John Wagner, Feb. 14
  • Hans Gouger, Feb. 21
  • Shannon Bragg-Sitton, Feb. 28
  • George Griffith, March 7
  • Emma Redfoot, March 14

_______________________________________________________________

MenserPaul Menser is a senior science writer for North Wind Group in Idaho Falls, working under contract for Idaho National Laboratory. From 1981 to 2008 he was a writer and editor at the Idaho Falls Post Register, for which he still writes a weekly history column. He is the author of “Legendary Locals of Idaho Falls,” released in 2015 by Arcadia Publishing.

8 thoughts on “Silicon Valley Startup Pro Shifts Focus to Nuclear Energy

  1. Timothy KERK

    Where is the profit I do not encourage investment in next generation nuclear technology if you are seeking profit. There are few places to find income in the business. Large scale high tech problems often go over the budget. You would need to have a very good contract. Entire projects usually combine various contractors.. Building often entails a long bureaucratic process. Politicians may seem interested but are obligated to large energy producers in oil, gas, coal and established nuclear. $80 000 000 would be spent on paperwork. The nuclear industry is established on old technology and bureaucrats. They are rich, powerful and have a regular income stream. Most nuclear projects will be international and will face different poiitics, laws and economies. Profit is more likely to be from selling particular products and technologies. Involving patents and particular technologies. Most new reactors will be built in China and India. They have established and capable industries backed by high tech industries. Older nuclear industry earn money from processing and enriching Uranium. Next generation reactors can use a variety of cheaper fuels, waste and low grade uranium. Thorium is readily available and cheap.and does not need enrichment. Most countries will have deposits of Thorium
    they can mine. No room for cartels to make profit.
    Ideally we could have a production line of smaller, modular that can go anywhere. That would need a huge investment. They may use a variety of suppliers. A lot of molten salt reactor technology is widely available.
    So there is little room for new startups to find profit and they need to compete with each other. Profits will need to come from unique technology, Specialized skills, licensing and patents. Large scale production of reactors is not likely in the next ten years. So profits are a long way down the track.
    I think next generation nuclear has great potential but that is a long way down the track. Only invest what you can afford to loose.

  2. Timothy KERK

    As an investment next generation is obliviously high risk. But some people get carried away buy the potential but not thinking of the money making side. I tell people if they are interested and have money to spare that is up to them. The business side of next generation nuclear is very complex and each company should be assessed individually. New startup energy companies share some common risks.

    _New technology reactors are going to be very difficult to build in the US and many western nations.
    -Nuclear in general gets little public support no matter how big the potential.
    -New companies will face opposition from established established nuclear and fossil fuel industry and their political supporter.
    -Politicians may say great things about future nuclear they but are actually supporting established energy groups. An $80 000 000 support will barely pay for application to build a reactor.
    -Bureaucrats reap in huge amounts of on licencing.
    Any nuclear projects will have popular public support.
    -Actually building reactors is likely to be overseas which have there own political and economic conditions.
    -There are many new companies developing next generation nuclear technology… They will be competition and may be developing very similar products.
    -More immediate money business will be in research of specific technology and not building reactors.
    Patents and licencing good be good money earners but most likely to be a waste of money.
    -Avery good understanding of the technology is needed. Small investors will be up against jndusrtry experts.
    -Technology is most likely to be part of international projects.
    -Lots of research is already available. As is most the technology.
    -Other counties are developing technology.
    -Other countries are likely to build reactors.
    -Only one molten salt reactor is available for testing new technology.
    -Most technology is being tested on non nuclear similators.
    -Politics works at a national level and local. No one, except idealists like me, will want to live next to a reactor.
    -Nuclear energy is not well understood by polititions, business or the public in general.
    -India and China will be the leaders in next generation nuclear. -Money may be made by selling particular technologies and not complete reactors.
    New companies will be competing with big energy producers with a regular income and probably more government.
    At present, big players are more likely to get contracts, receive tax breaks or. get government subsidies. Political support is behind the big corporations that have lobbied for decades
    Those politicians are also less likely to support renewable , , and low carbon technologies.

    They are just general issues of the top of my head. It could go on. Next generation nuclear idealists are mostly environmentalist. But in someways more practical and idealists. In other respects they are dreamers.

    Saving the environment and stopping climate change needs practical idealists with big dreams.

  3. Timothy KERK

    Re – Sending oil to the moon. Oil and fossil fuels do not have enough energy density to the moon or elsewhere. Space settlements will need fission, fusion or sub atomic power ( ie; qwarks ). Solar will be used in many cases. Especially for satellites. Solar will continue to get cheaper, lighter and more efficient.

    The moon has Thorium deposits and water which will give many options. Other nuclear elements can provide efficient fuels. Thorium decades into a variety of isotopes and chemicals. Including Uranium. Fission power can be used for very efficient plasma drives. More exotic nuclear power will be used. There are many, dozens, of different systems for nuclear power and propulsion. See wikipedia. Dozens using a variety of fuels.

    Methane and water can be found on other moons and planets. Comets and asteroids can be mined as well and come close to earth. Fossil fuels do produce many useful materials that will be used. Such as plastics and material for 3d printing. 3d printing will be extremely useful and use a variety of materials. Plastics, metals, silicon and ceramics. Silicon and ceramic and some metals will be available on the moon.

    Production of parts, mining and making fuel on the moon may support further exploration. Nuclear powered lazers on the moon could power ( push ) spacecraft. Not my idea.

    Also mining on the moon will make shelter for moon bases in tunnels. So space will definitely a major source of energy especially on the moon and further from the sun. where solar power is minimal. Actually small radioactive fuel systems are already in use.

  4. Albert Rogers

    The idea that we can make far greater use of the solar bounty of energy is romantic nostalgia. For a start, the problem with CO2 is that it is trapping too many times 0.01% of the energy of the outgoing infrared that balances that bounty. The tremendous quantity of hydroelectric power that the Pacific Northwest can get, from every 100 metres of hydro-dam “head”, is less than a 20th of a percent of the solar energy that evaporated the water.The thing is, that the collector area is the entire Pacific Ocean west of the effective river basins.

  5. Steven Curtis

    I am part of an organization called NevadansCAN. Our objective is to influence Nevada citizens to embrace the Yucca Mountain effort under the following circumstances:

    1. Spent fuel be reprocessed instead of stored in perpetuity
    2. Interim storage be instituted at Yucca Mountain
    3. Next generation reactor research be done at the adjacent Nevada National Security Site (NNSS)
    4. Secure the grid research be conducted at NNSS

    The NNSS is already conducting space-based reactor research (https://www.space.com/39433-kilopower-reactor-for-deep-space-missions.html), We would be happy to host interested parties and introduce them to the ideas which we think will move Nevada back to the new nuclear age.

  6. Devnot

    The problem is humans are massively increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is causing climate change. This is because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which is very effective at trapping heat, and it stays in the atmosphere for a very long time. Example: Plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis Carbon dioxide equivalent / CO2e A metric to describe how much climate change a bundle of gas emissions would cause. Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, but it is the most common one.

  7. Francesco D'Auria

    My age is twice Bret’s age, and I fully share his vision! He may look at issues like:
    1) why (fission) nuclear energy is down in many Countries (motivations are different for each Country)
    2) the role of politicians and (mainly of) strategy makers who suggest politicians
    3) the role of fusion energy
    4) why public un-trust towards nuclear (fission) energy
    5) thorium (he might already know very well)
    6) current (real, un-spread, hidden) weaknesses of safety technology (he might read J NED, 324, (2017), 209-219
    7) cost for nuclear fission energy is a myth
    8) four devils against nuclear technology: decommissioning, waste, severe accident, proliferation
    9) the oil ‘makers’ …. we shall find some other use for oil (maybe sending oil on the moon or Mars! … to continue there)

    … please go on (at your own risk!)
    Francesco

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