Back to the Future: Advanced Nuclear Energy and the Battle Against Climate Change

by Josh Freed,  Brookings

The Nuclear Science and Engineering Library at MIT is not a place where most people would go to unwind. It’s filled with journals that have articles with titles like “Longitudinal double-spin asymmetry of electrons from heavy flavor decays in polarized p + p collisions at √s = 200 GeV.” But nuclear engineering Ph.D. candidates relax in ways all their own. In the winter of 2009, two of those candidates, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, were studying for their qualifying exams—a brutal rite of passage—and had a serious need to decompress.

To clear their heads after long days and nights of reviewing neutron transport, the mathematics behind thermohydraulics, and other such subjects, they browsed through the crinkled pages of journals from the first days of their industry—the glory days. Reading articles by scientists working in the 1950s and ‘60s, they found themselves marveling at the sense of infinite possibility those pioneers had brought to their work, in awe of the huge outpouring of creative energy. They were also curious about the dozens of different reactor technologies that had once been explored, only to be abandoned when the funding dried up.

The early nuclear researchers were all housed in government laboratories—at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, at the Idaho National Lab in the high desert of eastern Idaho, at Argonne in Chicago, and Los Alamos in New Mexico. Across the country, the nation’s top physicists, metallurgists, mathematicians, and engineers worked together in an atmosphere of feverish excitement, as government support gave them the freedom to explore the furthest boundaries of their burgeoning new field. Locked in what they thought of as a life-or-death race with the Soviet Union, they aimed to be first in every aspect of scientific inquiry, especially those that involved atom splitting.  Read the entire story.

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