The rededication of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project brought together experts from government, industry and academia to discuss the future of nuclear power in the global race to decarbonize electricity and industrial heat.
In a series of panels and interviews, faculty, students and alumni of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, along with special guests, tackled topics such as advanced reactors, nuclear nonproliferation, community engagement and consent, and international deployment of nuclear power.
The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project was first conceived as a memorial to the 579 soldiers from U-M who died in World War II. Seeking to build a memorial with purpose rather than a “mound of stone,” the founders raised $7.3 million by 1953 to investigate peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
While even the oldest of the speakers was too young to be called to fight in World War II, the threat of nuclear weapons use in Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and the risk of World War III, bound the present to the past.
“Russian aggression has underscored why you need reliable partners,” said John Kotek, the senior vice president for policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “It might have felt like a talking point before, but this is a stark and tragic example of why your choice in energy partners really matters.”
One of the concerns raised by many of the speakers is the lack of accessibility of U.S. reactor technology, pushing smaller nations toward reactors built by Russia and China.
Rita Baranwal (U-M MSE MSE ’96, PhD ’98), the chief technology officer at Westinghouse and former assistant secretary of the Department of Energy, heading the office of nuclear energy, spoke of visiting other countries and being asked why US companies weren’t offering tenders to build nuclear reactors.
One issue is that the US does not offer financing for nuclear reactor projects, whereas China will finance projects beyond 100% of their cost, according to Christopher Ford, the former Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. He spoke of potential for China to use these projects as a way to gain leverage over smaller nations through debt, particularly with Russia excluded from the market.
Sola Talabi, an adjunct professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences and nuclear energy contractor at Pittsburgh Technical, served as Ford’s interviewer, raising the longstanding challenge of the US’s stringent requirements for nuclear nonproliferation. Ford suggested that reactors of the future might lighten the burden of nonproliferation activity.
“Atoms for peace did a lot of good around the world, but it also left a bunch of weapons-grade uranium sitting in a lot of places,” said Ford. “We need to make sure we think these things through, and I think the next generation of technology has a chance to do that.”
Fuel enrichment is one of the concerns. Essentially, enrichment facilities raise the concentration of fissionable type of uranium, U-235. While they’re supposed to stop at about 2-5% U-235, there’s nothing but regulation and international norms to prevent enrichment up to 90%, which can be used for nuclear weapons. Some advanced reactors can run on unenriched uranium, about 0.72% U-235. Alternatively, others are proposed to use 20%, the maximum allowed for civilian power systems, and enable longer fuel cycles that reduce the amount of nuclear waste while also providing fewer opportunities for plutonium harvesting.
There was broad agreement that this is a critical time to help make nuclear energy the choice for developing countries, which will rapidly expand energy production to reach the billion people globally living in energy poverty. This concern came up in Talabi’s conversation with Ford and in the student and alumni roundtable, relating to both climate change and equity.
Smaller reactors, which can serve nearby communities rather than requiring extensive transmission infrastructure, may be more appealing in the developing world. Less complex than the conventional gigawatt plants, their modern designs also build in additional safety in the event of an accident.
Baranwal noted the difference between the younger engineers in nuclear power, who are eager to deploy quickly and reduce the effects of climate change, and the older generation that is accustomed to slow and cautious pacing. “There’s almost a culture clash,” she observed.
And while the older generation lived through the backlash against nuclear power, with Kotek recalling how President Bill Clinton equated nuclear research spending with government waste in the 1990s, the younger engineers are part of a generation that feels the urgency to reach zero carbon emissions and looks on nuclear power with an open mind.
“People are coming to their own conclusions about why this is important,” said River Bennett, a Master’s student in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences. “It’s not just our narrative anymore.”
Many of the new faces in nuclear power are also passionate about community consent, ensuring strong buy-in for nuclear power, and for implementing it in a way that is equitable. Aditi Verma, an assistant professor in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, compared the old way of siting nuclear power plants to inviting guests to a dinner party halfway through. The conversation is already rolling, and the guests have the unenviable task of trying to figure out what’s going on and making themselves heard before it is too late.
Emma Wong (U-M ChE ’03), who leads the long term operations program for the nuclear sector of the Electric Power Research Institute, proposed a different way of engaging with communities. The intention now is to invite communities to the table at the beginning so that they have a say in setting the agenda, identifying what they want and don’t want in a local nuclear plant.
Overall, the sessions presented a nuclear industry with a toolkit ready to help tackle the problem of decarbonizing electricity and industrial heat globally—but that needed to be ready to embrace new technologies and deploy internationally.
“We need to move very fast, and we’re not used to that in this industry,” said Baranwal, encouraging the young people in attendance to push hard.
Naturally, the session also included a history of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, told by John Lee and Gary Was, professors emeriti of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences (NERS), and Ronald Gilgenbach, the Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professor of NERS. The centerpiece of the project was the Ford Nuclear Reactor, which operated from 1957 until 2002.
After a decade of decommissioning and several more years of construction, the reactor building is once again a hub of activity exploring peaceful uses of nuclear technology with student spaces, faculty offices and state-of-the-art labs. Following the morning’s program, the labs were open for tours, enabling attendees to see facilities that explore how radioactive materials can be detected and located, or how different reactor cooling designs can be tested, among others.
The memory of the Ford Nuclear Reactor lives on as well, with a virtual control room in which students will be able to try their hands at running a reactor and responding to anomalies.
During the period when the reactor shut down and the Phoenix Project morphed into the now-retired Michigan Energy Institute, Was said he felt like, “the bad guy, presiding over the demise of the institute as it was originally conceived.”
But more than seventy years after its founding, the people who walk the halls of its buildings remain committed to realizing atomic power’s potential to serve humanity safely. After the closure of the reactor and the false start of the Energy Institute, the Phoenix Project rises again from the ashes, firmly focused on its original mission.
The recording of the event is available to view.