Flibe Energy in the UK, Part 5: Cambridge

It had been a full week for us, and on Saturday morning Laurence O’Hagan took us for a drive up to Cambridge to see the Baroness and relax some. Riding in a car in the UK was still quite a new experience for me.  Sitting in the “drivers side” of a car and having no steering wheel there, as well as driving on the left-hand side of the road, took a bit of getting used to. But the drive from London to Cambridge was lovely and it was nice to see the countryside away from the city.

Within Cambridge we met the Baroness at the gate to Trinity College, where we had a morning appointment with Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, master of Trinity College, and a member of the House of Lords.

Trinity College has a remarkable reputation, counting 33 Nobel Prize winners amongst its graduates, as well as notable individuals such as James Clerk Maxwell and Isaac Newton.  In fact, the Master’s Lodge still houses Isaac Newton’s grandfather clock pictured below.  It was into the historic halls of the Master’s Lodge at Trinity that we followed Lord Rees for a memorable morning discussion.  I later learned the Master’s Lodge is also the residence of the sovereign when in Cambridge.

The atmosphere was very relaxed and informal as might befit a Saturday morning. After tea and biscuits Baroness Worthington began to discuss her initiative regarding thorium in the House of Lords and some of the discussions that had followed her parliamentary question the previous Wednesday. Lord Rees was ever polite and respectful and seemed very interested in the energy situation that faced the UK. The Baroness had also brought a copy of one of Lord Rees’s books, From Here to Infinity, to sign, and we discussed a bit about astrophysics and cosmology. What an honor to discuss such topics with such a luminary! Even as a young child I remembered watching “Cosmos” on public television and feeling a fascination about these subjects–now I was in a position to listen to one of the world’s great minds discourse a bit in the venerated surroundings of Trinity College.

Kirk Dorius couldn’t resist the urge to play Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on Lord Rees’ Steinway.

After taking our leave of Lord Rees we walked around the town a bit and enjoyed some lunch.

Cambridge students and tourists filled the streets, and a great number of them were advertising “punting” on the River Cam. I soon came to discover that “punting” meant something very different in Cambridge than it does in the US.

A “punt” is a small river boat, and the Baroness soon had the four of us on a relaxing cruise down the River Cam.

Little “punts” surrounded us on each side as our guide, somewhat like a gondolier, described the buildings and their history we saw all around us.

Punting the Cam would come to be one of my best memories of the entire trip to England.

After the punting trip we walked through the park to a late afternoon meeting with old friends of hers from her days at Friends of the Earth.

Tony Juniper and his wife met us at a local pub, and after finding some seats outside still damp from a brief rainstorm, we began discussing environmental issues and the possible impact of energy from thorium. Tony had been the executive director of Friends of the Earth there from 2000 to 2008 and has been serving as a Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project.

The Baroness introduced the topic of thorium, briefly recounting our meeting at the Manchester International Festival in 2009 and how she began to progressively study the story behind thorium, in particular, the efforts of Alvin Weinberg and the Oak Ridge National Lab to build fluoride reactors.  She explained how molten salt research stalled when the US Atomic Energy Commission fully committed to the plutonium fast breeder reactor. She recounted how after she became a peer, she wanted to promote something that could make a real difference in the energy supply of the UK and fight the emission of carbon dioxide, and LFTR technology appeared to be very compelling. She also recounted her desire to start an NGO promoting energy from thorium and her idea for the name “Weinberg Foundation” and how delighted she was when she met John Durham and realized that their efforts could be aligned and augmented.

Tony listened carefully and mentioned that he had received a number of emails from various individuals over the years suggesting thorium and fluoride reactors could be real assets in the fight against climate change. He wanted to understand more about the relationship between the existing nuclear industry and the LFTR and we explained that the existing nuclear industry is built around the twin pillars of solid-oxide nuclear fuel and water-cooled reactors, and that the LFTR technology is wholly different and completely incompatible with their current business model. I expressed the long-held belief that that environmentalist groups will come to support LFTR technology long before “conventional” nuclear industry will embrace it. We discussed a variety of nuclear related subjects including Fukushima, shutdown of the MOX plant at Sellafield, and the difficulties of destroying plutonium in solid-fueled reactors.

Travelling to Cambridge was a treat, and I greatly appreciated the time and hospitality of all the people we met there, particularly the Baroness, Lord Rees, and Tony Juniper.

Laurence deftly made good time back to London, despite the periodic “average speed” cameras and, ever the gracious host, took us to “the theatre” that night to see a real play.



15 Replies to "Flibe Energy in the UK, Part 5: Cambridge"

  • T.M.
    October 7, 2011 (2:19 pm)


  • TerjeP
    October 7, 2011 (4:57 pm)

    Having environmental groups as advocates for LFTR would be a big win. As such it is good that you are talking to them. However I must admit to being a little cynical about these groups. Too often they seem wooly headed and dogmatic in their thinking about energy systems as most clearly evidenced by the unrealistic level of belief they have in solar and wind solutions. Friends of the Earth has been anti nuclear for decades and it is hard to imagine such a leopard changing it's spots. Stranger things have happened but I won't be holding my breath in anticipation. Even if the leadership could see the light they need to contend with institutional inertia. Much the same as the established nuclear energy they are locked in by their own history. If Friends of the Earth suddenly threw their weight behind LFTR it wouldn't profit them.

  • Willie
    October 7, 2011 (6:55 pm)

    I don't believe government funding is necessary. LFTR can stand on its own two feet. Tax dollars come with strings attached.

  • Alex Newcomb
    October 7, 2011 (7:11 pm)

    As a counterpoint, I don't believe ideology should get in the way of developing this world-changing technology as quickly as possible. Besides, if the government is involved in the creation of LFTR, it would likely be easier to get governmental regulations changed in LFTR's favour.

    Sadly, as a Canadian, I don't think I qualify to sign that petition.

  • Clark
    October 7, 2011 (8:44 pm)

    I think that environmental groups may well start supporting reactors that can reduce the quantity of nuclear "waste" and the amount of time it remains radioactive.

    I've opposed nuclear power for decades. I hate the thought of reactors that need to remain pressurised and that need active systems to keep them cool even after shutdown; it offends my sense of how to make a safe system. I used to say "they shouldn't build those things, they'll get too hot and blow up". That was before Chernobyl.

    Global warming started to change my mind, reluctantly. But a non-pressurised reactor that can burn up "spent" fuel, and shuts down if it goes wrong? A reactor that consumes plutonium rather than producing it? Well, that's entirely different, and I want to see what a prototype can do.

    The key to convincing the public will be transparency. Secrecy surrounding nuclear activities has been a breeding ground for fear, has led to expensive failure of the policy in the UK, and is contributing to the anti-nuclear backlash in Japan. LFTR/MSR prototyping should be as open and public as possible. Let the public see the facts, and if the facts are good enough, they'll support it.

  • KAP
    October 8, 2011 (1:06 pm)

    I'd like to draw everyone's attention to the petition link posted above by TM. Let's all get aboard!

  • Chris Huang-Leaver
    October 8, 2011 (4:33 pm)

    My office is a few minutes walk from there, my house isn't much further. If you'd let me know you we in town I'd have bought you a drink!

  • TerjeP
    October 8, 2011 (7:26 pm)

    KAP – I ted to agree with Willie.

  • TerjeP
    October 8, 2011 (7:29 pm)

    p.s. Happy to consider a cash investment though if Flibe make that option available.

  • Michael
    October 8, 2011 (10:36 pm)

    You are wasting your time with an online petition. Write to your local congressman with some signatures from swinging voters and powerful local businessmen to get something done.

  • Roy_H
    October 9, 2011 (10:28 pm)

    T.M. As a Canadian, I cannot sign the petition, but I was curious at the extremely short deadline of 1 month to collect 25k signatures. I would think this time restriction would kill most petitions. Is there a reason it is so short?

    I am so glad to read that people in influential positions are learning about LFTRs. England my turn out to be our shining hope! The House of Lords is expecting a report from England's National Nuclear Laboratory. The previous NNL report demonstrated that they never heard of LFTRs and dismissed MSRs because the USA gave up on them 40 years ago. I hope the next report does not continue to dismiss LFTRs out of ignorance.

  • TerjeP
    October 10, 2011 (4:24 am)

    I dismissed LFTRs when I first heard of them because life has taught me to be cynical about bold claims of easy energy solutions. Basically I figured it was humbug because there is so much humbug in the world. Now I find that when I'm advocating LFTR people often look at me like I'm the one who is full of humbug. But build it and they will believe.

  • Robert Keyes
    October 11, 2011 (7:27 pm)

    In regards to government funding, both what Alex Newcombe and Willie have to say sound true to me. I think that careful and limited government involvement may be a good thing. At some point, the government is going to get involved in licensing and provision of U-233. The danger is the separation of risk and profit. There have been many complaints that risk is being taken by the public sector but profit by the private sector. Some risks are appropriate for a government to take on (such as cost increase do to new or changed regulations, or sudden changes in the interpretation and enforcement of those regulations), whereas others are more appropriate for private risk (technology development and market pricing). there is also the question as to what type of research funded by government grants should become proprietary intellectual property. This issue may be avoid by having scientific research funded by government and the results freely available, and technology development funded by private interests and kept proprietary for profit. Antinuke forces will latch onto any issue in order to fight nuclear power, it is important to keep any handhold unavailable to them.

  • Clark
    October 11, 2011 (9:19 pm)

    Robert Keyes, you shouldn't be so dismissive of anti-nuclear campaigners. I didn't oppose nuclear power because I was closed-minded. I had concerns about safety, production of waste, the availability of nuclear materials and costs. Governments and the industry failed to address these concerns adequately. The argument has become very polarised, with both sides clinging to unsupportable assertions.

    I'm really hoping that LFTRs and particularly actinide-burning MSRs can change this, but for it to change, mutual respect is needed.

  • gallopingcamel
    October 13, 2011 (12:05 am)

    Wonderful to see that so many of the sights in Cambridge have not changed. During the summer "Punting" usually takes place on the Cam as you described but in winter months you see plenty of punting at Grange Road where the university rugby team plays. They "Punt" just like NFL players.

    What a pity that you did not have time to visit my college (Pembroke) founded in 1347, perfectly located for us physicists. Fifty years ago I could stroll out of the back gate and walk 100 feet into the Cavendish laboratory. Darn shame that they moved the Cavendish….. http://www.pem.cam.ac.uk/about/

    While I lap up your rubbing shoulders with history, I can't help feeling that the good baroness, Martin Rees and all the other fine people are wasting your time.

    You need to cozy up to a "Bill Gates" who wants to build an LFTR rather than a Traveling wave Reactor. I doubt if you will get to do it in Europe or North America.

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