The Rise of 21st Century Nuclear Tech

Miguel Camacho-Horvitz
March 5, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: US Fusion Funding vs 1976 ERDA Plans, inflated by a Factor of 4.38 to 2012 Dollars. [8] Inflator extrapolated from Stewart and Reed. [9] (Courtesy of G. M. Olynyk. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After unprecedented growth in nuclear power in the United States in the mid-1900s, the state of nuclear power as an energy alternative spent decades in a near standstill. With the explosive growth of commercial nuclear power witnessed in the 60s, the former Atomic Energy Commission (antecedent to todays Nuclear Regulatory Commission) predicted "more than 1,000 reactors would be operating in the United States by the year 2000." [1] A decade later, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 drastically changed the conversation surrounding nuclear energy. As the editor of Nuclear News put it in the wake of the meltdown, "nuclear industry must face the fact that ... the [Three Mile Island] accident has put nuclear energy on probation." [2] Indeed, in the following five years more than fifty new nuclear reactor plans were cancelled as public opinion on the subject soured and tighter regulations were imposed. [2] The turn of the century, however, ushered in a new outlook on nuclear energy with a novel interest in nuclear power from modern tech companies.

Modern Nuclear Tech

Though traditionally dominated by large conglomerate companies, today Silicon Valley start-ups and other small venture-backed projects are entering the nuclear tech space. Indeed, MIT nuclear scientist Leslie Dewan and venture capitalist Ray Rothrock cite fifty-five new start-ups that have already raised $1.6 billion in funding. [3] In particular, much of the funding (and certainly much of the excitement) is going toward modern nuclear tech companies working on nuclear fusion. Generating energy by nuclear fusion has long since been the holy grail of nuclear power for understandable reasons. While existing nuclear power plants harness incredible energy derived from nuclear fission reactions, a nuclear fusion reactor would be capable of releasing more energy, much more efficiently. This is due to the differences in the two reactions. Nuclear fission occurs when large particles (such as uranium isotope U-235, which is commonly used in nuclear reactors) that are bombarded by small, high-speed particles break down into smaller particles, releasing a large amount of energy. [4] On the other hand, nuclear fusion occurs when, under very extreme conditions, two small particles combine and release a massive amount of energy. As hydrogen isotopes are generally combined, the reactant material is much more abundant than the unstable uranium isotopes generally needed for fission and less dangerous byproducts are produced. [5] Thus, the impetus to control the fusion reaction is evident. Still, the challenges of replicating the conditions, such as those on the sun, necessary to produce fusion nuclear fusion and contain the reaction are daunting. Since the 1950s and 60s, Government-backed research initiatives have spent billions of dollars aiming to harness nuclear fusion, thus far without success. [6] In fact, as seen in Fig. 1, government funding into developing nuclear fusion for commercial application has only decreased since the 70s and certainly disappointed all expectations of developing a commercial reactor. Even despite this, a multitude of small nuclear startups believe they can soon commercialize nuclear fusion. Today, we have Tri Alpha Energy, Helion Energy, as well as General Fusion that have all raised millions of dollars in investments from the likes of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs, and various sovereign governments into their efforts. [7] With funding that the government cannot match and an initiative that traditional nuclear power companies seem to lack, these nuclear tech startups may well achieve what has so long eluded the energy sector.


While a commercial nuclear fusion reactor is still a ways off, the state of nuclear power seems to have hit its second wind. Many new companies continue are entering the nuclear tech space and if venture capital funding is any measure to judge by, there seems a fair chance one of these young companies will indeed produce a twenty-first century, economically viable nuclear reactor - fusion or otherwise. In conclusion, the efforts of modern nuclear tech companies have put true nuclear fusion seemingly within reach. This, of course, would be a landmark human achievement. Thus, it seems the prospects of nuclear energy are brighter than they have been for some time.

© Miguel Camacho-Horvitz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] L. Parker and M. Holt, "Nuclear Power: Outlook for New U.S. Reactors," Congressional Research Service, RL33442, March 2007.

[2] J. S. Walker, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (University of California Press, 2004).

[3] K. Fehrenbacher, "How Start-Ups Can Save Nuclear Tech," Fortune, 6 Jul 15.

[4] C. Wagemans, The Nuclear Fission Process (CRC Press, 1991).

[5] M. Herrmann, "Plasma Physics: A Promising Advance in Nuclear Fusion," Nature 506, 302 (2014).

[6] C. M. Braams and P. E. Stott, Nuclear Fusion: Half a Century of Magnetic Confinement Fusion Research (CRC Press, 2002).

[7] A. Boyle, "Nuclear Fusion Gets Boost from Private Sector Startups," Science News 189, No. 3, 18 (February 2016).

[8] "Fusion Power by Magnetic Confinement: Program Plan, Vol I Summary," U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, ERDA-76/110/1, July 1976, reprinted as S. O. Dean, "Fusion Power by Magnetic Confinement Program Plan," J. Fusion Energy 17, 263 (1998).

[9] K. J. Stewart and S. B. Reed, "Consumer Price Index Research Series Using Current Methods, 1978-1998," Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 1999, p. 28.