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Interview With the Kid Who Built a Nuclear Reactor in His Garage

06/23/2015 06:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

I've known Taylor Wilson from a distance for several years, from a time many lifetimes ago when I was working as a journalist covering the nuclear power industry. He's not a kid anymore, but when he was 14 years old Wilson decided to build a nuclear reactor in his parents' home. Author Tom Clynes has written a book documenting that event, and I caught up with Wilson to talk about harnessing the atom before he'd gone to senior prom, our energy future and what he's up to these days.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Denver: Okay Taylor, so tell me about how you came to the decision, "What I need to do today is build a nuclear fusion reactor in my garage?"

Taylor: I got into nuclear science when I was about 10 years old I was fascinated by the stuff. I was fascinated by the reactions and the power inside these atoms that we had the capability to unlock. And I started out on all these different experiments, and collecting radioactive materials, but you know at some point I realized I needed to -- well, I wanted to make a nuclear reaction, and to do that it seemed like the simplest way would be to build a nuclear fusion reactor. So it just, you know, was something I decided I had to do. Took me a few years, but I eventually got fusion when I was 14.

Denver: Yeah when I built a nuclear reactor in my garage my parents were kind of upset about it. Were yours perturbed at all?

Taylor: No. I mean, you know, certainly that's a leap of faith there, and at first when I settled into building a nuclear reactor they they were obviously concerned but it was just a process of convincing them. I'm a very safe person, probably to the extreme. And so that was helpful, and they got people and who knew what they were doing and could kind of say if I knew what I was doing as far as safety was concerned, but it was a big leap of faith, and you know, to this day if it wouldn't have been for them supporting me and getting me the resources more than anything just giving me approval for it, it probably wouldn't have happened, so that's something I'm grateful for to this day.

Denver: What was the most difficult thing about that project?

Taylor: Well I mean it's a hard thing to do, you know, make a star on Earth. Nuclear fusion is is an exceedingly difficult thing to do because it's not the natural inclination for things to happen. Nuclear fission, for example, if you have a critical mass of material and you put in some neutrons, you'll get a chain reaction there energy out, and fusion has to kind of be coaxed into existence. You have to heat up the fuel, the hydrogen, and contain it in the right way. And and because of that, you know, it's just -- God, a dozen or more builds -- everything from nuclear and plasma physics to metallurgy. And understanding of handling things like compressed gasses. It was just this massive learning processes of the however dozens of fields that it requires to do something like put a nuclear fusion reactor together, but it was fun and I think the biggest thing is you gotta be passionate about it and I was. And it really didn't feel like I was learning or grinding through it; it really felt like I was discovering stuff and contributing to the skill set that would help me out in this build that I was so passionate about.

Denver: Any scary moments, or blips with that?

Taylor: Well I mean always. You're doing the things like blended active high voltages, but you know, like I said, I'm a very safe person to the point of sometimes being a hypochondriac, and for that reason I took a lot of precautions and had a lot of people around me that you know, could advise me on what I was doing. But you know up to that point, I'd collected all this radioactive stuff in the garage which, you know, honestly was not as hazardous, but certainly had the aura of being maybe more hazardous.

Denver: What is nuclear fusion's role in the energy mix moving forward?

Taylor: That's kind of the story. You know I built the fusion reactor, and then over the next several years I developed all these different technologies, medical security technologies and things like this, and you know eventually I said what was basically the most important problem I could work on. And I think one of the biggest, if not the biggest issue we face is sustainable energy production. I think that, you know, it impacts so many of these other fields, whether it's having reliable, clean water supplies and stocks of food and health care in the developing world, basically all of these big problems we face come down to energy.
I think that fusion is something that is definitely in our future, and I think it's in our future in my lifetime as far as an economically competitive source of energy. You know the advantages of fusion are things like the fact that it is basically unlimited, right?

Denver: Mm hmm.

Taylor: You extract the fuels from very common sources, and we basically won't run out of the stuff, whereas fossil fuels, uranium, these things will eventually run out.

Denver: Right.

Taylor: It's a very dense power source, which is kind of similar to fission, but it is very clean, no long-lived radioactive waste, and you know none of the kind of safety concerns of fission. So at the end of the day, in my opinion, the Holy Grail of energy production is fusion. But when I tell people that even if me or someone else reaches breakeven tomorrow [editor's note: the point at which the amount of energy expended to achieve nuclear fusion is equal to the energy produced], it's still at least a decade when you look at things like material science and the engineering that goes into making something like that economically competitive and viable. So certainly fusion is coming I think I certainly have my part in that, but one thing I took a look at was fission as kind of a bridge to getting us to a low carbon or carbon-free future that is relying on things like fusion and renewables. You know fusion's this very dense baseload power source and renewables are distributed generation. Fission is a technology that is, for a variety of reasons, whether they're capital or regulatory or just industry inertia, has had relatively little innovation, especially looking at the last, say quarter of the 20th century and -- and first part of the 21st century. We're learning reactor designs that are incrementally improved over the original reactor designs that we developed that commercialized nuclear fission power, but we've never really had a real radical undertaking to redesign the industry.

We have a nuclear fleet today that is using about 20 percent of our power, and of course the vast majority of our carbon free electrical generating capacity is is that nuclear fleet. But with that said, you know, because of things like economics, a lot of it comes down to safety, and the nuclear power plants are very safe, but they're safe because a huge investment has to be made in safety, and basically building two plants in one when you look at all the redundant backup systems to prevent bad things from happening.

I decided I'd sit down and try to design a reactor around using molten salts as a coolant, and design a reactor that was not only something that was very safe, where the inclination would be for the radioactivity to stay in the reactor, and it doesn't have any kind of incident or out-of-tolerance situation, but also one that really could push the economics forward. Something you could build in a factory and truck to the site that could run for many years without refueling or maintenance, at least on the reactor side of things, and what I developed, at least designed, was this system that is essentially two modules. So it is a reactor module, which is the heat module, which sits there and produces anywhere from 5 megawatts up to over 100 megawatts of thermal energy, and that's the range of the thing. And then it has a power module which is pretty innovative also in that it's not a steam-based system; it uses, basically, gas as it's working fluid. So it's a Brayton cycle, uses super-critical CO2, and not only does that dramatically reduce the footprint of the power plant and the power generating machinery, it also allows you to have very high efficiencies. I think, it's really the future of at least thermal electrical power generation.