The Nuclear Engineer Who Is the Darling of the Alt-Energy World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because nuclear energy has bipartisan support.
By Taylor Mayol
Rachel Slaybaugh stands at the front of her Berkeley classroom, scrawling equations on the whiteboard, occasionally cracking a nerdy nuclear-related joke to her undergraduate students. The undergrads are a tough crowd — but 32-year-old Slaybaugh is unfazed. She’s used to being the odd one out in her field: she’s female, young, a coder and not just a theoretical scientist. Slaybaugh is comfortable and closes with a bit of a cheer: “We now have all the information we actually need to derive the transport equation!” She throws her arms up in peppy victory. She loves the transport equation, she later tells me.
At first glance, Slaybaugh might be confused for one of her students — khaki pants, silver jewelry, multiple ear piercings, water bottle in hand. In the five years since earning her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Pennsylvania native has become the unlikely face of nuclear innovation, working to bridge academia, government and the private sector. Recently, she won a competitive contract as the special government employee for the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, where she will have major influence on the future of government-funded nuclear technology. Slaybaugh is orchestrating the program and will drive decision-making about which high-risk, high-reward energy-technology proposals get funding.
It’s all happening at a time when investment in private nuclear startups — often focused on making parts of the nuclear process, like waste management or batteries, more efficient — is booming and the caricature of nuclear advocates as older, white conservative men is shifting, creating peculiar alliances between liberal-leaners and staunch Republicans. “She sort of burst onto the scene,” says Paul Wilson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Now there’s a circulated quote attributed to her: Students don’t know that things [in the nuclear field] are supposed to go slowly. Let’s not tell them.” (Slaybaugh cops to making quips like that one.)
Historically, nuclear innovation has been confined mostly to government or military research. But in 2015, nuclear think tank Third Way noticed something curious: some 50 nuclear-related startups had over a billion dollars in venture funding, garnered from America’s wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates and some more long-view venture capitalists. An interest in nuclear technology as an alternative energy source was resurgent, particularly in overseas markets like China and India, where demand for energy is skyrocketing. Rather than waiting around for government funds, more private-sector individuals are willing to spend on nuclear tech, says Todd Allen, a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. (The shift, he says, parallels companies like SpaceX and Blue Horizons, also private ventures moving into traditionally public terrain.)
But in order to innovate, companies need access to a reactor — which takes decades and billions to build. In late 2015, the U.S. launched the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) to provide greater private access to the government’s 17 national laboratories with reactors. The incentives for the government to swing open its reactor doors to the private sector go like this: There’s $740 billion of potential global market in the next eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. ought to be the leader in establishing safety standards and in cashing in on the opportunity. The industry could include companies as varied as massive Bill Gates–backed TerraPower, mini-nuclear plants and tinier, Y Combinator–backed companies. When Everett Redmond, a senior director at the Nuclear Energy Institute, graduated MIT in 1997 with a degree in nuclear engineering, the industry was struggling, he says. Private-sector involvement was limited to the “big boys” — General Electric and Westinghouse — but all that’s changed in the last five years, he says. Slaybaugh’s role? To connect the next generation of scientists to that opportunity.
Her chosen method takes a leaf out of her Silicon Valley neighbors’ book: a nuclear science innovation boot camp, in the vein of the popular coding boot camps that promise six figures after six weeks of training. Launched in 2016, it’s part boot camp, part startup accelerator. Students pitch businesses or policy papers at the end and a panel reviews their ideas. The idea is to shift the mindset around careers in nuclear.
After the Cold War, nuclear lost its sex appeal, and only a handful of people went into the field throughout the 1980s and ’90s, according to Oak Ridge Associated Universities, a consortium of American universities that tracks nuclear-related degree data. But since 2000, there’s been a resurgence of interest in nuclear as an alternative energy source; the number of students entering the nuclear field is at the highest point since the 1970s. As one boot camp student, James Kendrick, puts it: “Getting a fusion power plant to work is kind of the holy grail. We’d be set for the human race moving forward,” he says. It’s particularly thanks to the urgency of all things climate change, adds Redmond. In the few months since the camp, two participants have launched companies, making nuclear batteries and creating long-term methods for storing nuclear waste. One attendee, Ian Hamilton, now has a two-year fellowship and $550,000 to make his company, Atlas Energy Systems, which is developing a device to convert residual radiation energy from nuclear waste into usable electricity, a reality at the Argonne National Laboratory. “Name-dropping [Rachel] helped me get in,” says Hamilton. “Her reputation preceded the boot camp.”
Slaybaugh, who hasn’t secured tenure yet, has been a science enthusiast since high school in Sunbury, when she took a class on special relativity and quantum mechanics and “discovered the world was much more interesting than I thought,” she says. After studying engineering at Penn State, she went on to study the mathematics behind nuclear computation, in hopes of teaching supercomputers to perform the equations more efficiently.
Of course, Slaybaugh the disruptor faces barriers — namely, the slow regulatory process. Typically, regulators get involved late, when a new nuclear design is complete or near complete and millions have been spent. Some are proposing an approval system akin to the FDA’s drug-approval process; it’s the type of thing Slaybaugh hopes to advocate for, especially from within the Department of Energy. In an interesting twist, the self-described biker, climber and devotee of Burning Man finds solace in the fact that a Republican-controlled government will likely help her along.