The future of nuclear energy is (hopefully) better dressed

By  Suzanne Hobbs

Nuclear energy is a little bit like an overly qualified job candidate in a bad suit. That is to say, despite being the best contender for the job of creating clean energy, no one wants to hire it because it needs a hair cut and a good tailor.

Luckily, some of the folks at the World Nuclear Association (WNA) have realized that appearance is important. The WNA put out a call in 2010 for new designs in its annual reactor design competition.

Improving the appearance of nuclear power plants is one of the founding tenets of PopAtomic Studios, so this competition was a dream come true for us. This was our chance to give a reactor a makeover and present it to a committee of highly regarded industry professionals. The vote is still out, but we wanted to go ahead and share our two designs that we entered into the competition, because we are just too excited to wait.

We approached the competition from two perspectives:

  • A creative design model that can be applied to the numerous existing power plants that have been, or will be, relicensed.
  • A design that shows how artistic touches and collaboration can be integrated into new power plants.

Our first design is something we have been advocating for since the formation of PopAtomic Studios: a colorful surface achieved using concrete stain. The result would have a tremendous visual impact, despite being low cost and low maintenance. This concept incorporates mass transportation and makes employment at a nuclear plant more convenient and appealing. These simple changes communicate respect for the community, and a commitment to clean energy.

Our second design focuses on collaborative relationships with several eco-friendly energy sources and strives for effective resource management. Energy parks are becoming increasingly popular and we wanted to create an example of how function and creative design can work together beautifully. The goal of this design is to affirm that nuclear energy is clean, modern, and a real team player; concurrently, it is rooted in a history of science and safety.

In our energy park (the illustration to the left is an overhead view of the illustration in the preceding paragraph), we have removed the cooling tower and replaced it with an onsite bio-fuels processing center (which is designed to look like a cooling tower). Using super-heated water from the fission reaction, we can create an ideal habitat for growing algae for fuel in the partial “moat” surrounding the plant. The moat doubles as a security measure. Recycled carpet “walls” in the moat allow for the algae to be easily harvested. Interface Flor, a company dedicated to using recycled synthetic flooring materials in eco-friendly ways, is currently developing a similar system as a part of a remediation project in the Chesapeake Bay.

Our goal is to promote the use 0f super-heated water as a resource rather than a byproduct, especially in contemporary energy parks. Super-heated water can be used in seawater desalination and production of hydrogen.

Once the water has cooled in the algae pond, it can be used to irrigate the land surrounding the plant to grow switch-grass for bio-fuels, which would not be in competition with crops for food. Double turbines offer electricity creation from fission, as well as a natural gas back-up/peak-generating turbine. The CO2 from the natural gas turbine can be pumped into the algae pond, creating a carbon-rich habitat for growing fuel, and keeping the plant carbon neutral.

Artistically, we wanted to honor the rich history of nuclear energy, while bringing plant design into the modern era. (The illustration to the left is yet another view of our second design.) The shape of the bio-fuels processing building is an artistic reference in that its cooling-tower look and the office building is inspired by the shape of the top of a nuclear submarine. The reactor buildings and turbines are updated with design elements that could be achieved through relatively minor exterior architectural changes to existing designs. The overall feel of the plant is a throwback to the Nuclear Era of the 1950s.

As artists, we realize that it will take more research and development to implement these ideas effectively, but we intend our designs to act as food for thought and inspiration for all of the great thinkers in the field. We support the idea of buying nuclear energy a really nice suit and introducing it to some new friends, like bio-fuels and natural gas.

Jeremy Gordon at the WNA was the competition organizer, as well as a patient guide to our team as we worked through the details of our designs. A very special thanks to Jeremy for bringing attention to this often-overlooked solution to the nuclear industry’s public relations problems.

We would also like to formally thank UxC for its generous sponsorship of our entries. Its support allowed us to put adequate time and energy into the development of our concepts, and to grow our outreach efforts at Chattahoochee Technical College, in Marietta, Ga. The illustration in this paragraph is a Chattahoochee student’s interpretation of the WNA design competition. Happy New Year!

Suzanne Hobbs is creative director and contributing artist at PopAtomic Studios. She was born in Tokyo, Japan, and raised in Atlanta, Ga., by her nuclear engineer father and social worker mother, along with an older brother who is now an accomplished chemist. Her interest in art, science, and humanitarian issues started very young, fueled by frequent family travel and a sharp focus on education and community involvement. She attended Appalachian State University to study Fine Arts and since graduating has worked with several public arts organizations, always with the goal of using art to create positive change. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

10 responses to “The future of nuclear energy is (hopefully) better dressed

  1. If this is the level of intelligence we are going to approach the rebirth of the nuclear industry, we are in big trouble.

  2. Mr. Graves, Wow…what an ugly comment.

    Can you elaborate on why carefully considering appearances is unintelligent? From where I stand, public perceptions about nuclear energy have played a central role in the standstill of the industry in America for the past 30+ years. As artists and educators, we at PopAtomic have a different set of goals than say, a nuclear engineer. However everything we do in terms of outreach and education, directly supports the goals of the industry.

    If you assume that everyone outside the industry is unintelligent, and therefore should not be a part of the dialogue about energy, you will never achieve public support or industry growth. Unless the public learns to care about and comes to understand nuclear energy, then we really are in trouble.

  3. Well said Suzy! The nuclear industry needs to educate on both the science and its role in society. I think im one of the few people who sees the beauty and marvel in the look of existing nuclear plants. Yet that’s not enough for all people. Great groups like PopAtomic are taking charge of nuclear energy’s public relations in the quest to bridge the gap between the everyday citizens and the highly educated nuclear workers. I love the idea of painting cooling towers (love the double helix) because it ads a human touch to what some may see as a sterile overly complex energy source. History has shown that you cant just bombard the public with raw scientific facts and statistics . Humanity and culture must be in the educational blend. Nuclear energy is the Earth saving energy source its been waiting for, and its the responsibility of us to educate the population from all angles.

  4. Suzy. Thanks for the update!
    We need new ways to tell the nuclear story, and art is one of the ways.

  5. Suzanne

    Nice ideas; it will be interesting to see what the full design field looks like, if WNA releases the full set or perhaps the “finalists”.

    I am a strong advocate of adding an artistic budget to large infrastructure projects. A little early thought on such projects can make a huge difference to the appeal of the finished project.

    I would say though, on the technical side, that the super-heated water is the first cut of the nuclear reactor and really needs to be used for electrical generation (or take massive penalties on efficiency). The merely hot water at the back end of the turbines could conceivably be useful for promoting algal growth and as a preliminary stage in desalination, but not for hydrogen.

    Good luck!

  6. Thanks Joffan for your support and engineering expertise in regard for how heated water might be used in creative ways! The intention for the super-heated water would certainly be to generate electricity first, then have a secondary use for algal growth, or other applications. As an artist I do struggle with some of the technical jargon and apologize if is not clear. Here is a link to the WNA competition page, where the results will be announced shortly:

  7. Suzanne,

    Your entry into nuclear discussions has been a delight and refreshing. Your humility in acknowledging that your are not a technical know-it-all and your willingness to learn is likewise refreshing.

    Thank you for bringing your artist’s eye, heart and voice to the industry. If I should ever get the opportunity to build a nuclear plant (most unlikely), I want you standing to the right of the architect and looking over his shoulder.


  8. Thanks Bill! Your comment means a great deal to the whole PopAtomic team and we will do our best to keep pushing forward with creative outreach solutions! And if you do ever get to build a nuclear plant, count me in!

  9. Suzanne,
    Your article is all the more powerful if you live south of Boston and commute daily into Boston via the SE Expressway where you pass the LNG tank whose exterior is creatively painted by Sr Carita and has been a landmark for over 30 years.

  10. So what do you think of the design of the new 2011 Entergy Nuclear Clean Air Energy IndyCar? (see links below) I was in Baltimore for the team’s launch yesterday, and I really liked it (I took more than 150 pics). I think it’ll stand out on TV, and the motor sports press is already helping Entergy, which has signed a three-year sponsorship agreement with HVM Racing, to spread the Nuclear Clean Air Energy message, without trying to teach nuclear safety to the public.

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