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. 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.