Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Master-Tinker's Nuclear Dreams

Editor's note: This is the second of two stories, click here to read the first story.

Inventors are a notoriously independent and single-minded bunch, and Lev Maximov is no exception.

The 66-year-old master-tinker from Siberia has dozens of patents to his name, ranging from a device that spews out ready-made pipes at the rate of a kilometer per hour to a car engine that runs on liquefied air.

But nothing stirs up passions more than his nuclear devices, two of which -- a new kind of reactor and a new way to process spent fuel -- could eliminate most of the dangers associated with atomic energy and turn the industry on its head if widely adopted, he says.

Like Maximov, however, top scientists and officials in the politically charged, multibillion-dollar sector are also notoriously single-minded and very protective of their turf. This well-funded and rather elitist crowd finds Maximov's ideas difficult to embrace, partly because his inventions, at this point, exist only on paper.

Thanks to a $45 monthly pension and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had allocated millions of dollars to build him an incubation compound near his hometown, he no longer has the resources that most scientists of his caliber have.

Many nuclear specialists dismiss his ideas as too expensive or unrealistic, but others consider them revolutionary. But friend and foe alike agree on one thing: Proper feasibility studies are needed to determine if his inventions will actually work. The amount of money involved is miniscule compared to the billions spent each year reprocessing spent fuel. One expert said it would only take about $20,000 to test the commercial viability of Maximov's nuclear reactor, which runs on thorium, as opposed to much-more lethal plutonium or uranium.

Even that small sum, however, would require the approval of the government -- more specifically the Nuclear Power Ministry, which is dominated, as Maximov has learned in more than 40 years in the field, by a handful of influential officials who don't take kindly to outsiders with new ideas that could threaten their well-being.

Case in point is one of his latest creations, a facility for processing spent nuclear fuel, for which he received a patent in February. He says the facility is relatively small and, unlike current facilities, leaves no radioactive waste whatsoever. "It is only as big as your office," he said in a recent interview, gesturing to a newsroom roughly 400 square meters in size.

He said the containers that hold the spent fuel, once removed from the reactor, won't need to be cooled in special pools prior to entering his facility; nor is it necessary to cut open and dissolve them in nitric acid. But most important, he said, is that there will be no liquid radioactive waste, the cause of most of Russia's radioactive pollution today thanks to Soviet mishandling.

Maximov's facility, he says, turns spent fuel containing plutonium, uranium, zirconium, californium and other poisonous and valuable substances into various types of harmless fluorides. Then the mix is treated in a special heating contraption that sublimates and cools these fluorides one by one.

"Look at this piece," he says, pulling a transparent glass-like chunk from his briefcase. "This is what the processed spent fuel will look like. This is fluoride calcium. It is not radioactive. Strontium and cesium fluorides are radioactive, but they can be buried because they are very firm, and they can't dissolve in underground streams so they are safe for the environment."

Maximov claims that his facility is small enough to be built on the premises of existing power plants, eliminating the need to transport spent fuel for processing. The whole facility, he says, can be built for less than $1 million, although critics put the figure many times higher.

"Maximov's facility is fantastically significant, especially because it leaves no liquid radioactive waste," said Alexei Yablokov, one Russia's leading ecologists.

So what's holding up the development of this new technology?

Two things: money and a ministry.

Yablokov said the technology will never get off the ground unless it is officially embraced by the Nuclear Power Ministry -- which is exactly where Maximov always seems to run into a dead end.

The ministry's research arm, the prestigious Kurchatov Institute, convened a special meeting to consider Maximov's design last year and concluded it was sound and that it should be further studied.

The institute then recommended that Valery Larin, the director of its branch in Tomsk, convene a special workshop with officials and potential foreign investors to introduce the technology. But it never happened because Larin was soon fired.

Local media speculated that his sacking was linked to Larin's support for Maximov's thorium projects, which could render obsolete the $2 billion facility in Krasnoyarsk that the ministry has been trying to find the money to finish for years. And his thorium reactor could scuttle the ministry's plan to raise some $2.5 billion from abroad to build a controversial plant near Tomsk to produce MOX fuel (a mixture of oxide uranium and oxide plutonium).

The ministry is developing its own variant of thorium fuel in a project partially funded by the U.S. Congress, for which it has already received $8 million and is expecting another $200 million. But this project relies on existing reactors, and thus does little to fix the safety problems inherent in current power plants.

Maximov believes his reactor would cost about $100 million to install and be exponentially more cost efficient than current reactors -- and infinitely more safe. The ministry, however, says Maximov's design was reviewed by Kurchatov specialists and that they concluded it was too costly and required too many changes.

"It is impossible to shift from a uranium-plutonium cycle to thorium-uranium just like that," said Valery Rachkov, the deputy head of the ministry's scientific department, which is in charge of the U.S.-funded thorium project. "We have studied his suggestions. The thorium-uranium cycle seems to have good prospects, but it would be crazy to think about such a shift. Too much must be changed. It is too expensive."

Others, however, say ministry officials have different reasons to stonewall Maximov: namely pride and money.

Vladimir Kuznetsov, one of Russia's leading nuclear safety experts, who is familiar with the U.S.-funded venture, said Maximov's innovations are resented by the Moscow team of specialists who have worked on the project for nearly a decade -- "especially because he comes from Siberia and because they could lose money if his ideas were adopted."

This was essentially confirmed by one member of the ministry's thorium team.

"We only work with those who are involved in our structure," he said. "We have everything we need here in Moscow. ... We don't need newcomers."

Despite Rachkov's insistence that the Kurchatov panel found Maximov's thorium reactor too costly, the official conclusion of the institute, which was signed by its chief Nikolai Ponomaryov-Stepnoi, makes no mention of money. The conclusion, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, said "initial experiments ... need to be made."

The European Union has come to the same conclusion, according to several EU officials.

A reactor such as Maximov's, with no actively moving components, "is of upmost importance," said one EU nuclear expert who requested anonymity. "Such a reactor could not be destroyed ... by terrorists. This should be studied further in collaboration with European research institutions."

He said, however, that powerful forces may stand in the way: "The issue seems to have links to top-level international politics." Nonetheless, he said Brussels was trying to arrange a meeting between Maximov and European nuclear scientists to assess the new reactor.

Maximov has already presented his reactor and another invention, an eco-friendly steam-powered generator, to a team of experts from France and was warmly received.

"We need to know how much [the generator and the thorium fuel assembly] would cost and if it is effective or not," said Georges Ryschenkoff, technology attache at the French Embassy in Moscow. "His innovations are very interesting."

The EU's research directorate last month put Maximov's steam generator on the "priority list" in its program to slash carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Indeed, if there is a future for Maximov's inventions, it will likely be abroad.

"I deeply respect this driven man," but there is no point in fighting windmills in Russia, said Kuznetsov, the nuclear safety expert.

"He is a Don Quixote, of course, but I told him after he showed me his thorium fuel assembly that, given the economic situation here, it won't be implemented in our lifetime, or even in the lifetime of our children," he said.

"Russia simply has no money to pour into his research."