Five things we learned from two Eagle Scouts who founded their own nuclear energy startup

Photo courtesy of Alpha Nur

When Kevin O’Sullivan and Mason Rodriguez Rand first met at the University of Chicago, they quickly learned they had something in common: a vision of a clean energy future driven by nuclear energy. Together, the two Eagle Scouts constructed a business plan to implement their ideas.

The result is Alpha Nur, their nuclear energy startup company. We had a chance to catch up with O’Sullivan and Rodriguez Rand, and they gave us insight into what it took to start their company and what the future holds.

“Our mission is to modernize nuclear energy and power a safe, clean, affordable and secure energy future for the country,” says O’Sullivan.

Q: How did you guys come up with the idea of Alpha Nur? 

O’Sullivan: Mason and I became fast friends during college orientation. One of our dreams was to make a nuclear reactor. So, when we decided to enter our college’s startup competition, the obvious business plan was to make and sell nuclear reactors. And so Alpha Nur was born.

Photo courtesy of Alpha Nur

Rodriguez Rand: I had initially planned out my last year of college to enter this competition and spend time building a technology company. When I talked to Kevin about it, he suggested we enter with the nuclear reactor idea we came up with in our first year of college.

My initial reaction was to half-smile, not knowing whether this was a real suggestion. But after looking into it more, the field seemed incredibly interesting, exciting, worthwhile and ripe for innovation. While I had high hopes, I could not have predicted how far our idea would come today nor how it would evolve into nuclear fuel recycling.

Q: What has the process of starting this company been like so far?

O’Sullivan: Perhaps the greatest thing about nuclear is the people. We have had the fortune of connecting nuclear energy’s legends in science, policy and industry. While the challenges ahead are daunting, we have no shortage of support from the nuclear community.

Rodriguez Rand: It’s been a whirlwind. The first part of the year consisted mainly of reading textbooks and talking to hundreds of technical, business, policy and regulatory experts to validate or invalidate our hypotheses. I had worked at sustainability-oriented startups and labs in the past, but this was a new level of learning quickly.

We came in with an open mind, knowing we needed to take action but very aware that we did not yet have all the answers. A gratifying part of this journey was realizing I understood the lexicon and the reasoning involved in many of these conversations with experts. This has increased confidence in our direction, business model and thought process.

Q: What is your vision for the end result?

Photo courtesy of Alpha Nur

O’Sullivan: The vision of Alpha Nur is for a nuclear energy future where nearly 100% of the fuel is used instead of 3%. Nuclear power will be three times cleaner than any other clean energy source today and fully accountable for its meager ecological impact. Nuclear waste will be a rare material lasting 300 years instead of 300,000.

Rodriguez Rand: In the ideal scenario, most of the existing spent high-enriched uranium in the United States will be recycled through us and turned into helpful fuel that the industry desperately needs in the next decade to get off the ground. The more people realize that this is the safest, cleanest, most energy-dense and least land-consuming energy source we have by the numbers, the better. Otherwise, if we can do anything to begin to turn heads, shift opinions and foster action in the public or government eye to prioritize nuclear energy, I would consider that a success.

Q: Why do you believe nuclear energy is the answer to a clean energy future?

O’Sullivan: Nuclear power is as much undervalued as it is misunderstood. Its carbon footprint is as low as the wind but is offline eight times less. Nuclear power must be the backbone if we hope to add more wind and solar to the grid, making a dent in climate change. The future of energy will be a concerted partnership between nuclear, wind and solar.

Photo courtesy of Alpha Nur

Rodriguez Rand: While renewables are becoming more common and necessary, their expansion will likely not happen quickly enough to hit a 2050 goal of net zero emissions. This is because renewables have difficulty efficiently providing energy in situations requiring baseload (always available) power and for not-easily-electrified sectors such as heavy industry, heating and transportation. Many of these problems are solved with nuclear, which can provide clean energy all the time — and to these hard-to-electrify sectors. In this century, expanding our use of nuclear is probably our best shot at avoiding some of the worst effects of climate change.

Moreover, the dream of nuclear energy is not just about solving climate change but making near-limitless clean energy that can allow us to flourish as a species. We are expecting to use much more energy in the coming decades and centuries, not less. In many places, more energy means a healthier economy, better health outcomes, etc. Fusion may also be the only energy source allowing our species to explore the universe truly. Without a clean baseload and dense energy source like fission or fusion, we may not only risk braving the worst effects of climate change but one of the most significant opportunities ever to create a better world for ourselves.

Q: How did your time in Scouting as a youth help you along this path?

O’Sullivan: As all Scouts know, Murphy’s Law will prevail no matter how prepared you are. The canopy will fail in the middle of a torrential storm and the dead of night. The great white canvas that was the roof over your combined kitchen and dining table will gracefully crumple to the ground in the shape of a giant gutter, funneling a newly formed river through your tent.

The moments that define a Scout are whether they manage to keep with it. Success personally requires measures of on-the-spot thinking and sheer force of will.

While it is true that the Scouting values of stewardship and Leave No Trace manifest themselves in Alpha Nur, they are realized because Scouting ingrained in me the fortitude to stay on target.

Photo courtesy of Alpha Nur

Rodriguez Rand: To me, Scouting is about community more than anything. “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,” etc. — all of those things are true. And yes, I still remember the Scout Oath and Law. At this point, it’s firmly emblazoned into my memory, and the urge to hold up three fingers upon hearing those words. But why are we all those things? Why Be Prepared? Why be courteous or kind? It’s one thing to say these words and another to see the effects of being in a culture embedded with these values.

My troop was always engaged and involved in helping our community. Whether hosting a town pancake breakfast, selling wreaths or popcorn, building benches or anything else we could do, I don’t remember ever leaving one of these activities and not being proud of how I spent that time.

Fostering a similar sense of community and support within the company that I found in my time in Scouting has given me the courage to “not be afraid of getting involved” and to knock on doors or help when ours are knocked on.

About Sheniece Chappell 29 Articles
Sheniece Chappell is an associate editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines.