The Most Exciting Place to Work in Nuclear
Ben Betzler, Director of Nuclear Engineering, shares his belief in Radiant's ability to fast-track the demonstration of a novel nuclear microreactor.
When I left the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to join Radiant as the Director of Nuclear Engineering in 2022, many saw it as a risky decision. I had built a rewarding career working on a variety of reactor engineering projects up to directing an advanced nuclear demonstration program. While I enjoyed the work and look back fondly, I was driven to do more.
I joined Radiant because I believe it is the best place to affect immediate change to our country’s relationship with nuclear technology. As an incredibly clean form of energy, nuclear has the potential to transform the world. After dedicating myself to the field for 15 years, I saw a huge opportunity to accelerate nuclear development in the commercial space, and Radiant has built the right team to do it.
Path to Nuclear
I’ve always loved math and finding solutions to problems. This aptitude guided me to nuclear engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. It was the early 2000s – a time when the energy crisis and U.S. dependence on imported oil and gas prompted talk of a nuclear energy renaissance.
After completing my bachelor’s degree, I stayed on at UM, earning my Master’s and Ph.D. An internship led to about 9 years at Oak Ridge, where I was a part of many projects with talented people. I started out on High Flux Isotope Reactor design for Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) conversion.
I also focused on Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) projects, including creating and assessing modeling tools, performing analyses, and making recommendations on emerging advanced reactor technologies. Working on those projects gave me a unique window into the NRC, the efforts they prioritize, and the emerging advanced reactor technologies on the horizon.
It was an invaluable time working with the national laboratories and the NRC, helping me intimately understand regulations around safety. Everything is about safety in nuclear. All reactors operate with significant safety margins.
Road to Radiant
While at Oak Ridge, I was asked to join the Transformational Challenge Reactor Program, an effort to design, build, and operate a reactor using advanced manufacturing technologies.
This project caught the eye of Radiant’s CEO & co-founder, Doug Bernauer, and we began talking two years before I left the laboratory. Through our conversations, it became clear that if an advanced reactor was ever going to get built, private industry would be driving the effort.
Radiant is singularly focused on the question that has driven me professionally since 2008: “Why aren’t there more nuclear reactors?” There is no single answer; the reasons are complex and multifaceted. Obviously, there are challenges like nuclear waste management, regulation, and anti-nuclear sentiment. But large commercial reactors are safer than any other type of energy given the significant safety margins built in. Nuclear is the cleanest and most scalable form of energy humanity has discovered.
It has taken a long time for the nuclear industry to move from conceptual design and analysis to building and running final products. For example, the supercritical CO2 system Radiant is using has been built in a lab before. The system was designed, tested, and analyzed, but never implemented into a real reactor. Our microreactor, Kaleidos, is rooted in decades of this research — understanding of different reactor types, fuels, coolants, and safety margins. Every part of Kaleidos has been built at some point.
In getting to know Doug, I saw that he understood what it took to foster rapid innovation in nuclear and to build a reliable reactor quicker. The issues are similar to those that SpaceX identified in the aerospace industry a couple decades ago. They reinvigorated innovation, supply chains, and successfully commercialized cheaper, reliable rockets and spacecraft. From day one, Radiant has been focused on a reactor demonstration. The team is eager to be hands on, design iteratively, and build a tangible product to validate, test, and run.
The Challenges and Rewards of a Startup
I loved working at a national laboratory, leading a group of highly motivated and talented nuclear engineers working in cutting-edge reactor research. There is important work in continuing to improve research capabilities and supporting highly reliable, operating light water reactors. However, the processes and procedures in place often impede implementation of the advancements in safety made over the past 50 years. At a place like Radiant, it is far easier to be agile.
I learned firsthand at Radiant that you can prioritize safety, be methodical, and build quickly with our test and iterate approach. A start-up is a lot of work to build a strong culture, diligent processes, and strategic approach. But we can take more risks, drive development faster, and be agile while being safe.
We also have the freedom yet high responsibility to shape our culture. It is rooted in coaching and teaching, extreme ownership, and mission-critical responsibility for every engineer. I want to help my team be as successful as they can be by sharing my expertise. Taking full ownership through a process is one of the most rewarding aspects of working at Radiant. There’s so much learning that happens when you own a project start to finish. Radiant presents an opportunity for new graduates and senior nuclear talent to build a novel nuclear reactor — an opportunity that hasn't existed for decades.
Today, I am leading a talented team solving important problems in core physics, criticality safety, shielding, fuel performance, and more. We’re actively working on our preliminary safety design review and our passive cooling demonstration. These are all deliverables that builds towards our demonstration of Kaleidos at Idaho National Laboratory in 2026.
As someone who has seen this industry from several vantage points — in academia, a national lab, in partnership with regulators — Radiant is the most exciting place to work in the industry today. But I know no single team will commercialize advanced nuclear. We will have to work together to make its potential a reality. That’s why we are dedicated to building and investing in relationships, ones that will pave the way for transforming an industry and directly benefiting humanity in the face of challenges ahead.