By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – The term “big science” was first used in 1961 by physicist Alvin Weinberg, then director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to describe the notion that some problems could only be solved through big facilities and tools, big teams of scientists and, of course, big piles of money.

Many have poked at the concept over the decades but it’s hard to dispute the “bigness” of projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope; the Apollo program; the European nuclear research facility (CERN) and its particle accelerator; and Oak Ridge itself – not to mention particle physics and space research projects in China.

Almost by definition, “big science” involves government funding – lots of it – along with a concentration of technical talent and other resources. The question is whether privately backed companies working in sectors such as fusion and other nuclear research can make it on their own.

SHINE Technologies in Janesville is one example of a Wisconsin company that seems determined to do so.

Through two recent partnership agreements with companies that have American and European footprints, SHINE is forging ahead with technologies that could hasten the day when nuclear fuel from existing light-water plants can be safely recycled for use in small-module nuclear power facilities with a minimal amount of radioactive waste.

The agreements with Orano, a world leader in reprocessing nuclear fuels that remain energy-rich, and Deep Isolation Inc., an innovator in waste storage and disposal, could put SHINE in a position to capitalize on a growing awareness the world can’t rely on windmills and solar farms alone.

To achieve carbon-free goals in an energy-hungry era, next-generation nuclear power must be part of the answer. In fact, “next-gen” nuclear energy is one of the few things President Biden and former President Trump can agree on.

But wait … isn’t SHINE a nuclear fusion company, which means fusing atoms to release energy, and not a fission company well-versed in splitting them?

Yes, but with commercial fusion energy still far in the future, SHINE is using its expertise in both sides of the physics equation to keep its fusion hopes alive and funded.

“Betting the planet on the future of large-scale fusion energy right now would be irrational,” said Greg Piefer, a UW-Madison product who founded SHINE and is its chief executive officer. “All of this will get us better at fusion over time, but it’s going to take practice.”

Orano is an international example of that kind of practice. In France, where it was founded, it has recycled 40,000 tons of nuclear fuel over time for use in seven countries. Because such fuel retains 95% of its energy, a “closed fuel cycle” is far more efficient than what physicists call an “open cycle,” which means storage in interim facilities while waiting for a permanent geologic repository that may never be built.

Deep Isolation is headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., with offices in Washington, D.C., the United Kingdom and Japan, and has developed technologies for safe, encapsulated disposal in deep boreholes. With one in three people in the United States living within 50 miles of above-ground storage, such alternatives are needed.

SHINE has some “practice” of its own through the 2023 opening of The Chrysalis, a facility for the large-scale production of radioisotopes used in medicine. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission signed off on The Chrysalis, which uses the same technology that can be deployed in a nuclear waste recycling facility.

“What we bring to the table is defining new ways to build nuclear facilities,” Piefer said. “We learned a ton on The Chrysalis that will help us at the next level,”

Through medical isotopes, waste recycling and some defense-related work, SHINE hopes to finance its way to the “big science” goal of commercial fusion. Other companies in Wisconsin have decided to place their bets on being closer to complexes such as Oak Ridge in Tennessee.

Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong, but if policymakers in Wisconsin want the state to remain home for companies such as SHINE, Type One Fusion and others, they will need to think “big” about if and how to help.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at