Jean-Christophe de Mestral

Director and Member of the Scientific Committee
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On March 11th, 2011, a 15-meter wave hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, causing one of the worst accidents in the history of nuclear energy. The event spurred Jean-Christophe to write an opinion piece in Le Temps about another approach to nuclear power. This new way of producing energy, never before implemented, uses thorium as fuel and a particle accelerator coupled to a reactor as technology.

 

A few days after this accident shocked the whole world, he defended the idea of not putting an end to nuclear power, but of opening this still unexplored avenue, notably for historical reasons. Indeed, uranium was chosen as a fuel by the Americans at the end of the Second World War and at the beginning of the Cold War because it allowed them to produce the plutonium necessary for nuclear weapons. We never got out of this military vision of nuclear energy, and in a way, Fukushima ended this cycle that began in 1945 by raising awareness of alternatives that favor peace among nations.

This new, safer nuclear system requires much less fuel than the current one, resulting in less waste. In a conventional power plant 25 metric tons of uranium is needed each year. For a thorium plant, one ton of fuel is enough, and 83% of the waste returns to the radioactive level of uranium ore within 10 years (the typical time needed to deliver it to a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant like the one in La Hague, northwestern France). The remaining 17% of the waste is radioactive for 500 years in a decreasing manner. This is a far cry from the 100,000-year lifespan of nuclear waste from current uranium-fueled  power plants.  Jean-Christophe explains: "This is an approach that is compatible with our responsibility toward the environment and future generations. It could be available in time to replace our ageing plants. Anti-nuclear environmentalists may even be persuaded to support this project, since it resolves, for the most part, the nuclear waste problem."

One might ask how a banker would come to this conclusion? Jean-Christophe is continuing his career in banking, working today as the chairman of two banks: La Caisse d’Epargne d’Aubonne, a small bank that was elected "best retail bank in Switzerland" three years in a row, and Banque Eric Sturdza in Geneva, which specializes in wealth management. But Jean-Christophe is a banker with an insatiable curiosity, particularly in scientific matters. He has always had a passion for physics. In the 1990s and 2000s, he decided to take a university degree in general physics.

After the Fukushima accident and the publication of his article in Le Temps, he was contacted by a team of physicists and engineers from CERN who were surprised to discover in Jean-Christophe's writing an idea that they had been defending at length since the end of the 1990s. They shared with him all the intricacies of hybrid reactors — nuclear reactors coupled with particle accelerators. Then over a few months in 2011, he wrote his book on thorium, The Green Atom, one of the rare works presenting this new way of thinking about nuclear energy, and then he plunged into the world of nuclear physics. 

TEDxParis invited him to speak on the subject in 2013 and at the same time he participated in the creation of the International Thorium Energy Committee (iThEC), which organized a conference that year at CERN called "Thorium Energy for the World" under the presidency of Jean-Pierre Revol.  A few years later, he naturally joined the Transmutex team as a director when Franklin Servan-Schreiber and the CERN and iThEC teams decided to set up a company to transform this vision into an industry. Jean-Christophe became president of iThEC in 2019.


This paradigm shift ended up convincing even Jean-Christophe's wife, who had been hostile toward nuclear energy. The promise of solving the problem of waste and rendering accidents nearly impossible with a sub-critical system swayed her. Jean-Christophe passed on his passion for science to his three daughters, who are now each working in different disciplines: one is in materials science and quantum physics, another studies neuroscience and the third is working in  biology. Apples don't fall far from the tree. Jean-Christophe himself has not lost his taste for discovery — his latest  passions include crypto-currencies and artificial intelligence based on neural networks.