Rock Center   |  June 14, 2013

19-year-old hopes to revolutionize nuclear power

How do you raise a genius? At age 11, Taylor Wilson told his parents that he wanted to build a nuclear reactor in the family garage. His parents never guessed he would do it, but three years later Taylor made history as the youngest person ever to build a fusion reactor. Since then he’s continued to amaze everyone around him with inventions like a cheaper way to make medical isotopes to treat cancer, and a better way to detect dirty bombs. Rock Center’s Harry Smith hikes in the mountains of Western Nevada with this boy wonder to learn what makes Taylor Wilson tick.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> are unable to build our very own nuclear reactor , at least in our teenage years. who has the tools and the space? you're about to meet taylor wilson who has in fact already achieved that rare milestone and is looking at a better than average future in the world of science. tonight harry smith introduces us to the young man who's been surprising people for his entire young life .

>>> i found it based off a -- a 1955 thesis.

>> spend a few minutes with taylor wilson , and you know you're with an extraordinary person. hike with him in the mountains of western nevada , and you will learn what makes him tick. this is just a pile from when they dug out the mine.

>> exactly.

>> rarely does a minute go by when taylor is not thinking about atoms and all the things he wants to make them do.

>> there's constant disintegration and emitting of manager going on around us from all this radioactivity. there's something very powerful about being able to manipulate that, right, controlling that power.

>> for by harnessing nuclear energy , 19-year-old taylor wilson thinks he can make the world a better, safer place. and he might just be the one to do it. have you thought about i could be a person who changes the world?

>> that's what i've always wanted to do. i don't think i want to die or go out of this world without doing something that has a huge impact.

>> reporter: that my contribution will be, you know, clean fusion energy which is -- incredibly abundant, very powerful. but you know, completely clean.

>> clean nuclear fusion . the colliding of atoms to create energy. the heretofore unreachable solution to the world's energy needs. if you don't think he's serious, gets this -- at 14, taylor built his own nuclear reactor . which led us to wonder how exactly do you raise a genius. taylor wilson was born in texarkana, arkansas. his dad, kenneth, is a coca-cola bott bottle. his mom, tiffany, is a former yoga teacher. they say they haven't a clue where taylor gets his smarts. do you have any geniuses in your tsunami.

>> ton my -- in your family?

>> not to my knowledge, we're just hard- working people .

>> how about you?

>> no. no one with an interest in science. so -- we're not sure where he came from.

>> wherever he came from, his parents quickly saw he was more than just smart.

>> there are five things involved in the space launch .

>> as a little boy , taylor was obsessed with space. but it was the power of the atom that truly energized his intellect. even the head of nuclear engineering at the university of tennessee was in awe.

>> they just started conversing. and we get ready to leave, and he said, " taylor ," she'd, "i know it's going to be several years, but when you get ready to go to college, i have a scholarship for you."

>> when he was 8?

>> yes. i walked out of that building that day and said, "there's something special here that i've got to treat special."

>> so tiffany and kenneth went out of their way to feed taylor 's interests. the real shocker -- everything taylor knows about nuclear science he taught himself thanks to the internet.

>> my entire learning process was building experiments and buying equipment and -- and collecting the stuff and seeing how it reacted.

>> in elementary school , he began amassing all things radioactive. many items manufactured before there was an awareness of the danger involved. this is stuff that you started collecting when you were a little kid, all radioactive?

>> all radioactive. a lot of things you wouldn't expect like these consumer items. this plate is -- it's intensely radioactive. so i got to a point where i'd collected a bunch of stuff. i realized that i wanted to make something radioactive. at the time i didn't have weapons-grade plutonium laying around the house, and so i realized i -- the easiest way is to build a fusion reactor .

>> at 11, little taylor told his parents of his big plan -- to build a nuclear reactor in the family garage.

>> and we said -- sure, taylor , you can do that.

>> we thought, you know, he'll never do that. but taylor was like that. you know, anything he did, you know, he was going to do.

>> were you ever afraid for him?

>> we were scared to death just to be honest. but if taylor 's going to learn, he had to experience it.

>> while taylor was pulling together the pieces for his reactor --

>> taylor wilson .

>> he was bored silly in junior high . ken and tiffany found the solution in reno , nevada. the davidson academy for the profoundly gifted.

>> the only thing i was worried about was that it would be a school for nerds.

>> so selective, they had met a tiny handful of selected students. taylor and his younger brother joey, a math wiz, both got in. the wilsons moved to reno . davidson sits on the university of nevada campus. taylor quickly found the professor with a pedigree in fusion research. nuclear physicist ron feneff.

>> when i met taylor he was 13, and he was under five-feet tall. he was going to build this reactor in the garage. and all the time he was talking, i was thinking, mm, if i were his parents, i don't think i'd want a reactor in my garage.

>> he offered taylor a corner of his lab instead. once you got to know him and started working with him, did you think prodigy?

>> yeah, it didn't take me long to come to the conclusion that this was a prodigy. probably one of the most brilliant people if not the most brilliant person i've ever met.

>> just five months after he met dr. feneff, taylor made nuclear fusion . not the kind that could create an endless energy supply , but an important step to that ultimate goal.

>> i started jumping up and down and high-fiving. i mean, i was very excited.

>> he was 14 years old. making him the youngest person ever to do it.

>> see if we can crank this thing up.

>> he showed us how it works. and we almost understood it. there it is.

>> there you go.

>> wow.

>> that's the plasma.

>> this is the same basic nuclear reaction that's constantly taking place in the sun and all the stars. you've re-created what happens inside a star.

>> exactly. replaced the gravity and the large quantities of fuel with a small amount of fuel and essentially electricity.

>> but creating fusion wasn't the end. it was the beginning.

>> in that moment, i thought, well, yeah, fusion's cool. but this isn't particularly novel. i want to go out and actually do something now. i want to challenge.

>> since then, he's invented a cheaper way to make medical isotopes for cancer detection and treatment. he's also built a screening system that will detect nuclear material struggled in shipping containers.

>> the plan is to put ten of these out at ports for six months, kind of like a beta test. no, i've proven that this can detect weapons-grade plutonium.

>> it won him first prize at the intel science fair . and an invitation to the white house .

>> let's test this sucker out, see if it works.

>> yeah. well, they wouldn't let me turn it on. secret service really didn't want me bringing my nuclear reactor in here. [ laughter ]

>> you got to meet the president. what did he say?

>> he said, "why haven't we hired this guy yet?" he thought i was going work for him. of course, i respect him and his department. i think i'm going sell these things to him. we'll see how it goes.

>> so taylor is a genius and an entrepreneur. and yes, the government is interested in his invention. it might also be interested in all that stuff he's been collecting. what do you keep in the safe?

>> higher activity stuff. stuff that's a little bit more dangerous. we've got things like yellow cake inside here.

>> you have yellow cake ?

>> a little bit of yellow cake . it's quite radioactive.

>> and this is the stuff that nagjir was stolg shoelling to saddam hussein and that's why we went to war. you made this?

>> it's homemade.

>> does the department of homeland security know you have this?

>> they know it's here. it's not illegal or anything, but they definitely keep an eye on me.

>> the latest idea could be an energy game-changer. he's re-imagined a technology he says is stuck in another century.

>> the power plant designs we have right now are essentially the same reactor design we came up with in the 1950s .

>> taylor 's figured out how to build mini nuclear power plants that he says will not malfunction.

>> what i developed was essentially something that is buried below the ground, and it's a box. you can think of it more like a battery than a reactor. it's very stable. it doesn't mean much maintaining. and it can't have these kind of accidents that a typical nuclear reactor has.

>> no meltdowns?

>> no meltdowns. in the event of any incident in the reactor, all the radiation stays inside the core.

>> self-contained.

>> exactly.

>> with the help of a fellowship that pays him to skip college, he's starting his own doump -- own company to bring these reactors and ideas to market.

>> he's going to do something that's going to change the world . i feel privileged to have him come along during the last few years of my own career. it's been really fun. it's been a great ride.

>> taylor is also enjoying the ride. but only he can envision the road ahead. are you on the ground floor of your own imagination?

>> i've got a lot more ideas. in fact, i won't be able to get through them all probably in my lifetime, but i'm working on what i can. and it's only going up from here.

>> how incredible is he? harry smith with our report tonight from reno , nevada.