Eric Loewen

Eric Loewen headshot

Western alumnus Eric Loewen has twice counted among Esquire magazine’s “Best and Brightest”–in 2005 and 2009–for developing a new type of nuclear reactor that could, in Esquire’s words, “save the world.”

Yet he notes a key benefit of the attention was an invitation to speak at Western’s 2010 commencement, where his nephew Brett Sargent graduated with a degree in Computer Science.

“My 15 minutes of fame are over and I get to speak at the Western College University graduation in May,” he said at the time. “I’m happy and contented.”

Loewen, who graduated from Western in 1983 with dual degrees in Mathematics and Chemistry, works for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. He is a key advocate and developer of Generation IV liquid-sodium fast nuclear reactors. The process reduces radioactive waste (in fact, it can recycle waste from light-water reactors), does not emit carbon dioxide (one of the major contributors to global warming) and automatically shuts itself down in an emergency.

While at Western, Loewen–an avid skier reared in Leadville–tried out for to the Nordic ski team as a walk on. Coach Ken MacLennan quickly spotted his talent and drive, and granted him an athletic scholarship. Loewen credits MacLennan for some key lessons in life.

“He had a way of conducting himself,” Loewen says. “His biggest thing was, ‘Don’t tell me how good you are; show me.’ This was how he ran the ski program. He wanted us to ski and do well in our studies.”

He cites other mentors at Western, such as the late Ted Violett, his Physics professor, whom he calls “a father figure”; Mathematics professor Dean McIntyre; and Richard Jaeger, who “showed up my senior year, and I competed a great year in Organic Chemistry.

“Had he been there all four years,” Loewen continues, “I might have gone directly into graduate school instead of the Navy.”

Following his junior year, Loewen had enrolled in the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program. While he recalls it was tough competing with other students from engineering, rather than liberal arts, schools, he graduated second in his class of 45 in the Naval Nuclear Power School and went on to become a lieutenant. His 10-year naval career included teaching in the same program, as well as commanding a reserve unit in Madison, Wisc. (where he earned both master’s and doctoral degrees), and serving as an officer aboard the USS Long Beach.

While his ship was escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, he had an epiphany.

“The situation I was in just wasn’t my passion,” he says. “I realized how truly dependent on oil we are. I wanted to work toward a better energy mix in our country and in our world.”

This helped spur Loewen to pursue development of the sodium fast reactor, a potentially safer technology that can process waste from other reactors. If widely deployed, advocates claim, it could free the world from dependence on fossil fuels, solve many thorny problems with nuclear waste and slow – or stop – global warming. Loewen has campaigned to restart federal-government support for the technology, both in his role as chief consulting engineer for advanced plants technology at GE-Hitachi in Wilmington, N.C., and as a recent president of the American Nuclear Society.

Loewen has a daughter and son, who like him have become endurance athletes, competing in cross country and triathlon races. His daughter, Zatha, was admitted to the Naval Academy, and at last report, his son was considering Western. Loewen and his family have also fostered 11 children, and he teaches surfing to autistic children.