Nuclear energy got a bad rap following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, but by using a different reactor type– molten salt reactors (MSRs)– it may soon be poised for a comeback. The startup Transatomic Power is shaping up to be a main driving force behind the expansion of MSRs, since theirs are safer than conventional reactors and — crucially — they use radioactive waste from other nuclear power plants as fuel.
“We want to view nuclear waste in a new way. To look at it as a resource to be tapped rather than a liability to be disposed of,” said Leslie Dewan, a co-founder of the firm. A MSR prototype was built in the U.S. in the 1960s and ran successfully for four years, but the design was deemed too expensive to replicate commercially, so it was abandoned. Since then, materials science has made huge advances. “We were able to take the original design and change two of the key materials to come up with our design,” Dewan stated. By design, the reactors are already molten, so there cannot be any meltdowns of solid fuel rods. Furthermore, MSRs can capture much more energy than conventional reactors’ paltry 3-5% typical usage of their fuel rods’ available energy. MSRs also have less weapon-proliferation dangers, and they can replace fossil fuel generation in areas where wind and solar are intermittent — on heavy cargo ships currently running on diesel, for instance. (For an in-depth look at the technical aspects of MSRs, see ZME Science’s excellent feature published in January.)
Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest challenge that Transatomic Power still needs to overcome is not technological but regulatory. The nuclear power industry is roughly 70 years old, and its regulations tend to be antiquated and cumbersome — hardly the environment conducive to startups. Dewan has been spending many hours lobbying on Capitol Hill for regulations surrounding nuclear energy to be eased. And it is paying off. In an interview earlier this month, she said “it has been extremely gratifying to see great momentum on the regulatory side for advanced nuclear in the last three years and even in the last three months.” But still, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency doesn’t even have guidelines of approval in place to work with Transatomic’s MSR design. According to Dewan, it could take up to 20 years to get through the regulatory process. “So what we are doing now is testing in the beta scale,” she added.
Despite Transatomic’s investor timeline being much longer than most startups, the firm has still succeeded in attracting investors, including from major venture capital sources. The largest investment so far has been the $5.5 million that Founders Fund, a San Francisco-based VC firm, put up.
MSRs also came up in conversation at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit’s “Sustainable Solutions to the Global Energy Crisis” panel on Tuesday in New York City. Edmond Alphandéry, President of the Centre for European Policy Studies and formerly France’s Finance Minister, emphasized that the still-powerful coal lobby in many countries, including the U.S., needs to be overcome. He talked glowingly of MSRs, noting that their safety and competitive costs will help to replace coal. These reactors are destined to be a key part of the world’s sustainable energy matrix, since they will not only produce carbon-free electricity but also reduce the existing stores of radioactive waste, a separate problem long thought to require secure storage for many thousands of years.
Since 2011, three other firms in North America besides Transatomic Power have announced plans for MSRs: Flibe Energy, Terrestrial Energy, and Martingale, Inc. There has also been a renewal of interest in MSRs in Japan, Russia, France, and China. And all geopolitics aside, earlier this year the U.S.’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory reached a ten-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with China’s Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics to collaborate on building MSRs in China. “The Chinese, being relatively new to it, need technical support. If they follow through and build a test reactor, there’s a lot of useful information that we could get from that,” said Jess Gehin, who leads Oak Ridge’s efforts to integrate reactor technology research and development projects. The motive behind the laboratory’s cooperation is to eventually get MSR technology accepted and built in the U.S.
However, even when presented with extensive scientific and regulatory assurances, the public’s acceptance of nuclear energy in their backyard can’t be assumed everywhere. So MSRs are not expected to become ubiquitous. But where they are built, they will be a reliable energy source that is without a doubt better than the large-scale burning of fossil fuels.