Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie had a little time on their hands in February 2010, so they decided to fix what’s wrong with nuclear reactors. They had just completed their Ph.D. qualifying exams in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and “we figured we were the smartest we would be for a while,” Dewan says. Their plan was to lower the cost of nuclear energy and tackle the meltdowns and radioactive waste that spook government officials and consumers.
Dewan and Massie turned to a technology developed but never commercialized in the 1950s that can burn spent nuclear fuel safely in a liquid salt reactor instead of a traditional light water reactor. After running computer simulations, they saw potential in the technique and, together with entrepreneur Russ Wilcox, founded Transatomic Power in 2011. Dewan came up with the name, a nod to the nuclear optimism of the 1950s and the transuranium elements that make nuclear power possible.
Their timing is good. Many nations are looking for ways to build power plants that don’t produce a lot of climate-warming carbon emissions. In the U.S., power plant rules proposed by President Obama may create opportunities for no- and low-carbon technologies, such as solar, wind, and nuclear. Conventional nuclear technology faces greater scrutiny over costs and concern about accidents such as the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
Bill Gates has put tens of millions of dollars into TerraPower, a Bellevue (Wash.) company that aims to build a reactor that also would run on spent fuel. The U.S., the U.K., the European Union, Russia, China, and eight other nations belong to a forum that shares information about progress on six kinds of experimental reactors.
Transatomic’s design has several advantages over conventional reactors, Dewan says. Molten salt reactors can tap more energy in fuel and use it for decades, compared with four or five years in reactors today. That means they need less enriched uranium, reducing the risk of fuel being stolen to make bombs. Transatomic’s reactor would cost half as much per gigawatt of electricity as conventional reactors, Dewan says.
The company is several years away from generating power and several more from selling it. The next steps are testing materials and building a prototype. Transatomic received a $1 million angel investment in 2012, but the long time frame makes the company a hard sell for many investors. Co-founder Wilcox says the amount needed to keep the startup running is “peanuts in terms of cost” in the global energy market.
Transatomic also faces hurdles in Washington. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which approves current generation reactors in the U.S., has no procedure to green-light advanced designs. “Innovation means slower review at the NRC, and that means death” for novel proposals, says Sam Thernstrom, executive director of the Energy Innovation Reform Project in Washington.
Dewan is undeterred. “Ultimately,” she says, “we want to do this in the U.S.”