Smaller, Safer, Saltier: Next-Gen Nuclear Draws Thiel and UN

  • Billionaire Trump supporter backs molten salt reactor design
  • UN to spur information trading on cheaper, modular plants

A new breed of nuclear reactor designed by engineers from the millennial generation has gained the support of both billionaires and the United Nations agency overseeing the industry.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is opening an exchange for countries to trade information on a technology that uses molten salt to moderate the atomic reaction of liquid fuels, rather than water and solid fuel. The exchange offers backing to investors ranging from Bill Gates to Peter Thiel, who have supported the new-model reactors as both safer and cheaper.

The push comes as the U.S. accelerates retirement of its aging fleet of nuclear plants, and utilities tilt toward cheaper natural gas and renewables. Eighteen U.S. reactors are now being decommissioned, and a half-dozen more face closure for economic reasons. A wave of retirements around 2030 will further diminish the nation’s biggest source of low-emissions power, threatening the fight against global warming.

“The technology used in today’s reactors is never going to be economical,” said Rory O’Sullivan, the 30-year-old chief operating officer at Moltex Energy in London. The new molten salt design “has the potential to disrupt the entire energy system,” he said.

O’Sullivan said he expects to see utilities shifting toward more use of wind and solar, bolstered by smaller on-demand nuclear plants.

Unlike most existing reactors, which use water to moderate nuclear reactions inside of massive containment vessels, Molten Salt Reactors, or MSRs, operate under normal atmospheric pressure. That’s important in the event of an accident, because pressure wouldn’t build to the point of explosion like the ones witnessed at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

“They have some very interesting safety features,” said Stefano Monti, the IAEA’s head of nuclear-power technology development. The IAEA’s exchange may help engineers standardize molten-salt designs and aid “near-term deployment,” he said.

Also, by eliminating the need for the costly containment vessels built around pressurized water reactors, MSR proponents say their units can be built with less investment and deployed in smaller and more modular configurations. 

“We need a new nuclear paradigm,” said Nebojsa Nakicenovic, a climate scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. “If nuclear is to play a role averting climate change, we need more modular units that are smaller.”

Leslie Dewan, 32, is the founder and chief executive officer of Transatomic Power Corp., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based molten-salt-reactor designer backed by Thiel’s Founders Fund. She presented her design at the International Atomic Energy Agency in September and aims to build a prototype at a U.S. national laboratory site, possibly in Idaho, which has hosted other advanced test reactors in the past.

“I’ve always been an environmentalist, and I think nuclear power is one of the most important ways to produce more carbon-free electricity,” said Dewan, who envisions atomic power costing less than coal. She’s also discussed Transatomic’s vision for nuclear energy with Google founder Larry Page, during a Solve for X conference.

“Things are accelerating rapidly,” she said. “There’s growing urgency around climate change and the recognition that we have to use everything at our disposal to generate better forms of carbon-free electricity.”

Thiel, who built his fortune founding PayPal and was an early backer of Elon Musk, was one of President-elect Donald Trump’s earliest and strongest supporters in the recent campaign. 

Trump has said nuclear technologies should have a bigger role in the U.S., and Congress is working on legislation backed by both main parties that lawmakers in Washington may be ready to clear by early in the next administration. That would accelerate advanced nuclear technologies. 

Skeptics are already girding for the likelihood that “legislation in some form will be enacted,” said Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “Molten salt reactors will present many novel safety and security issues for regulators that will require significant time and resources to resolve.”

Meanwhile, startups such as Transatomic could play a key role by kickstarting the stagnant U.S. nuclear industry. That would allow the U.S. to catch up with next generation Chinese and Russian nuclear designs already being connected to the power grid, according to Ken Luongo, a former director at the Energy Department.

“There is a lot at stake for the U.S., its allies, and global stability and economic growth,” said Luongo, who helps lead the Global Nexus Initiative, a Washington-based policy adviser uniting nuclear proponents and environmentalists. “The nexus of nuclear, climate, and global security is a critical intersection.”

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