Molten Salt Nuclear Reactors: Technology Revolution in Nuclear Power could slash costs below coal

saltmelt2-640x526Nuclear power basically comes down to two issues: Safety and cost. Nobody denies that mass nuclear has the raw production capacity to provide for our energy needs through the remotely foreseeable future, but some argue that doing so would either bankrupt us, sicken us, or both. While this is certainly a disputed interpretation, it’s one that has been gathering support in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and a prolonged PR campaign from coal, natural gas, and certain wings of the environmentalist movement. As a result, the conventional nuclear industry, floundering due to widespread public unease and growing legislative opposition, seems to be begging for a revolution.

MIT and Transatomic’s Russ Wilcox certainly thought so last year, when he told Forbes that the coming years would be “a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move.” It was a strident statement at the time, even for a company boasting the former CTO of the nuclear pioneer Westinghouse, and the head of nuclear engineering at MIT. Last year, though, Transatomic finally co-localized its money and its mouth, announcing a potential leapfrog technology that they claim could re-energize the energy industry: they claim to know how to make nuclear reactors smaller.

A high flux isotope reactorTransatomic researchers have actually had working models of the Molten salt reactors (MSR) since the ’60s, but they’ve never been used for commercial purposes. One reason is that much of nuclear research capital comes from the military, and bulky MSR technology has traditionally been less desirable for submarines and aircraft carriers than their relatively slim light-water cousins. Another is that the plants require a separate facility to filter their core mixture. Still, for the purposes of mass land power production, the MSR design has some serious advantages, most importantly with respect to our two key issues: safety and cost.

The company’s vision is to create reliable, carbon-free power from the hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel piling up at nuclear stations around the world. The new money will be used to refine Transatomic’s computer simulations and test the materials the startup intends to use in its molten salt reactor, which it hopes will be able to generate electricity from the radioactive waste produced by conventional nuclear power plants.

The safety advantages of this project are mostly features of molten salt reactors in general. Using high boiling-point coolants like fluoride or chloride salts in place of light or heavy water negates the need to pressurize the system and instantly reduces the dangers associated with super-heated, pressurized liquids. Keeping the fuel-coolant mixture at a reasonable pressure also allows the mixture to expand — if the system overheats, the medium expands and holds fuel atoms too far apart for continuation of the nuclear reaction. This is called a passive safety system, and in a post-Fukushima industry such disaster-proof measures simply must be the future of nuclear power.

Transatomic’s reactor would dissolve spent nuclear fuel in a tank of molten salt, rather than submerge fuel in water as today’s plants do. In the case of an emergency shut-down, the liquid salt would drain into a holding tank below the main reactor vessel and cool itself within a few hours.

These reactors are “walk away safe,” meaning that a power failure, a runaway heat cascade, and a general worker’s strike could all happen on the same day — and the worst we’d suffer is loss of service. Fukushima’s problems stemmed (mostly) from the fact that the tsunami knocked out its diesel coolant pumps. MSR reactors replace such delicate systems with rugged ones: gravity, heat, and the most basic chemical properties of their materials.

A nuclear reactorThen, there are the costs. Transatomic claims their reactor will be capable of pumping out 500 megawatts for a total initial cost of about $1.7 billion. By comparison, the super-advanced light water Westinghouse AP1000 pumps out a little over 1000 megawatts for an estimated $7 billion. That’s about half the cost per megawatt, at least on paper. The new reactor would also be small enough to be built in a central factory and then shipped to its destination, rather than requiring that the plant’s eventual location be made into an expensive, multi-year construction site.

Transatomic Power researchers claim their design is production-ready, and stand behind their numbers. They recently landed a venture investor—Founders Fund—willing to bankroll one early step in the journey.

Cambridge, MA-based Transatomic has raised $2 million from FF Science, a portion of Founders Fund’s $1 billion investment pool that is targeted at science- and engineering-based companies. Transatomic, which was started by two former MIT nuclear engineering students, previously raised about $1.5 million, mostly from angel investors.The project has raised about $2 million, so far.

Founders Fund has experience with this kind of long-running startup vision: the firm previously backed SpaceX, which took nearly a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to make the Falcon 9 rocket. Transatomic is roughly on the same schedule and has similar capital needs, Dewan notes. In its manifesto, Founders Fund argues that many venture capitalists are backing companies that produce incremental changes, rather than breakthrough technologies, which has hurt returns over the past decade. Its catchphrase is: “We wanted flying cars. We got 140 characters.”

Bellevue, WA-based TerraPower, which is financed by Bill Gates, is also designing a reactor that uses the substantial amount of energy that resides in nuclear waste. Executives have said they intend to build a first reactor outside the U.S., in countries where governments are willing to fund first-of-a-kind energy projects.




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