The firm defies conventional wisdom about keeping early stage technical details a secret by posting a white paper about its progress along with the endorsements of its venture capital backers.
In a business world which almost always zealously guards the integrity of its intellectual property, the action is an unprecedented step for an early-stage nuclear reactor developer.
Update September 2018: Transatomic closed its doors and archived its technical work at GAN at the Idaho National Laboratory as open source information.
The paper, which is posted to the company’s website, provides an in-depth look at the science underlying the core design, and further demonstrates what its designers say are its advantages over existing power generation technologies.
The news follows last month’s announcement that the company was awarded a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) Nuclear Energy Voucher pilot program to perform high-fidelity modeling of its reactor design in partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
One of the reasons the firm and its investors are comfortable releasing the paper is that some of the historical and current R&D work behind it is already described in published peer-reviewed scientific papers and conference proceedings.
“Our research has demonstrated many-fold increases in fuel efficiency over existing technologies, and we’re really excited about the next steps in our development process.”
What is even more of a surprise is that some of the firm’s key investors, from the locked down world of venture capital, endorsed the early release of technical information. Also, the superlatives of their statements are likewise usually related to the rollout of an IPO, and not early stage design work.
“These are truly remarkable results, and represent a major step forward for advanced nuclear technology,” said Ray Rothrock, a veteran Silicon Valley venture capitalist, MIT-trained nuclear engineer, and Chairman of Transatomic.
“Transatomic is defining a new era in nuclear energy, and we’re proud to support their mission and work toward an operating reactor,” said Scott Nolan, Partner at venture capital firm Founders Fund.
“Nuclear power needs Transatomic’s breakthroughs in order to be viable.”
Transatomic’s Commitment to Molten Salt Models
Transatomic is developing a next-generation Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) based on technology first demonstrated at ORNL in the 1960s (large image), and has been completing reactor core performance analyses as part of its technology development work.
The company released results that show promise for an economical power plant that can generate carbon-free baseload power and extract energy from the spent fuel of commercial nuclear reactors.
Spent fuel from a conventional commercial nuclear reactor is typically composed of about 95% U238, fission products, actinides, and plutonium isotopes. Some residual U235 remains as well.
According to Transatomic, the firm’s design, which uses a liquid uranium-salt mixture instead of conventional solid fuel assemblies, can extract twice as much energy from its fuel and use nuclear waste as a fuel source. (WNA Briefing on Molten Salt Reactors)
According to the World Nuclear Association, Transatomic’s plans are that after a 20 MWt demonstration reactor, the envisaged first commercial plant will be 1250 MWt/550 MWe running at 44% thermal efficiency with 650°C in primary loop, using steam cycle.
The overnight cost for an nth-of-a-kind 550 MWe plant, including lithium-7 inventory and on-line fission product removal and storage, is estimated at $2 billion with a three-year construction schedule. A future version of the reactor may utilize thorium fuel. More on this below.
Such a capability allows the company to directly address one of nuclear energy’s biggest environmental challenges: the generation of nuclear waste that remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years after it is removed from a plant.
Molten Salt Positioned to Solve the Spent Fuel Disposition Problem
Dewan pointed out that solving the nuclear waste problem requires two big-picture steps.
“First, the industry has to reduce the rate at which waste is produced. Otherwise, we’ll run into an insurmountable long-term storage problem,” she said.
“Second, nuclear innovators must work to design reactors that can tap the remaining energy in the waste, and ensure that the reactor has a ‘net-negative’ waste profile, where the reactor produces less waste than it takes in.”
The company says its data show that it has cleared the first hurdle.
“Right now, we’ve calculated an 83% reduction in the waste the reactor generates annually as compared to existing reactors, using only uranium that regulators consider ‘low-enriched’ [in uranium-235, the primary fissile isotope],” noted Transatomic’s Chief Technology Officer, Mark Massie.
“Even under the current fuel supply chain, which doesn’t enrich fuel past 5% U-235, we still reduce annual waste production by over 50%.”
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a typical nuclear power plant in a year generates 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. The nuclear industry generates a total of about 2,000 – 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year.
An 83% reduction in that figure would result in production of 3.4 metric tons of spent fuel instead of 20 based on NEI’s numbers. A 50% reduction would leave 10 metric tons of waste material.
Over the past four decades, according to NEI, the entire industry has produced 76,430 metric tons of used nuclear fuel.
If used fuel assemblies were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, this would cover a football field about eight yards deep. Think of a two story building 100 yards long and 63 yards wide.
Transatomic’s Views on Thorium Fuel
Transatomic Power writes in its white paper the firm chose to start with uranium for several reasons:
- there is a great deal of SNF, and we want to harness its remaining energy;
- the industry already has a commercial fuel cycle developed around uranium, which makes it cheaper to use uranium as fuel; and
- we already greatly expand the energy potential of existing uranium supplies
That said the firm also noted it believes that the thorium fuel cycle holds theoretical advantages over uranium in the long run because of its generally shorter half-life waste, its minimization of plutonium from the fuel cycle, and its greater natural supply.
However, an entirely new fuel cycle industry would have to be developed to take advantage of thorium fuel and waiting for this to happen would significantly delay the kind of work being done by Transatomic.
Transatomic also says that subsequent design work will focus on maximizing the energy it can extract from spent nuclear fuel. The work will include developing new tools to model other reactor physics phenomena, and completing the overall design of its nuclear power plant.
Eight Small Businesses Get GAIN Nuclear Energy Vouchers
On June 13, 2016, through the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that eight small businesses will be provided up to $2 million for the Nuclear Energy Voucher pilot program. (See table below)
The goal of the program is to assist new entrants into the nuclear field as they build the collaborations necessary to accelerate the development and deployment of innovative nuclear technologies by granting them access to the extensive nuclear research capabilities available at DOE’s national laboratories and Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) partners.
“We congratulate these small businesses selected for the NE Voucher pilot program, and we look forward to working with each of these organizations as they develop their innovative concepts,” said John Kotek, DOE Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy.
“In addition to this financial support, DOE will be fostering innovation by facilitating these groups’ access to the extensive nuclear research capabilities hosted at DOE National Labs and our partners in the Nuclear Science User Facilities program.”
The mission of GAIN is to provide the nuclear community with access to the technical, regulatory, and financial support necessary to move innovative nuclear energy technologies toward commercialization while ensuring the continued safe, reliable, and economic operation of the existing nuclear fleet.
“I am excited to begin working with each of the recipients,” said Dr. Kemal Pasamehmetoglu, Director of the GAIN initiative and Associate Lab Director for Nuclear Science & Technology at Idaho National Laboratory.
“Along with our partner labs, we have the facilities and capabilities needed to help make their advanced nuclear technology concepts a reality. The urgency and stakeholder support for these innovations has never been stronger.”
List of Firms Awarded Grants from GAIN/DOE
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