Transatomic Folds Its Tent ~ Its Leagcy May Live On

  • transatomic logoOne of the first entrepreneurial startups in the complex field of designing new nuclear reactors, founded in 2011, has called it quits.
  • The firm faced twin challenges of a long development time and an uncertain degree of competitive technology advantage over other designs.
  • The decision by Transatomic to roll up the sidewalks was based on a conclusion by the firm’s lead developers, both holding Ph.Ds in the nuclear energy field from MIT, that they could not deliver a commercially successful design that runs on spent nuclear fuel nor one using a molten salt concept.

Leslie Dewan, one of Transatomic’s two founders, told the MIT Technology Review last week the longer timeline and reduced performance advantage made it harder to raise the necessary additional funding, which was around $15 million.

“We weren’t able to scale up the company rapidly enough to build a reactor in a reasonable time frame,” Dewan said.

Transatomic had raised more than $4 million from Founders Fund, Acadia Woods Partners, and others. Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel was an early investor and touted his funding commitment in an OP ED in the New York Times.

The firm was already on its second wind having determined in 2016 that its technology could not generate electricity 75 times more efficiently than conventional light-water reactors using the energy potential in spent nuclear fuel.

The forced restart, which is not an uncommon event among advanced technology firms, put them behind rivals like TerraPower and Terrestrial Energy. Both of these firms have committed to plans to eventually build and test demonstration reactors with their designs.

TerraPower has an agreement with Chinese state owned nuclear energy firms to build a prototype. Terrestrial Energy is scouting sites in the U.S. for a first of a kind unit one of them being  a location a the Idaho National Laboratory.

Design Issues Detailed

According to a technical profile of the design on the firm’s website, Transatomic’s patents deal with the use of zirconium hydride as a moderator, combined with its version of a molten salt-based reactor design, based on work done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Transatomic’s research was focused on a design that alters the amount of moderator, or material used to slow down neutrons to speeds capable of sustaining fission, as a function of time over the course of the reactor’s fuel cycle.

In an interview with the online news wire service Ars Technica, Dewan said that in 2016, the company was forced to reverse its earlier claims, after a review by one of its advisers at MIT found errors in its calculations.

Transatomic then changed its design approach to develop a reactor that “does not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel,” but rather which would “reduce nuclear waste production by significantly increasing fuel burnup.”

Dewan said the company’s investors supported the company’s post-2016 work on its molten salt and zirconium nitride design, because “for them, the main value proposition was the safety case of these molten salt reactors and their low cost compared to fossil fuels.”

Design work will be available on an open source basis

Dewan isn’t completely abandoning the firm’s vision of an advanced reactor. She said in press interviews that Transatomic will open-source all its intellectual property, making it available for other researchers to “continue the work that we’ve started and hopefully build on it.”

“We will therefore be open-sourcing our intellectual property, making it available for any researchers – private, public, or non-profit – who want to continue the work we’ve started.”

“We are currently in discussions with the DOE GAIN (Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear) initiative regarding collaborating with them to ensure that our work remains accessible to the public and valuable to the efforts of the advanced reactor community as a whole.”

Transatomic is also releasing its patents in the European Union, Russia and China for its particular version of liquid-fueled reactor designs.

Transatomic startup principles still valid – think tank

Josh Freed, vice president for the clean energy program at the DC based think tank Third Way, issued a statement saying Transatomic’s closure doesn’t reflect any broader challenges for advanced nuclear power in general. There are several dozen advanced nuclear startups in the U.S. according to an directory published by the group.

Dewan said in a statement posted on the firm’s website that some of the first principles of their effort are still valid.

“We know two things to be true:

  1. Climate change is real, and unless massive action to de-carbonize the grid is taken soon, it will threaten much of humanity’s way of life.
  2. Novel nuclear technologies present the best way to address the issue, by rapidly expanding carbon-free energy at scale and making fossil fuels a thing of the past.

Lessons Learned

Transatomic’s mistake is not that it sought to deceive its backers with false claims, but that it got ahead of its own headlights in terms of validating the technical results of its research.

Inexperience and overconfidence are common faults of many startups, and being called out for these missteps is not necessarily always fatal to the enterprise.

In 2016 Dewan acknowledged in an email to the MIT magazine it should have sought peer review or other forms of hard feedback earlier.

“In retrospect, that was a mistake of mine,” she said during the phone interview. “We should have open-published more of our information at a far earlier stage.”

NuScale Makes Pivotal Advancement
with Selection of Manufacturer

nuscale logoNuScale Power has selected Virginia-based BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT) to start the engineering work to manufacture NuScale’s small modular reactor (SMR).

The decision follows a rigorous 18-month selection process, with expressed interest from 83 companies based in 10 countries. (press statement)

The effort was undertaken to determine the best company to refine NuScale’s design for manufacturability, assembly, and transportability – the first phase in bringing NuScale’s pioneering design to life. NuScale’s technology is the world’s first SMR to undergo Design Certification review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

BWXT will immediately start work on this first manufacturing phase of NuScale’s SMR, which the firm expects will continue through June 2020. NuScale will contract for the remaining two phases, preparation for fabrication then fabrication, at a later date.

BWXT is a leading supplier of nuclear components and fuel to both the U.S. government and commercial nuclear power industry. It expects to use Pennsylvania-based Precision Custom Components as a component manufacturing contractor on this project.

NuScale is competing with other countries, including Russia and China, in the global commercialization of SMRs. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, every $1 billion of exports by U.S. companies represents at least 5,000 jobs. The sale of NuScale SMRs would have a significant impact to both the American economy and manufacturing jobs market.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is scheduled to approve NuScale’s Design Certification application in September 2020. NuScale’s first customer, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, is on track to deploy the country’s first SMR plant in the mid-2020s.

Advanced Reactor Concepts
Announces Leadership of Its Canadian Subsidiary

Advanced Reactor Concepts has announced that Norman J.D. Sawyer will become the President of its Canadian subsidiary ARC Nuclear Canada, Inc.

“We are pleased to announce the addition of Norm to the ARC team and believe that his broad industry and Canadian nuclear experience will significantly advance our efforts in New Brunswick,” said Don Wolf, CEO and Chairman of ARC.

“As a native New Brunswicker, Norm will be invaluable in our efforts to complete the CNSC Vendor Design Review process, staff our Saint John office with local talent and identify areas for the creation of jobs within the Province which represent our highest priorities.”

Over the last 34 years, Norm’s distinguished career has included significant experience in both the commercial operation of nuclear facilities in Canada and the regulation of nuclear facilities. During these 34 years, Norm held a range of leadership roles, most recently as the Executive Vice President & Chief Nuclear Officer for Bruce Power.

ARC has agreed to collaborate with NB Power in exploring the potential future deployment of the ARC-100 at NB Power’s Point Lepreau nuclear plant site and thereafter at other sites in Canada and worldwide.

The ARC-100 is a 100 MWe sodium cooled, fast flux, pool type reactor with metallic fuel that builds upon the 30-year successful operation of the EBR-II reactor in Idaho.  See prior coverage on this blog.

The larger objective is the establishment of Canada’s New Brunswick Province as a center of excellence and the manufacturing hub for advanced SMR products based on the ARC-100 technology. The project will result in a nuclear supply chain created in the Province with well-paying jobs and substantial new economic opportunity.

Other Nuclear News

Owners Agree To Push Ahead
with Construction Of Vogtle 3 And 4

(NucNet: All four owners of the project to build the Vogtle-3 and -4 nuclear plants in the US state of Georgia have voted to continue construction of the two new Westinghouse AP1000 units.

The vote was triggered by a recent disclosure by Southern Company, the lead partner, that the capital and construction cost forecast for its share of the project had increased from $7.3bn to $8.4bn. The total projected project cost had increased by $2.2bn.

Those reports said the total cost had increased to around $27bn, around twice the original estimate. The project is also taking years longer than originally expected.

The Wall Street Journal said Southern Company had now come to a new deal with the other co-owners. Under the deal, Southern agreed to cover a growing percentage of the project’s construction costs if the price tag continued to climb. The Atlanta-based utility also agreed to purchase future tax credits from its co-owners at a discounted cost.

Georgia Power owns 45.7% of the project, while Oglethorpe owns 30% and MEAG, 22.7%. Dalton Utilities owns the remaining 1.6%, but it does not have a large enough stake to derail the project.

Southern Company said Vogtle-3 is expected to begin commercial operation in November 2021 and Vogtle-4 in November 2022.

The V C Summer project, which was building two similar units in South Carolina, has been cancelled due to cost over runs and schedule delays.

NuGen CEO Supports RAB Financing Model for Moorside

(NucNet) NuGen boss Tom Samson has vowed to “fight tooth and nail” to salvage the Moorside nuclear power station project and said he is in favor of using the regulated asset base (RAB) model to fund the “transformational” project.

Mr Samson, chief executive of the company set to develop the station, in Cumbria, northwest England, told delegates at the Cumbria Nuclear Conference in Carlisle that it was crunch time for a project.

In his first public address since NuGen made more than 70 staff redundant because of delays to a deal between current owners Toshiba and prospective buyers Kepco, Mr Samson warned that the threat of winding up the company was “very real”.

Mr Samson said: “The deal with Kepco may still come to fruition, but we cannot just wait for them to make a decision. It is essential that this project goes ahead and we therefore have to consider alternative ways forward.”

He expressed his support for using the RAB model to finance three AP1000 units at Moorside, although he said no decisions had been made on whether it would be used.

The RAB model is essentially a type of contract drawn up with the backing of government which calculates the costs and profits of a project before it is started, and allocates an investor’s profits from day one.

A government regulator sets a fixed number, the RAB, which attempts to account for all the future costs involved in the completion of a project. The regulator then also sets a fixed rate of return for the investors based on those costs.

Press reports in the UK at the weekend said Kepco is understood to have a deal for NuGen on the table but will not sign until it has undertaken a study in to the risks and profitability of applying RAB model to finance Moorside.

French Finance Minister says
he is against quick exit from nuclear

(Reuters) French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said he is against a quick exit from nuclear and added he wants France to maintain a competitive and technologically advanced nuclear industry.

“I am against a quick exit from nuclear,” Le Maire told BFM TV.

He said he did not rule out that France would close other nuclear plants than the Fessenheim plant, and that he would meet with the prime minister in coming days to discuss the issue.

Asked whether France could build new nuclear reactors beyond the troubled and long-delayed EPR reactor that EDF is building in Flamanville, northern France, he said: “Let’s first see if Flamanville works, review the process and then decide.”

The minister said he will decide in coming weeks on a new long-term energy strategy, which will include reducing the share of nuclear to 50 percent, but so far no deadline has been set for that target.

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