Make that consumers and power companies as well, because these MIT PhD candidates have engineered a way to eliminate waste uranium based fuel by making electricity.
Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie who are nuclear engineering PhD students at MIT, started working their idea called “Transatomic Power” back in 2010, and formed a corporation with the same name last year. Their business model is to license the design of reactors rather than build plants, a huge capital-intensive endeavor.
Here’s the lure – Transatomic Power’s Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR) can convert the high-level nuclear waste produced by conventional nuclear reactors each year into $7.1 trillion of electricity. Here’s the payoff – At full deployment, WAMSR reactors could use the existing stockpiles of nuclear waste to equal satisfying the world’s electricity needs through 2083.
A WAMSR design is a compact modular 200 MWe molten salt reactor that can be manufactured economically at a central location and transported by rail to the reactor site.
Ms Dewan, who is the CEO spoke with Walter Frick at BostInno last week is quoted as saying, “We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do after we graduated,” noting that most nuclear engineering PhD’s go into academia or to work for a National Lab. “We wanted to do something exciting with nuclear, and we realized the only way we could do that is to have a startup of our own.”
These are brave young engineers. Going into nuclear reactors at this point in history isn’t a gleaming field of capital and demand – quite the opposite. Pile up Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima over the past decades with a look at the mountain of bad and mostly just plain wrong bad press reporting, suggests a very empty field of opportunity. Add the cynical national humiliation of the appointment and activities of the current Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman and the reported 7000 commission staff hours to approve Southern Company’s Vogtle reactors #3 and 4 paints a very dim political outlook in the U.S. Still . . .
The NRC offered the first licenses since 1978. Plus the environment is better in many cases outside the U.S.
Ms Dewan can light up us up with perspective and optimism. She sees how much more room for innovation still exists in the nuclear industry. “There’s so much more to be invented in it,” she says. “We’re kind of going into this uncharted space.”
A WAMSR can be powered by nuclear waste because it uses radically different technology from conventional plants. Instead of using solid fuel rods filled with pellets, a WAMSR fuel is dissolved nuclear waste into a molten salt. Suspending the fuel in a liquid allows it to stay in the reactor longer, and therefore capture more of its energy. Conventional nuclear reactors can utilize only about 3% of the potential fission energy in a given amount of uranium before it has to be removed from the reactor. A WAMSR design proposes to capture 98% of the remaining energy.
Transatomic’s WAMSR is a 200 MWe compact molten salt reactor that can be manufactured economically at a central location and transported by rail to the reactor site. Utilities can use the profits from the first reactor installed to fund construction of additional units.
A WAMSR design uses physics to ensure the reactor is always passively safe – not like a conventional reactor, which must rely on operator action, external electric power and active safety systems to prevent damage in accident scenarios.
And for the environmentalists – a WAMSR reactor reduces the majority of the waste’s radioactive lifetime to hundreds of years from hundreds of thousands of years, thereby decreasing the need for permanent repositories such as Yucca Mountain.
Using the existing waste fuel is a new platform for the minireactor crowd including those like Babcock and Wilcox, Hyperion and General Fusion. The competitor looks like it might be the Gates/Myhrvold led TerraPower concept.
The MIT pair looks much stronger from a physics perspective. The question coming is can they withstand the intellectual property assault when they get noticed by the ex Microsoft crowd running TerraPower? Yup, the folks seeking rent from you with Windows Me and Vista with boatloads of your rent money are playing at nuclear power. We can be certain they’re angling for ways to use intellectual property law to make trouble for the new team.
Dewan believes that the reactor market is ripe for disruption. “Compared to other startups, especially computer science startups, this definitely requires more of an infrastructure,” Dewan admits. “Fukushima brought much greater focus on the safety problem with old conventional nuclear reactors,” she says. “I think that it might be the case that Fukushima will push the industry toward more innovative, safer designs.”
Everyone should consider that very point beyond just the use instead of the wasting away of the used fuel. It’s time to get back to work and these two have a concept well worth pursuing.
Below Dewan, Massie, with advisor and MIT professor Dr. Richard Lester present at TEDx: