Nuclear Waste Reactor Startup Transatomic Power Adds $2.5M

One of the cool things about running a nuclear energy startup is that, eventually, you get to start testing your designs with real-life uranium.

Sure, it’s depleted uranium at first. But hey, you’ve to got to start somewhere.

“Getting the licenses necessary for running things with depleted uranium is trivial for what you need to go through with uranium 235 or anything like that,” says Leslie Dewan, CEO and co-founder of Transatomic Power.

Dewan’s startup is one of a handful of early stage companies working to answer an intriguing, possibly revolutionary question: can you turn nuclear waste into nuclear fuel? As of today, the company officially has another $2.5 million in private investment to help it find an answer.

The idea behind Transatomic Power’s technology is that conventional nuclear reactors leave far too much unused energy in the nuclear materials they’re finished using.

Dewan

Dewan

That’s why nuclear waste is such a problem—a huge amount of unspent energy means the unused uranium is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

One major reason there’s so much excess radioactivity is that nuclear fuel wears out the metal rods used to contain it before the fuel itself is spent.

Transatomic Power hopes to tap into that leftover energy by putting the used fuel into a container of molten salt, eliminating the problem of worn-out metal rods and potentially drawing vast amounts of power while reducing the radioactivity of the waste to around a few centuries.

That kind of shift moves the nuclear-waste containment problem down to a scale that human engineering can deal with. As Dewan puts it in this presentation, “humans can build things, structures and repositories, that last for a few hundred years.”

After months of technical research, Transatomic Power has recently taken a big step forward: It’s now bankrolling an MIT study that will test the sturdiness of different industrial materials and components. Those experiments should help the young company eventually decide how to build its reactors.

“I am so thrilled that now there is actual experimental work going on—you can figure out what’s going on with the metals, what’s going on with the ceramics, how will the heat exchangers hold up,” Dewan says. “It’s immensely satisfying.”

There is still a long way to go for the project, but the research is a crucial step that will help Transatomic Power determine which materials and components—particularly pumps and heat exchangers—can hold up to the heat, corrosion, and radioactivity generated by the reactors.

“We want to be able to break ground on a prototype facility in 2020. That’s a pretty fast timeline in the nuclear realm, but I think it’s feasible with what we have so far,” Dewan says.

The market for innovative cleantech companies has declined after initial Great Recession enthusiasm, but there are still some intriguing signals that nuclear engineers are digging into entrepreneurship as a path to advancing an electicity source that has been largely left behind in the U.S.

Third Way, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., that supports expanded nuclear power, recently surveyed the nuclear power sector and turned up more signs of life than researchers were expecting.

“We were pleasantly surprised to find more than two dozen companies, backed by private capital, in the United States are working to commercialize advanced reactors,” says Josh Freed, a Third Way vice president. “They see growing global demand for clean, base-load energy that the U.S. could capitalize on.”

Dewan says an improved regulatory environment for nuclear in the U.S. is probably one driver behind any increased entrepreneurial interest, along with a general enthusiasm for building new solutions in an era when startup companies are the subject of blockbuster movies and hit T.V. shows.

“There are a lot more young nuclear engineers out there who have an awareness of high-profile startups in other industries and think, `Why can’t we do that in nuclear?’” she says.

The investors behind Transatomic Power’s latest round are Founders Fund, Acadia Woods Partners, and Armada Investment. Dewan says she was happy to find investors who, along with hoping for a big financial return, were interested in the bigger-picture payoff that’s possible with this kind of work.

“They’re excited about the science behind it,” she says, “and the massive benefits for society.”

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