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Posted by Mark Halper

Transatomic co-founders Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan are MIT PhD students who can readily seek   insight from an expanding advisory board of nuclear veterans.

Transatomic Power, the youthful molten salt reactor company based in Cambridge, Mass., has added four nuclear industry veterans to its technical advisory board,  a move that could help it bring the alternative nuclear technology to market.

The appointments include retired Westinghouse Electric chief technology officer Regis Matztie, who is also the leading commercial adviser to the molten salt nuclear collaboration between China and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Also named to the board were Todd Allen, Deputy Director at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL); Ken Czerwinski, Director of the University of Las Vegas (UNLV) Radiochemistry Program; and Michael Corradini, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the current president of the American Nuclear Society.

Transatomic, as we noted in September, is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-connected startup co-founded by MIT PhD students Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, and by CEO Russell Wilcox, who is the former CEO of information technology company E-Ink.

“Atomic energy is an abundant and reliable power source and Transatomic Power has a better way to harness it,” Wilcox said in a press release. “We’re very excited to welcome these four luminaries to our advisory board, and look forward to their contributions as we work to bring this important new technology to market.”

“This is a chance to help the young people in our industry to re-imagine and re-invent the field,” INL’s Allen said in the release. “In this team I see the spirit of innovation that helped give birth to the industry at its start.”

WASTELAND

Transatomic is developing a molten salt nuclear reactor that it calls a Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). The name reflects Transatomic’s intentions to use existing nuclear waste as fuel, a feature that could help win over nuclear opponents who object to waste legacy.

The company is designing the WAMSR to run on liquid – molten salt – fuel. Transatomic has previously claimed to be “fuel agnostic” towards either thorium or uranium (as has Ottawa-based MSR developer Terrestrial Energy, headed by David LeBlanc), although it mentions only uranium in this week’s statement announcing the board additions (among which there is a fair amount of uranium experience).

Some MSR proponents, like Kirk Sorensen, president of Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy, believe that thorium fuel best optimizes MSR’s advantages over conventional solid fuel reactors.

Like other MSR companies, Transatomic promotes the technology for being safer than conventional solid-fuel reactors, for producing less waste and for cost advantages.

MSR proponents say they are meltdown proof because in the event of a malfunction the fuel drains harmlessly into a tank, stopping the nuclear reaction and removing decay heat. In conventional nuclear, although control rods can stop fission reactions, decay heat can build into a meltdown if cooling systems fail, as happened at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. MSRs also operate at higher temperatures, thus making more efficient use of fuel. And they function at normal atmospheric pressure, rather than at the high pressure of many conventional reactors.

MSRs could also be manufactured in small “modular” sizes that would permit manufacturing economies of scale and that would allow utilities and other end users to purchase smaller amounts of nuclear generation capacity – in the tens or hundreds of megawatts – compared to today’s behemoths typically rated at well over 1,000 megawatts. Transatomic is targeting 500 megawatts.

A COOL VARIATION

In a variation on the MSR theme, the U.S. and China are collaborating on a high temperature reactor that uses a molten salt coolant (coolants absorb heat from nuclear reactions and transfer that heat to a turbine) but a solid fuel. Full MSRs use molten salts as both their coolant and fuel, mixing uranium or thorium into the molten salt fuel.

The U.S.- China partnership could also lead to joint work on an MSR (China has a separate MSR initiative), or could help inform separate MSR development. Westinghouse Electric, known for its conventional reactors, serves as the collaboration’s commercial adviser, with Matzie as the head of the commercial advisory panel.

Transatomic’s press release makes no mention of the U.S-China molten salt collaboration or of Matzie’s role in it.

Matzie and the three other new appointees join experienced nuclear experts already on Transatomic’s advisory team: Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor”; Jess Gehin, Oak Ridge National laboratory senior program manager in nuclear technology; and Benoit Forget, an MIT assistant professor.

In another MIT connection, Charles Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT’s department of nuclear science and engineering, leads a DOE-funded set of three universities that are developing a molten salt cooled high temperature reactor related to the Chinese collaboration The three are MIT, ithe University of California Berkekely, and the University of Wisconsin.

Photo is a screen grab from a TED conference YouTube video on Transatomic’s website.

Note: This post corrects an earlier version that stated fission continues after an emergency in conventional reactors. In conventional reactors, control rods stop fission, but decay heat continues to build if  the reactor is not properly cooled. Thank you to readers James Arathoon and David LeBlanc for pointing out the error. Corrected around 1:10 p.m. GMT March 2.

Comments

  1. David LeBlanc says:

    Mark,

    Nice article but have to correct a mistake in it. MSRs do indeed have many great options for the passive removal of decay heat (which is the heat released by radioactive decay of fission products after the reactor is shut down, i.e. no more fission). However, you wrote above ” unlike conventional nuclear in which fission continues after an emergency, requiring cooling”. This is not correct. Conventional nuclear (any reactor really) can be quickly shut down as did all reactors at Fukushima, so fission doesn’t continue after an emergency.
    All reactors do have to deal with decay heat, it is just that MSRs have a far easier job since that decay heat is right in the coolant so we can drain it to where we want or even cool it through the walls of the reactor if we chose to.
    By the way, does anyone have any idea what sort of reactor these MIT grads are promoting. About the only details I’ve ever heard is a Chloride fast spectrum reactor. That would be a pretty huge challenge if so.

    David LeBlanc

  2. ang says:

    The nuclear industry had it’s chance and failed. Solar Thermal Plants will bring down the nuclear industry. The Sahara Solar Breeder Project will produce half the worlds electricity by 2050

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