Posts Tagged waste

Advanced nuclear can support wind and solar

Posted by Stephen Tindale on March 9th, 2017

Last week I went to Amsterdam to speak at a seminar on ‘nuclear: the elephant in the room’. The Netherlands has only one operating nuclear power station, Borssele, providing about 4% of the power generated in the country. The Netherlands is very flat (and much of it below sea level) so hydro is not an option. This explains why the Netherlands currently gets only around 6.5% of its energy from renewables. The Dutch target under the EU Renewable Energy Directive is to get 14% of total energy from renewables by 2020. Major expansions of on- and offshore wind are underway. But where should the other 86% come from?

The Netherlands has substantial gas resources, so a lot of gas power stations. Gas is less bad for the climate than coal is, and an effective way to back up intermittent renewables such as wind. But gas without carbon capture and storage is not low carbon enough to be regarded as clean (as we argued in http://www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/2017/01/23/new-report-the-case-for-a-clean-energy-alliance/).

The Dutch go to the polls on 15 March. None of the 28 parties standing in the general election is proposing a new nuclear power station. So the reference to the elephant in the room was appropriate.

The role that nuclear could play was well set out by Pier Stapersma of Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (https://www.clingendael.nl/). Pier pointed out that it is possible for nuclear reactors to ‘load follow’ – operate as back up to intermittent wind – and that smaller reactors can do this more efficiently than large reactors can.

Despite the lack of political engagement with nuclear issues, there is some important nuclear research underway in the Netherlands, notably into thorium molten salt reactors at the Delft University of Technology. The website states that “Sun and wind are intermittent energy sources, that require backup. Thorium MSR’s are excellent for providing this. MSR’s can ‘load follow’ automatically, by laws of nature. This means that if demand goes up, they produce more, if it goes down, they produce less.” (http://thmsr.nl/#/)

There is also research into thorium MSRs being done in Denmark, by Copenhagen Atomics (http://www.copenhagenatomics.com/). I met staff from Copenhagen Atomics at the seminar. Denmark has traditionally been anti-nuclear: the smiling sun Nuclear Power: no thanks logo was created in Denmark in 1975 (http://www.smilingsun.org/), and the country has no nuclear power stations.

Copenhagen Atomics aim to build a “waste burner”, using the legacy of past nuclear activities. Weinberg Next Nuclear’s next report will be on this subject. Advanced nuclear technology, including Molten Salt Reactors, have potential to engage previously anti-nuclear audiences. Alongside their energy security and cost reduction potential, this makes them worth investing in.

Weinberg Next Nuclear welcomes UK nuclear funding

Posted by John Lindberg on November 10th, 2016

On November 3rd the UK Government announced further funding plans for advanced nuclear research in the UK – part of the £250m over 5 years promised by previous Chancellor George Osborne. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy promised £20 million for an initial phase of a new nuclear research and innovation programme. The priority areas of research were recommended by the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) and cover advanced fuels, materials and manufacturing (including modularisation), advanced recycling for waste and a strategic toolkit compromising models and data that can provide evidence for nuclear policy making.

We agree with Dame Sue Ion, Chair of NIRAB, who said “The research will […] plug gaps in UK current activity [and] begin to equip our universities, national labs and industry with world leading skills and capability and act as a stimulus for national and international collaborative working”.

The increase in materials research is very welcomed as it will play an essential part in ensuring a nuclear renaissance. This is especially the case because future nuclear energy should and probably will move away from conventional (thermal) reactors towards different fast-spectrum reactors. In order to facilitate this, materials research will be important, because these reactors will operate in very different, high-neutron, environments.

The UK is well placed for nuclear materials research. Last year the UK Atomic Energy Authority opened the Materials Research Facility as a part of the wider National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF). This new facility is an important step in gearing up research into advanced materials essential for advanced nuclear technologies. NNUF is part of the UK Government’s Nuclear Industrial Strategy which seeks to provide greater accessibility to world leading nuclear technologies held by four nuclear centres around the UK. Increased materials funding also provides a good opportunity for the nuclear fission and fusion communities to further collaborate, something that we would regard as highly desirable.

Identifying and then implemented sustainable waste management practices is also essential. Waste is one of the main concerns of the general public. The risks of nuclear waste are often exaggerated, but it does need to be managed responsibly. £2 million of the funding announced is designated towards waste management. However, it seems that the UK Government is falling short of the innovative spirit it is seeking to reinvigorate. The funding released is conditioned, aiming to refine current reprocessing techniques (aqueous), rather than broadening its scope to include pyroprocessing and other, non-conventional approaches. (Early next year Weinberg Next Nuclear will publish a research report on nuclear waste management, outlining the need for a break with the status quo.)

The government is proposing research into different aspects of nuclear fuel. This is integral to the potential success of advanced nuclear energy. We very much welcome research into using plutonium as a fuel, since the UK has the largest stockpile of civil plutonium in the world. A broad approach is necessary, however due to waste management issues, we remain unconvinced about the suitability of coated particle fuels. It is also noteworthy that there is no reference to molten salts or metallic fuels, both widely used in cutting-edge nuclear reactors. This is regrettable and we hope that the UK Government in a near future will dedicate funding for further nuclear fuel research.

Whilst being a an important step in the right direction, this should only be first of many steps in the long journey that would see the UK re-emerging as a leading nuclear innovator. What we need is an ambitious research programme into a wide range of different technologies, especially those that has been deemed viable by the Generation IV Forum.

For further information about the funding, see here.

Energy Policies Betray Future Generations

Posted by John Lindberg on November 2nd, 2016

Weinberg Next Nuclear’s technology officer John Lindberg has published an article in Swedish publication NyTeknik. The following is a translation of the original article.

 

Why do we accept that modern nuclear power is equated with the ancient technology of Chernobyl? To opt out of modern reactors because of prejudice means that future generations will live with the radioactive waste. Only nuclear power can quickly phase-out fossil fuels, writes John Lindberg of Weinberg Next Nuclear.

Imagine that you buy a tub of ice cream, take a scoop and then throw the rest. Obviously a wasteful behaviour. Believe it or not, but this is happening right now in Sweden, and it is time for a change.

Today, we use about 2 percent of the energy used to extract the nuclear fuel, despite the fact that modern technology can take advantage of the vast majority. This failure is unethical in a world where 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity, and a betrayal of future generations when the spent nuclear fuel will remain for hundreds of thousands of years.

One of the answers to this problem is called Integral Fast Reactors, IFR. This type of reactors can use all uranium as fuel, not just the 2 percent that Swedish reactors do today. They can also use so-called transuranic elements, such as plutonium, as fuel. This multiplies the carbon-free energy that nuclear power can generate, but also dramatically reduced the amount of waste from nuclear power.

The reactors could also use waste from conventional reactors, thereby reducing the total amount of spent fuel awaiting disposal. To bury the spent fuel when there is a technical solution is nothing but a betrayal of future generations.

Isn’t the risk too high? No one can deny that the meltdown at Chernobyl was a horrible event, especially for the hundreds of thousands who had to abandon their homes.

The type of reactor used at Chernobyl was commonly known as unstable and dangerous and Fukushima reactors were subjected to a most serious natural disaster never designed for.

You would never compare the first mobile phone with a modern smartphone and claim that they are the same thing. Why do we accept then that modern nuclear power is equated with the ancient technology that we saw in Chernobyl? IFR has been designed so that accidents like those in Harrisburg, Chernobyl and Fukushima should be impossible according to the laws of physics. The concept is extremely safe, both from accidents and the less peaceful nations and groups in search of material for nuclear weapons.

Einstein said, “The world we have created is a product of our thinking, and it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

It is time to change the mind-set. We need an energy revolution. Our goal should be to kill the fossil fuel sector. Unfortunately, the traditional renewable sources of energy cannot lead the revolution. They are inefficient both production-wise and financially. The sun is not always shining and the wind does not blow every day. Only nuclear power can quickly phase out fossil fuels, and the time running out.

To opt out fast reactor technology because of prejudice would also mean that all future generations will have to live with a threat from radioactive waste, which we instead can use to extract carbon-free electricity. To ignore this technology is illogical and short-sighted.

Weinberg Next Nuclear has been working closely with new reactor designers and finding out about the different innovations that companies are developing to provide a low carbon energy future. As part of this, our director, Stephen Tindale, recently interviewed the Co-Founder of Moltex Energy, Ian Scott, about their Stable Salt Reactor design. Ian talks about how he came up with this design from the work done by Alvin Weinberg decades earlier, and the benefits that come with this new design.

This interview is part of our current work on a report entitled “How Nuclear Innovation Should be Delivered”. The report has generously been sponsored by three Nuclear companies: Terrestrial Energy, Moltex Energy and URENCO on behalf of their reactor design, U-Battery. This project specific funding allows us resources to research and publish papers that we hope will have significant influence on the future success of the nuclear industry. Vital as this funding is to our work, we are careful to ensure it does not limit our objectivity and balanced view of the industry. Weinberg Next Nuclear retains editorial control and does not lobby for any particular company’s design. We are in agreement with our sponsors that nuclear power is vital for a sustainable future and we will continue to work together to achieve the changes necessary to achieve it.

In February, some of the Weinberg Next Nuclear Team travelled to Canada to learn more about the exciting developments that Canada is achieving in advanced nuclear. In this series of videos, Weinberg Next Nuclear’s director Stephen Tindale interviews Terrestrial Energy’s director Simon Irish in Tornoto about his reasons for joining the nuclear industry, opinions on the molten salt reactor design and views on the future of nuclear power. 

The Canadian trip and interviews are part of our current work on a report entitled “How Nuclear Innovation Should be Delivered”. The report has generously been sponsored by three Nuclear companies: Terrestrial Energy, Moltex Energy and URENCO on behalf of their U-Battery design. This project specific funding allows us resources to research and publish papers that we hope will have significant influence on the future success of the nuclear industry. Vital as this funding is to our work, we are careful to ensure it does not limit our objectivity and balanced view of the industry. Weinberg Next Nuclear retains editorial control and does not lobby for any particular company’s design. We are in agreement with our sponsors that nuclear power is vital for a sustainable future and we will continue to work together to achieve the changes necessary to achieve it.

South Australia could provide a long term solution to nuclear spent fuel

Posted by Katherine Chapman on February 22nd, 2016

by Priya Aggarwal

A Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was set up in March, 2015 to independently look into South Australia’s potential future role in four prominent areas of the nuclear fuel cycle – exploration and extraction; processing of minerals and manufacture of materials containing nuclear substances; electricity generation from nuclear fuels; and, management, storage and disposal of radioactive waste. The commission will have to submit a final report by May, 2016 after considering the following:

     the effect on the environment;

     safety;

     the effect on other sectors of the State’s economy, in particular the tourism, wine and food sectors; 

     technical issues.

South Australia (SA) is currently home to four of Australia’s five uranium mines, and the possibility of the state developing nuclear power generation, enrichment and waste storage facilities have hitherto been contentious issues. The Royal Commission comes at a time of economic contraction for SA, which is suffering from job losses in mining and manufacturing sectors.

Since the commission saw no opportunity to commercially develop further uranium processing capabilities as it says the market is already oversupplied and uncertain, it sees SA could benefit from forging contracts with those that buy its uranium to store the waste products as well, as part of a concept entitled “fuel leasing”. Kevin Scarce, the Royal Commissioner, said the timeframe of building a deep geological disposal project would take 30 years, based on the timeframe it took for Sweden and Finland, who currently store their own waste at present (but, Sweden intends to receive waste from further afield) to set up similar successful projects buried 400 to 500m underground. While avoiding the nomination of a site for nuclear waste, the inquiry found the “likely” development of a storage and disposal facility of used nuclear fuel could be operational in the late 2020s.

Mr Scarce said SA could take 13% of the world’s nuclear waste and had unique characteristics that made it suitable, such as a stable geology and relatively stable seismologically. He feels confident about tapping the market’s potential in this segment and says, “Mind you, we’ve had waste now for 50 to 60 years and there has not been an international solution yet.” After revealing the tentative findings, a consultation period has now begun.

 

Referneces-

http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-Waste-disposal-offers-opportunity-to-South-Australia-1502164.html

 

http://yoursay.sa.gov.au/decisions/royal-commission-our-role-in-nuclear-energy/about

 

http://nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/tentative-findings/

 

Edit: Post previously included the line “The government also faces the task of convincing the locals at six shortlisted sites, of which three are in SA.” which was deleted as it is a separate and mostly unrelated issue.

 

 

 

Geoff Parks Horse

Riding the thorium trail. Cambridge senior lecturer Geoff Parks believes actinides could recycle for a long, long time when mixed with thorium in a modified light water reactor.

Thorium mixed with plutonium and other actinide “waste” could continuously power modified conventional reactors almost forever in a reusable fuel cycle, according to a discovery at the University of Cambridge in England.

The discovery, by PhD candidate Ben Lindley working under senior lecturer Geoff Parks, suggests that mixed thorium fuel would outperform mixed uranium fuel, which lasts only for one or two fuel cycles rather than for the “indefinite” duration of the thorium mix.

Ideally, the reactors would be “reduced-moderation water” reactors that work on the same solid-fuel, water-cooled principles of conventional reactors but that do not slow down neutrons as much and thus also offer some of the advantages of fast reactors.

Lindley’s finding, made while he was a master’s candidate in 2011, bodes well for the use of thorium not only as a safe, efficient and clean power source, but also as one that addresses the vexing problem of what to do with nuclear waste from the 430-some conventional light water reactors that make up almost all of the commercial power reactors operating in the world today and that run on uranium.

By mixing thorium with “waste” in a solid fuel, the nuclear industry could eliminate the need to bury long-lived plutonium and other actinides.

Lindley’s work surfaced recently in an article about it in the hard copy edition of Cambridge’s quarterly Engineering Department magazine. An earlier version also appears online.

ACCENTUATE THE NEGATIVE

I interviewed Lindley and Parks recently after the magazine story appeared. They explained the crux of Lindley’s discovery: Uranium/plutonium lasts for only a limited period because after one or two cycles, when the actinide portion increases, the mix displays a “positive feedback coefficient.” In the sometimes counter intuitive world of nuclear engineering, a positive feedback is an undesirable occurrence. To use an unscientific term, the reaction goes haywire.

Parks notes that with uranium, “As the amount of actinides in the mixture increases, you get this tipping point where with the uranium mixed with actinide based fuel  – a key feedback coefficient goes from being negative to being positive, at which point the fuel is not safe to use in the reactor.”

Lindley completes the thought. “The idea is that mixing things with thorium rather than with uranium keeps the feedback coefficient negative,” he says.

In a mixed fuel system, reactor operators would allow a batch of fuel rods to stay in a reactor for about five years, roughly the same as with today’s solid uranium fuel. The fuel would then cool for a few years while the shorter-lived fission products decay, and would then be reprocessed over another year, mixing actinide wastes with more thorium before being put back in a reactor.

And just how long could this cycle continue? “You could just keep doing that forever – until the world runs out of thorium,” notes Parks.

Ben Lindley

Wasting his future. Cambridge PhD candidate Ben Lindley made the discovery that actinide waste will     burn with thorium for an indefinite period, auguring a way to simultaneously generate power and dispose   of nuclear waste.

Lindley’s proposal is the latest possibility to emerge for using thorium reactors to dispose of waste as well as generate power.

As we wrote here recently, Japan’s Thorium Technology Solution (TTS) is proposing to mix thorium and plutonium in a liquid molten salt reactor.  Likewise, Transatomic Power in the U.S. has similar plans, although it is starting first with a liquid mixed uranium fuel rather than with thorium.

Lindley and Parks’ idea differs from TTS and Transatomic in one obvious way: It would allow the nuclear industry to carry on building conventional solid fuel, water-cooled designs. That would be strictly true only in the initial implementation of the technology, which Lindley and Parks say would entail thorium mixed only with plutonium rather than also with other actinides like neptunium, americium and curium. That’s because plutonium is now available from sources such as the Sellafield nuclear waste site in Britain. The other actinides are not as readily available, but would become so as it became clear they could be used as part of a mixed thorium fuel, Lindley and Parks believe.

GO EASY ON THE WATER

Once the other actinides enter the mix, the optimal reactor would be a light water reactor modified to have less water and thus less moderation of neutrons in the reaction process. That, in turn, would allow more burn up of actinides.

Lindley envisions a reactor with about a quarter to half the amount of water as in a conventional LWR – enough to serve as a necessary coolant, but little enough so that the water could not slow down neutrons to the extent they do in a conventional reactor.

“It’s not really a fast reactor, and it’s not really a thermal (conventional) reactor,” notes Lindley. “It’s between the two.”

Hitachi, Toshiba, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency all have reduced-moderation water reactor designs (RMWR), according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Lindley described them as similar to LWRs but with different fuel assemblies.

The development – and regulatory approval – of RMWRs is one of several challenges facing the deployment of mixed thorium fuel in a water-cooled reactor.

Another is the development and cost of reprocessing techniques for thorium and for actinides other than plutonium (for which reprocessing already exists).

“Splitting thorium from waste or splitting some of the minor actinides from waste has not been done on an industrial scale,” notes Lindley. “There are processes that are envisaged that can do that, that have been tested on a laboratory scale, but never on an industrial scale.”

Another hurdle: Fabricating fuel that as Lindley notes would be “highly radioactive” given the amount of waste that would go into it. “That would have to be done behind a shield,” Lindley says.

Reduced Moderation Water Reactor JAEA

“Light water Lite.” Lindley’s proposal to mix thorium with plutonium and other actinides would work best in   a reduced-moderation water reactor. The diagram above shows a uranium version of an RMWR, from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

All of that will require significant research and development funding –more than what Lindley currently has at his disposal, which consists of university research funds and academic scholarships.  One possible source for additional funding could be Cambridge Enterprise, a commercial arm of the university.

U.S. nuclear company Westinghouse has also been collaborating with Lindley on his thorium research. Lindley hopes to test his fuel at the Halden test reactor in Norway, where Westinghouse is a partner in Thor Energy’s project to irradiate thorium/plutonium fuel.

It will be interesting to see if any of the £15 million that the UK government recently earmarked for nuclear R&D finds it way to Lindley’s project. It’s possible that Sellafield could at least provide plutonium.

FUNDS FROM DECOMMISSIONING?

Given the potential usefulness of thorium as a way of ridding the UK of actinides, it’s not out of the question that funding could also come from the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has a 2013-14 budget of £3.2 billion and which is responsible for managing nuclear waste, including actinides and shorter lived fission products.

As Parks notes, an ultimate goal for applying Lindley’s discovery “is to come up with a nuclear fuel cycle where the only waste you have to dispose of  is the fission product waste.”

Parks encourages the government to “grasp the nettle” and financially back the thorium research. He and Lindley note that a multiple-cycle thorium reactor would save money in the long run for among other reasons: uranium prices, although low now, will rise; and a mixed thorium/actinide fuel would eliminate costs associated with nuclear waste storage.

“There are economic benefits in the future to investing in the reprocessing and fuel fabrication aspects now,” says Parks. “And you would completely change what nuclear waste means as far as the public is concerned, in terms of the volume of it and how long it’s radioactive for.”

Lindley and Parks say that their technology could take hold in a commercial RMWR within 10-to-20 years.

For that to happen, they’ll have to find the right mix of collaborators and financial backers.

Photos from Geoff Parks and Ben Lindley. RMWR diagram from Japan Atomic Energy Agency

 

Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, has an idea that thorium and other alternative     nuclear technologies could be key to a low carbon future.

A key report by the UK government on the future of nuclear power will recommend a big increase in nuclear generating capacity by 2050, and will encourage the development of reactors that can burn waste and and breed fuel instead of leaving waste, the Weinberg Foundation has learned.

The “Nuclear Research and Development” report for 2050 and beyond, led by chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington in response to a query by the House of Lords, will come on the heels of scathing criticism today that the country’s nuclear waste maintenance operations operates over budget and has spent £67.5 billion ($106.4 billion).

The roadmap will lay out four possible low carbon energy scenarios for the country.

In three of the four, it will call for 75 gigawatts of nuclear output capability, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change told Weinberg in an email. (He did not describe the fourth scenario. See clarifications below).

That’s about 90 percent of the country’s current power capacity, of which nuclear currently comprises about 18 percent while fossil fuels dominate. In 2050, the total capacity will be higher, but 75 gigawatts should represent a significantly greater proportion than today’s 18 percent.

WELCOME ALTERNATIVES

To get there, the country should consider adding technologies other than conventional nuclear reactors that leave waste by burning uranium in large water-cooled reactors – the same fundamental approach that the global nuclear industry has used for 50-some years, the report will recommend.

Instead, reactors that “close” the fuel cycle – breed new fuel – will be key, the report will suggest, as will new fuel cycles based on thorium instead of uranium, which can also run in a “closed” cycle in a molten salt reactor. The report will also call for advances in conventional reactors, or “LWRs” (light water reactors).

The DECC spokesman shared the upcoming recommendations with Weinberg following our story late last week in which we noted that DECC’s chief scientific adviser David MacKay is taking an interest in thorium and in other alternative nuclear technologies, and that he and Beddington would soon publish a report that could encourage those technologies. John Perkins, the scientific adviser to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, is also co-authoring the report.

We asked DECC to elaborate. After we published Friday’s blog, the spokesman alerted us to the 75 gigawatt target.  He said the report’s findings to date note that:

“In order to potentially deliver against the upper end of this scope it is likely that more advanced and diverse options will need to be explored by the market. Such options may include: development of newer fission technologies such as evolutionary LWR’s, small modular reactors (SMRs) or Generation IV ; options for closing the uranium fuel cycle and reprocessing spent fuel; progressing the development of fusion; and consideration of alternative fuel cycles such as Thorium.

“Ensuring that these options are not foreclosed or essential skills lost will be an important long term objective and the R&D Roadmap element of the work will set out a number of pathways and key decision points for any future R&D programmes to consider.”

The DECC spokesman said that Beddington has shared a number of his recommendations with government ministers, and that the government expects to publish the roadmap “within the next few months.”

WASTE NOT

The timing of the pre-release of findings is fitting, given a separate report today that was highly critical of rising costs and delays at the U.K.’s nuclear waste storage facility, called Sellafield.  That assessment, by Parliament’s House of Commons, claimed that Sellafield’s storage, run privately for the government by a company called Nuclear Management Partners, spends £1.6 billion ($2.5 billion) and has ponied up a total of £67.5 billion  ($106.4 billion).

Sellafield has the world’s largest stash of plutonium with about 100 tons, and stores other waste including highly radioactive substances in vitrified glass blocks.

Some of that waste, like the plutonium, could be used in new style reactors. Alternative reactors would also minimize waste and thus greatly reduce the need for waste facilities like Sellafield.

In Britain’s privatized energy sector, scientific advisers like Beddington, MacKay and Perkins would be hoping that industry – the “market” as the pre-report says – would help fund development of the alternatives.

What’s not known is how much – if any – the government might provide for research and development.

Photo  from UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, via Flickr, of  Sir John Beddington at the UK’s Big Bang Fair, a science gathering for young people.

Clarifications and correction: After this story appeared, DECC clarified that the report does not recommend “a big increase in nuclear generating capacity” per se, as stated in the opening paragraph. Rather, it recommends development of alternative nuclear if Britain is to meet the more more nuclear intensive of four low carbon energy scenarios set out in the government’s Dec. 2011 Carbon Plan aiming for 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050. Only one of those scenarios – not three as stated above –  envisages 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2050, which would represent 68 percent of projected total capacity. The other scenarios call for 28, 20 and 10 percent nuclear. 

Two kids and and an adult. Transatomic co-founders Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, both phD students, share the stage with advisor Richard Lester, head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering, at a lively     TED conference.

There’s a new kid on the thorium block.

Meet Transatomic Power, an MIT-connected fledgling that’s designing a thorium molten salt reactor by combining nuclear expertise with Silicon Valley style start-up panache.

Unlike the conventional solid-fuel reactors used in almost all of the world’s commercial nuclear power plants, molten salt reactors deploy a liquid fuel, auguring a wealth of safety and operating improvements.

Transatomic is the latest company to publicize its MSR intentions. Richard Martin introduced Transatomic to the world yesterday in a Forbes website article. As many Weinberg followers will know, Rick is the author of the thorium homage SuperFuel.

First, to set the record straight: Transatomic is indeed working with thorium schemes. But as Martin notes, the company is “fuel-agnostic,” and is also making room for uranium. It reminds me a bit of Ottawa Valley Research, David LeBlanc’s Canadian project that is developing an MSR with either fuel in mind.

Now, let’s get on to something less on the technical side, and more with a marketing slant. Transatomic is slapping a stellar name onto its reactor, calling it the “Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor.” That’s a WAMSR to you fans of acronyms.  Not bad – it has a certain punch as far as acronyms go.

WHAT A WASTE

But more importantly, the WAMSR is intended to do as it says on the tin – get rid of nuclear waste by burning it in a power generating reaction. One of the top public objections to nuclear power is, to quote the masses, “yeah, but what do you do with the waste?” Transatomic provides a ready made, in your face answer with its product moniker.

The tiny company is by no means the first to propose using spent fuel from other reactors as fuel, but putting the idea right there on the label is a stroke of enlightened branding. Granted, some people might run from the scary word “annihilating.” But most won’t. Technology like this could one day make the U.S. forget it ever bitterly debated whether to use Yucca Mountain as a waste repository.

This sort of user friendliness, if I can call it that, reflects a youthful business acumen at Transatomic that is as much Google as it is Oak Ridge. (Disclaimer: I say this without having actually met the company. But I like what I see so far).

Transatomic is in part the brainchild of a couple of youngsters – MIT PhD students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie. The kids themselves bring a refreshing accessibility to the technology. Watch Dewan in action at a TED conference late last year in a video on Transatomic’s website, (she’s about 6 minutes in) and you might think you were witnessing a lively presentation for a popular mobile phone app. About 13 minutes into the same clip, Massie looks and speaks as if he just invented Twitter – while conveying the usefulness of nuclear waste.

THE ADULTS ARE HERE TOO

Like Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google who eventually brought in technology industry veteran Eric Schmidt to run the shop, Dewan and Massie have hooked up with a seasoned business person. Co-founder and CEO Russell Wilcox is the former CEO of E Ink, the company that helped commercialize electronic displays used in e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, according to Transatomic’s website.

The company’s advisory board includes Dr. Richard Lester (he’s the grey hair in the video), head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor.”  A tangential observation, but I like the implied connection to steel – it makes me imagine one of these waste annihilators forcing heat into a blast furnace, replacing the CO2 belching processes used today.

Other experienced advisors: MSR veteran and Oak Ridge National laboratory senior program manager in nuclear technology Dr. Jess Gehin; and MIT assistant professor Dr. Benoit Forget.

Transatomic hopes to build a prototype reactor in five years and to have live, commercial WAMSRs operating by 2030 via licensing agreements to nuclear plant operators, Martin reports. The company’s website says it is planning a small, or “modular” 200 megawatt size for electricity production.

TALKING THE TALK

The new technology could help enliven a nuclear industry that is still recovering following the Fukushima meltdowns last year. Not only could the WAMSR burn waste, but like other molten salt reactors it could potentially operate more safely than conventional designs, in part by allowing its liquid fuel to drain harmlessly into a tub in the event of an emergency. MSRs can also operate at normal atmospheric pressure rather than under potentially dangerous high pressure.

Transatomic’s website also points to reduced levels of radioactive waste, and to operating effiencies that are much higher than conventional solid fuel, water cooled reactors.

“The nuclear industry knows it’s in trouble, it’s not quite sure what to do, and it’s just trying to survive for the moment, “ Wilcox tells Martin.  “It’s a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move.”

That’s the sort of inspired rhetoric that has played out successfully in the transformed information technology world. It’s refreshing to hear Transatomic talk the talk in the nuclear industry.  Now let’s see if it can walk the walk.

Photo: Screen grab from TED video on Transatomic website.

Note: This version updates an earlier one, adding Jess Gehin and Benoit Forget as advisors.

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