Posts Tagged Westinghouse

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.”


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.


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.

Independent thinking: Babcock & Wilcox CEO James Ferland says modular reactors will help assure U.S. energy independence.

Chalk up a small victory for alternative nuclear power in the West. The U.S. Department of Energy will help North Carolina-based Babcock & Wilcox develop and build a “small modular reactor.”

DOE announced recently that it had awarded funding to a B&W-led group that also includes federally owned electricity provider the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and U.S. construction firm Bechtel Corp.

TVA is applying for a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deploy up to 4 of B&W’s 180-megawatt mPower reactors at TVA’s Clinch River site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the project is based.

In announcing the decision, Energy Secretary Steve Chu issued an assurance that nuclear has a solid place in the government’s plans for a low carbon future – an assertion that many nuclear supporters would welcome, but with an “I’ll believe more when I see more” shrug.

“The Obama Administration continues to believe that low-carbon nuclear energy has an important role to play in America’s energy future,” said Chu.  “Restarting the nation’s nuclear industry and advancing small modular reactor technologies will help create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses, and ensure we continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to American energy production.”


Small modular reactors would provide alternatives to large gigawatt-plus nuclear reactors, allowing utilities or private users to add nuclear capacity without having to spend many billions of dollars in upfront costs associated with conventional behemoth reactors.

They could also provide low cost power in remote areas – where expensive and CO2-heavy diesel generators are often used – and can be an effective heat and electricity source for industrial operations. In principle they can be factory-made and transported by truck. They still have some heft though – a New York times blog on B&W’s plans refers to mPower’s “towering metal shell.”

B&W’s mPower and other SMRs  that DOE evaluated are essentially scaled down versions of conventional water cooled, solid fuel uranium reactors.

As such, they are not as pronounced a departure from traditional nuclear as are other designs that we track here at Weinberg, such as liquid molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors and fast neutron reactors. Those typically fit the “modular” form factor and in many instances will deploy thorium fuel, portending safer and more efficient nuclear operations than with uranium fuel.

South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd, for instance, is developing a 35-megawatt (electric) pebble bed reactor. Flibe Energy in Huntsville, Alabama, also has modular sizes in mind for its liquid thorium molten salt reactor.


Neither DOE nor B&W would disclose the amount of funding DOE is providing. Various published reports including in the Charlotte Business Journal (Charlotte, North Carolina) and pegged it at $225 million.

“Through a five-year cost-share agreement, the Energy Department will invest up to half of the total project cost, with the project’s industry partners matching this investment by at least one-to-one,” DOE’s press release states. “The specific total will be negotiated between the Energy Department and Babcock & Wilcox.”

The award was part of a project to fund $450 million of SMR development that DOE announced last March, so the $225 million would represent half of that programme.

The New York Times had a more modest sense of the funding, noting, “At one point it (DOE) anticipated a $452 million program over five years, but so far Congress has appropriated only $67 million. The department is asking for another $65 million for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Also, the department has not said how much it was providing to Babcock & Wilcox.”

B&W CEO James Ferland welcomed the funding. “With this public-private partnership, the DOE is providing important national leadership for America in the global pursuit of SMR technology,”  he said. “This partnership is essential to reestablishing our nation’s international competitiveness in the nuclear energy industry, as well as enhancing U.S. manufacturing infrastructure and energy independence. “

The company wasted no time in demonstrating momentum. About a week after winning the funding, it announced it had contracted Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Lehigh Heavy Forge Corp. to fabricate the shell.


B&W is believed to have beaten rivals Westinghouse and NuScale for the award.  DOE said it still plans to fund other SMR projects. Westinghouse is developing an SMR that is a smaller version of its large AP1000 “passively cooled” reactor.

But Westinghouse is also partnering with DOE and China on the development of alternative design reactors that can run on thorium or uranium.

The award to B&W is an encouraging sign that DOE is investing outside the traditional nuclear box.  It would be no small development if DOE were to next apply some of its $450 million modular budget to altogether different reactor designs, not just reduced-sized ones.

Photo: Nancy Pierce via Charlotte Business Journal

University of California Berkeley nuclear engineering head Per Peterson is a fan of molten salts and other alternative nuclear. He’ll chair the ANS proceedings in San Diego. Above, he examines a model of a     pebble bed reactor in this photo from KQED Quest.

When we launched our blog here at the Weinberg Foundation in late September, we nicknamed it The Thorium Trail and pledged to travel the world spotting the emergence of alternative, safe nuclear technologies such as thorium.

And travel we have, as our path has included a real world landing last week in Shanghai – where we journeyed from our London base – as well as virtual stops in Norway, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. Through the wonders of the Internet, we’ve skimmed uranium mines in Namibia and Australia, and have brushed up against oil sands in Canada, where small reactors could help cut fossil fuel-driven heat use.

We’re not resting.  We can’t.  Not when the world will need safe nuclear as a base load power source to help stem the effects of fossil fuel induced climate change that dramatically took centre stage a week ago when Hurricane Sandy clobbered New York and New Jersey.

Today, we turn our attention to San Diego for a quick preview of the 5-day American Nuclear Society’s annual winter conference, which kicks off this Sunday, Nov. 11.


Have a look at the agenda here – click on the page’s “official program” link. On the surface, there’s not much going on related to thorium, the alternative to uranium that if run in the right type of reactor offers all manner of advantages over today’s nuclear plants: it’s safer, more efficient, meltdown proof, produces less waste and it reduces the weapons proliferation threat.

In the impressively busy 60 pages, the word “thorium” appears only once.

That is disappointing – shameful, really –  but it’s not a surprise. Of the conference’s eleven sponsors, seven are U.S. utilities – not known as the most progressive bunch when it comes to their nuclear power. The top two “platinum” backers are utility behemoths Duke Energy and Southern California Edison. The old guard is not going to shout about a new fuel like thorium that could disrupt its comparatively comfortable – and time honoured – uranium value chain.

Yet the conference will thankfully be chock full of sessions on alternative nuclear reactor designs (albeit not alternative fuel).  After all, ANS is assembling this year’s conclave under the heading Future Nuclear Technologies: Resilience and Flexibiity.

By inference, thorium will be in the collective consciousness, as many of the formal sessions will focus on technologies that could be optimized by using thorium rather than uranium – technologies such as such as molten salt cooling systems and high temperature reactors.


Let’s start at the top.  The conference’s general chair is University of California Berkeley  nuclear engineering department head and professor Per E. Peterson. Peterson has a rich background researching many advanced nuclear technologies, and his UC Berkeley bio notes that “currently his research group focuses primarily on heat transfer, fluid mechanics, regulation and licensing for high temperature reactors, principally designs that use liquid fluoride salts as coolants.”

I’ve added the boldface type in that last sentence because it bears noting that one of the most promising alternative designs for a thorium-fuelled reactor is indeed one that runs at a high temperature while cooled by liquid fluoride.

So there you go. The conference chair – the man running the San Diego show – has a keen interest in a thorium enabling technology, if not in thorium per se.

In fact, high temperature, molten salt reactors are the subject of the U.S. Department of Energy’s collaboration with China’s Chinese Academy of Sciences. CAS, as I wrote from Shanghai last week, is developing a liquid thorium molten salt cooled and fuelled  reactor (TMSR). The completion date has slipped, and China is welcoming expertise from the U.S., which developed a TMSR at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s under the direction of Alvin Weinberg.

DOE has said its interest in the collaboration focuses on the liquid coolant applied to high temperature reactors, but that unlike its Chinese collaborator, it is not currently investigating liquid thorium fuel.


It’s not entirely clear why not, but MIT research scientist Charles Forsberg, who will be speaking several times in San Diego on fluoride coolants, might be able to provide an answer.  Forsberg is part of the DOE/China collaboration. DOE has tapped MIT, Peterson’s UC Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin as partners in the collaboration which includes DOE labs Oak Ridge and Idaho National Laboratory.

Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse is serving as a commercial adviser on the same collaboration. So it seems no coincidence that when Forsberg and Peterson combine on Thursday in San Diego to give eight presentations related to salts and high temperatures, they will do so under a track chaired by Westinghouse nuclear engineer Art Wharton. It’s entitled Advanced Reactors.

Westinghouse, which does not like to publicly discuss its alternative reactor work, has had a hand in many of the sessions planned for the week, including those focused on small modular reactors, and one focused on a travelling wave reactor (the fast reactor that Bill Gates is building, although some say Gates has abandoned the “travelling wave” for a “standing wave” – more on that another time).

Outside of considerable of sessions dedicated to fluoride salt coolants, there will be plenty of talk surrounding other alternative reactor technologies.


Fast reactors like San Diego-based General Atomics’ energy multiplier module are on the docket (GA is a co-sponsor of the conference which is taking place in its back yard).

So, too, are modular reactors – the small designs that could represent reduced upfront costs, provide electricity to remote off-grid regions and workplaces, and serve as industrial heat sources.

Equally, high temperature pebble bed reactors (PBRs) will take the spotlight in several technical sessions. Again, the discussion will not revolve around thorium. That’s an unfortunate oversight given that thorium could optimize pebble bed operations – a fact not lost on South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd. which, as I wrote recently, is assembling a group of customers to help finance development of its gas cooled thorium fuelled PBR.

Any “future nuclear” technology conference would not be complete without fusion tracks, and the ANS conclave will have that as well – fusion is one of Peterson’s research subjects. The fusion discussions will include a look at tritium in both fusion – where it is a fuel – and in fission – where it is a waste, or byproduct. MIT’s Forsberg will be among the experts addressing the subject.

The one mention of thorium in the agenda? A 25-minute talk scheduled Wednesday morning by Terry Kammash from the University of Michigan, entitled Hybrid Thorium Reactor for Safe, Abundant Power Generation. It’s part of a group of presentations falling under the general heading Reactor Physics Design, Validation and Operating Experience and including a talk on liquid fast reactors.


For a broad overview of all of these technologies, ANS president Michael Corradini will chair a Tuesday afternoon forum entitled Ten Years Since the Generation IV Roadmap: Progress and Future Directions for New Reactor Technologies, followed logically by a Wednesday morning look at what the next 10 years hold.

A session entitled Telling the Nuclear Story Using Online Video and Broadcast should remind every one that it behooves the nuclear industry to effectively communicate its advantages to the public, especially in the wake of the Fukushima tragedy. Panelists will include Cara Santa Maria, the host of Huffington Post’s Talk Nerdy to Me.

As I’ve wandered onto the “PR” subject, here’s some free advice to ANS: you’ve done a good job assembling experts on many promising forms of alternative nuclear. It is beginning to feel like some of these alternatives could soon get  a more serious look from investors. Let’s hope so. But you gotta talk thorium, too.

Photo: Gabriela Quirós for KQED Quest.

Note: We won’t be in San Diego, but we’ll have our ear to the ground. Will you be there? Feel free to send your impressions. You could comment below, or use the “contact” tab above. Thank you –MH.

Thorium poised for New Year coming out party

Posted by Mark Halper on November 1st, 2012

“We’re ready.” Julian Kelly and Thor Energy will start testing solid thorium MOX fuel in January, with help from Westinghouse, Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory, and others.

SHANGHAI – Norway’s privately held Thor Energy this January will start a four year live test of solid thorium fuel in partnership with industrial companies including nuclear giant Westinghouse, Thor revealed here today.

Speaking at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012, chief technology officer Julian Kelly said Thor will burn ceramic pellets of thorium plutonium oxide inside the Norwegian government’s Halden test reactor.

Thor will use fuel provided by the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory and by the European Commission’s Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU). It will also fabricate some of its own in partnership with Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology. The first batch will come from ITU.

“We don’t often spend a lot time being excited in the nuclear industry these days, but this is an exciting thing for us,” Kelly said. “We’re ready to go.”

Thor’s objective is to show that thorium plutonium fuel, known as thorium MOX, can operate safely and efficiently in a conventional reactor.

“We expect this experiment to yield data that will be used to demonstrate the safe, long term performance of ceramic thorium MOX fuels, and that this information will directly support the approval of a commercial irradiation of such fuels,” Kelly said. “We very much need this reactor to appeal to a regulator audience and also a power reactor operator audience. It’s not just a purely academic exercise.”


The Halden reactor is a heavy boiling water model (HBWR). The results will allow Thor to extrapolate performance of solid thorium MOX in a pressurized water reactor (PWR).

BWRs and LWRs account for almost all of the 430-plus nuclear reactors operating commercially today.

Many thorium supporters prefer to put thorium into alternative burners such as liquid molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors. Although those reactors optimize thorium’s benefits more than conventional reactors do, none operate commercially today. They will require time not only for development, but also for regulatory approval (as will a new fuel like thorium MOX).

By running thorium in approved and existing designs and reactors, Thor would hasten the fuel’s commercial arrival.

Thorium augers reactors that are safer and more efficient than conventional uranium reactors. They don’t leave as much long-lived dangerous waste and in designs like molten salt and pebble bed, they are in principle meltdown proof. They also reduce the weapons proliferation threat.

Kelly downplayed suggestions that efforts should focus on alternative reactors.


He called the imminent test of thorium MOX in a conventional reactor, “a great catalyst for other thorium fuel undertaking worldwide,” and said, “it’s a great technology springboard to some other medium term thorium fuel possibilities.”

Thor is a privately held company owned by Norwegian technology firm Scandinavian Advanced Technology. Besides Westinghouse, NNL and ITE, Thor’s partners in the thorium MOX test include South Africa’s Steenskampskraal Thorium Ltd., which as we noted here recently is developing a thorium pebble bed reactor.

Other partners include Finnish utility Fortum, and French chemical company Rhodia, which possesses thorium that has been processed out of rare earth minerals.

Thorium MOX represents not only a potentially safer and better fuel than uranium, but also an opportunity for usefully disposing of plutonium waste of the sort that NNL is concerned with at its operations in Sellafield, England. NNL is part of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Companies in the nuclear fuel business  like Westinghouse could add a plutonium disposal revenue stream.

Although Westinghouse does not like to publicly discuss its thorium involvement, this is second time in recent months that its activities have wandered into the thorium community. News broke over the summer that Westinghouse was serving as the commercial adviser on the U.S. Department of Energy’s collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the development of high temperature molten salt reactors.

Photo by Mark Halper

Bidding to build replacement nuclear reactors at Wylfa, Wales (above) and Oldbury-on-Severn has been subdued. Thorium, anyone?

This just in: Three white knights on their way to Britain to rescue a troubled, conventional nuclear project have turned around and gone home. The development raises the question – isn’t it time to consider something else?

The answer, of course, is “yes.” With the UK struggling to attract investors to build two new huge nuclear stations, the moment is more suited than ever to bring on alternative nuclear – technologies like thorium fuel and molten salt reactors that can operate safely and efficiently and help assuage post-Fukushima public sentiment against atomic power.

This all came to light overnight as the Financial Times reported that three large companies – all of which were expected to bid to take over Britain’s Horizon nuclear initiative – walked away, failing to submit anything by the Friday deadline.

An anticipated joint proposal by France’s Areva and China’s Guangdong Nuclear Power Group did not materialize, the FT said. Another Chinese company, State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. also dropped out. SNPTC was to have teamed with Westinghouse Electric, the U.S. nuclear company owned by Japan’s Toshiba.

The withdrawals left Horizon with just two bids – one by a GE Hitachi-led team also including Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, and the other by Westinghouse, sans its Chinese partner.

Horizon is not bereft of bidders. It simply failed to attract a certain level of interest, despite the government’s proposed “Contracts for Difference” policy to guarantee long-term returns to utilities.


Thus, one wonders how competitive the efforts will be to build the two nuclear plants, abandoned earlier this year by Germany’s E.ON and RWE, the two utilities that are selling the project.

The two nuclear stations in Oldbury-on-Severn, England and Wylfa, Wales are an important part of the government’s nuclear ambitions. Together, using several reactors, they would provide about 6 gigawatts of generating capacity to the country by 2025, replacing old reactors in the same areas.

Horizon has “conventional” nuclear written all over it. Nothing suggests that bidders or the government have anything in mind at Oldbury or Wylfa other than uranium fuelled, water-cooled reactors, even if they are the improved, modern “passive cooling” versions.

As evidenced by the low bidding volume, interest is low in carrying on with convention.

Wouldn’t the UK be wise to declare Oldbury, Wylfa, or some place like them, as a testing ground for alternative nuclear?  If the big money isn’t rushing in to build the big plants based on the old ways, why not try something refreshing like, liquid thorium fuel in a molten salt cooled reactor? Start small – thorium molten salt reactors can be deployed in “modular” sizes of, say 200 megawatts, that would defer large upfront costs.

The benefits don’t stop there. Thorium MSRs can’t melt down, because they have failsafe freeze plugs that give way and allow fuel to drain safely away into tanks in the unlikely event of a problem. They operate at safe, normal atmospheric pressure, not at the highly pressurized levels of many conventional reactors. They function more efficiently than conventional reactors, in part because they can run safely at much higher temperatures. They leave less waste. To some debatable extent they also mitigate weapons proliferation risks (comments, please!).


As noted in a recent post here (below), a new report by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) downplays thorium. It acknowledges the potential benefits, but points out that utilities simply won’t invest the money to develop technologies that optimize the fuel.

“Since the energy market is driven by private investment and with none of the utility companies investing or currently developing either thorium fuels or thorium fuelled reactor concepts, it is clear that there is little appetite or belief in the safety or performance claim,” DECC concluded.

Well, wake up and smell the spent fuel! Given the lacklustre bidding response at Horizon, you could equally say that investors have little taste for the performance of conventional nuclear.

So why not change? Why continue to bang one’s head against the same old reactor walls that line the fortresses of the status quo?

When I think of alternative versus conventional nuclear, comparisons to the world of new media and information technology automatically spring to mind.

I can’t help but recall how a guy named Jobs once implored the world to, in his words, “think different” and adopt a superior way of computing (replete with an Apple ad campaign picturing iconic individuals who transformed art, science and politics – clues in last paragraph).

It’s time for nuclear to do the same.

That’s enough from me for the moment. I’m going to go put on a MIles Davis record and flip through some old clippings of Martin Luther King’s great speech.

Photo: via Wikimedia

France and China backtrack on UK’s Horizon

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on October 2nd, 2012

Areva and China’s CGNCP walk out of Horizon – only Hitachi and Westinghouse left in the bid as UK nuclear build hangs in the balance

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