The benefits of nuclear energy—dispatchable power with zero emissions (excluding emissions from uranium mining)—are desperately needed in a world facing climate change. The disadvantages of nuclear energy are also great. The old light-water reactors that serve America’s grid today create nuclear waste that’s politically impossible to dispose of. Nuclear plants with traditional reactors are also extremely expensive to build and difficult to permit.
For these reasons, many nuclear hopefuls have looked to advanced nuclear technology. Several startups have popped up, promising to make either the waste problem or the expense problem go away.
This week, two advanced nuclear-technology startups have announced major news, both good and bad for the future of advanced nuclear technology.
Closing up shop
The bad news first: nuclear startup Transatomic is going to close down, according to . Several years ago, the startup raised millions on promises to use spent nuclear waste as reactor fuel, as well as to “generate electricity 75 times more efficiently than conventional light-water reactors,” according to . The company later retracted that “75 times” claim after a review from MIT’s Nuclear Engineering Department found issue with it.
Instead, Transatomic revised its estimates in 2016 to say that its reactor would be able to generate more than two times as much energy per ton of mined uranium than a standard reactor.
The company’s design to use spent nuclear-reactor fuel in a molten salt reactor was also called into question, causing Transatomic to state in its 2016 revision that its design “does not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel.”
The lost confidence made it harder for Transatomic to find funding to complete the $15 million it needed to build a prototype reactor, though it had raised about $4 million already.
Leslie Dewan, Transatomic’s CEO and co-founder, told that “the company’s designs still provide significant advantages over conventional reactors, including far less waste generation and improved safety.” Dewan promised that Transatomic “will open-source all its intellectual property, making it available for other researchers to ‘continue the work that we’ve started and hopefully build on it.'”
Onward to manufacturing
The better news in nuclear technology this week comes from a company called NuScale Power, based out of Portland, Oregon. That company issued a press release today saying that, after 18 months of searching, it has selected manufacturing company BWX Technologies to begin engineering work that will lead to manufacturing the company’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) design.
Phase 1 engineering and manufacturing begins today and will last until 2020, NuScale wrote, and then Phases 2 and 3—”preparing for fabrication” and “fabrication,” respectively—will continue from there.
According to Idaho Falls’ Local 8 News, NuScale’s first customer will be Utah’s Associated Municipal Power Systems, which will deploy a 60MW light-water reactor west of Idaho Falls for use in “electrical generation, district heating, desalination, and process heat applications.” The company expects NuScale to deliver its first SMR reactor in the mid-2020s.
That timeline may be possible due to the fact that NuScale’s reactor designs have already received stage-one approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a six-stage process. ( notes that the first stage of the NRC’s approval process is the most arduous and usually takes longer than the five remaining stages combined.)
Small Modular Reactors don’t solve the nuclear-waste problem mentioned at the top of this article, but in theory, they might solve nuclear energy’s expense problem. Building smaller reactors that can be modularly expanded if necessary could not only keep siting, construction, and regulatory costs proportionally lower, but using the same manufacturing and construction crews to build more, smaller reactors would theoretically develop a workforce with expertise in building and installing reactors.