When digital entrepreneurs go nuclear, literally

Nucleon, once under development by Ford

Nucleon, nuclear power car, once under development by Ford

When greentech investing was in sort of a bubble in 2007/2008, it wasn’t all that uncommon for a former web or computing entrepreneur to take on a crazy dream in the energy sector. But now, after the recession and a difficult year for greentech, it’s quite a bit less common. However that’s not stopping entrepreneur Russ Wilcox who is the former CEO and co-founder of display-maker E Ink, and according to Boston.com, has just joined next-gen nuclear startup Transatomic Power as its CEO.

Transatomic Power is a startup designing a new type of nuclear reactor that can run off of nuclear waste and also produce significantly less waste than the traditional lightwater nuclear reactor. Called the “Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor” or “WAMSR,” the reactor uses liquid fuel and molten salt — in contrast to solid fuel rods — and also has a more safe way to power down the system than a traditional lightwater nuclear reactor.

Happy, low waste, nuclear

In a TED talk video (see clip below) Transatomic co-founders Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie — both PhD students at MIT’s nuclear engineering department — point out how there’s been little innovation in the nuclear tech space over the years, partly because it’s hard for nuclear developers to adopt new technology in a world dominated by the lightwater nuclear reactor. Another reason for some slow periods of nuclear innovation was the nuclear incidents, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (and probably add Fukushima to that list).

However, decades ago, there was a brief era of innovation for nuclear in the U.S., says Massie, who showed a slide of a nuclear powered automobile once under development by Ford called the Nucleon. Nowadays, though, new nuclear technology will likely be deployed first outside of the U.S., particularly in China, where there are dozens of new nuclear sites proposed and under development.

Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor

Transatomic is only in the early stages of research and development. The company has raised less than a million dollars to start work on a prototype. Building full scale nuclear reactors can cost in the hundreds of millions to billions range.

Partly because of the high costs, and also because of the long time tables, there’s only a handful of new nuclear startups out there, and most focus on waste and safety says Dewan. TerraPower is a Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures-backed nuclear startup building a so-called traveling wave nuclear reactor that can also use waste fuel for fuel. Kurion is a startup developing nuclear waste cleanup tech; Hyperion is a startup developing a micro-scale nuclear reactor; and NuScale is another startup building small scale nuclear power.

Most next-gen nuclear technology is being developed by scientists and old-school power execs. But some former web and computing entrepreneurs have found their way to nuclear. Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures’ Nathan Myhrvold made their fortunes off of Microsoft. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has invested in nuclear fusion startup General Fusion. Perhaps the fortunes made off of computing and the web will be large enough to spark innovation in nuclear.

Images courtesy of Transatomic’s TED talk.

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