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Nuclear startup Transatomic Power scores seed funding from Founders Fund

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Science is becoming cool again in Silicon Valley and that means the reemergence of funds from Silicon Valley for “tough problems” like energy innovation, though at a much smaller level than the cleantech boom of years past. On Tuesday, nuclear startup Transatomic Power announced that it has closed a seed round of $2 million from the Founders Fund’s newly-launched science-focused fund FF Science.

The Founders Fund is the firm behind some of the more successful Internet startups out there including Facebook, Yammer and Spotify, but also some science-focused companies such as Climate Corporation, Space-X and satellite startup Planet Labs. The fund, which was created by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and his partners, promotes this manifesto: “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

A close up Transatomic Power's nuclear reactor design, image courtesy of Transatomic.
A close up Transatomic Power’s nuclear reactor design, image courtesy of Transatomic.

Transatomic Power was founded in 2011 by MIT nuclear scientists Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, and the company is at the early stage of developing a molten salt nuclear reactor, which can use nuclear waste as a power source. Molten salt reactors were first developed at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in the 1950s and 60s, but Dewan and Massie have developed created new designs, and new materials for the older tech.

Dewan tells me in an interview that her team will use the seed funding to run tests on key materials, particularly the salts, to study corrosion effects, and further analyze the design. “The timing is right for us in a lot of ways,” said Dewan on the Founders Fund financing. She notes that more people are starting to feel the effects of climate change, and that the conversation has around nuclear energy’s role in fighting global warming is starting to change.

Founders Fund and Transatomic connected through a couple sources. Founder’s Fund Chief Scientist Aaron VanDevender is a former MIT grad, and Transatomic advisor Ray Rothrock is also a longtime Valley venture capitalist. Transatomic is one of the first investments from FF Science.

For several years now venture capitalists have shied away from making large energy technology bets, in the wake of some weak returns and high-profile bankruptcies from companies like Solyndra and Fisker Automotive. But there have been some big successes, too, like Tesla Motors, SolarCity, Opower and others.

While I wouldn’t expect the same level of investing from Silicon Valley in energy as happened during the cleantech years, it’s promising to see some of these well-established early stage firms make some of these riskier bets.

22 Responses to “Nuclear startup Transatomic Power scores seed funding from Founders Fund”

  1. It’s too bad that Leslie has felt the need to pump “climate change” (that’s the new,
    fuzzy headed and meaningless way of avoiding “global warming,” since there ain’t been
    none for the past 17 years or so). But, to get funding with this govt, you need to shed
    crocodile tears and pretend climate change to be important, even if it is non-existent.
    She also has this commercially-motivated bad habit of misleading her audience as to the
    safety of current light water reactor designs, all to make her design seem so much safer.
    The facts are that light water reactors, which have been safely operating for the past 50 years, are now deploying Gen 3 designs, which the conservative NRC estimates as 1000 times safer than the previous Gen 2 designs.
    For example, she mentions the 72 hour passive safety time interval of the Westinghouse AP1000 and points out that this may not be enough for safety teams to provide a couple of garden hoses to replenish the cooling container. That is totally absurd, especially given the recent advent of to emergency nuclear safety centers that can reach any reactor in a matter of hours. She has overplayed her hand and loses credibility for no reason – her company’s reactor design has abundent advantages of cost, scalability, load following capability, and endurance. Her biggest enthusiasm, however, is for the ability of her company’s reactor to consume nuclear wastes ,which she appropriately deems SNF (spent nuclear fuel).
    Here her company’s reactor is in direct competition with fast reactors, which can also
    be fueled by nuclear wastes. She has some negative remarks about that competitive
    design as well, although there are currently fast reactors in the field, some connected to the grid, and they’ve been around for a very long time. Nevertheless, her company’s design
    seem to be easily the superior of the two. In fact, if the design pans out as she invisions,
    there seems to be nothing out there that could successfully compete against it. Her
    company’s design is better not because it is safer – current reactors are so safe it’s downright ridiculous – but because they make a lot of economic sense, assuming
    the materials can endure for the 60 plus years of modern light water reactors.
    In talking about the world’s supply of nuclear fuel, Dewan points out that her reactors could supply all the power we need for at least 4000 years using conventionally
    mined uranium (they also can burn Thorium, although Thorium burning involves
    proliferation risks), she neglected to note that the oceans are full of uranium, which can be extracted at a price that makes the fuel cheaper than the current fuel costs paid by light water reactors if burned in a molten salt reactor. That uranium source is available to
    practically every country and is, for all intents and purposes, as inexhaustable as sunlight.

  2. Gasoholic

    If the grid is down for an extended period of time, and they run out of backup generator fuel, is the reaction such that it will shut down by itself and not melt down without cooling?

    Or does this have the same inherent weaknesses as all current nuclear plants?

    • @Gasoholic It’s the opposite, the reaction must be kept going and if the grid goes down and the generators stop, the reaction slows down and stops and turns solid.

    • The analogy I have used with people for the Thorium based nuclear reactors is that it that the continual neutron bombardment is similar to building an incinerator which requires an external electric fan in order to provide enough oxygen for combustion. If there is a reactor failure the lack of neutron bombardment means the nuclear reactions stop after a time, just as the fire in the incinerator will go out when the fan stops running.

      This design produces power not fissionable material, and producing fissionable material I think WAS a significant design consideration in the 40’s through 60’s.

  3. Roger Blomquist

    There are five other major advanced reactor (Generation IV) concepts being evaluated in various countries. This reactor concept is only one of them.

  4. I’d love it if they start hiring some people, but the major OEM’s have all looked at molten salt before and not gone with it. It isn’t a new idea and there is no reason to think it is suddenly viable.

  5. Andrew Dodson

    Money is not the barrier to better forms of nuclear power. The Transatomic idea has been known by molten salt reactor folks for decades.

    The Nuclear Regulatory Comission and the Department of Energy are the main barriers to nuclear innovation. You can continue to give Transatomic money, but you will never get a reactor built until you remove the idiots that are running our energy policy.

  6. “more people are starting to feel the effects of climate change…”

    Ridiculous comment. Really? People are feeling the 1.5 degree change in temperature over 150 years?

    I’m a big believer in Thiel. But Leslie justifying her work based on climate change, that worries me.

    • Martin Kral

      Nuclear should not be position as a solution to climate change. Nuclear should always be position as a solution for the most efficient energy source available on earth.

  7. Interesting. As a senior in Chemical Engineering at Auburn in 1952 I had an opportunity to take a position in the liquid salt development at Oak Ridge. Ended up at a Phillips refinery in Texas. Often wondered what had happened to the liquid salt development. I guess the answer is nothing, for sixty years….