In Washington, DC, the Third Way, a think tank, hosted a meeting of some of the country’s best thinkers, leaders, funders, and doers in the field of development advanced reactors. Cheerleading is helpful, but the proof will be in federal funding for reactor R&D and regulatory reform at the NRC.
In Cambridge, MA, Transatomic, a startup, is now making a list of lessons learned following publication of a critical review of the firm’s reactor design. One of the lessons is that other start-ups with audacious claims are likely to receive similar levels of scrutiny.
Third Way Showcases Year of Progress on Advanced Reactors
Every year the Third Way, a multi-faceted think tank in Washington, DC, holds an annual showcase on advanced nuclear reactors. It draws a national who’s who of people working in this area including technology leaders, national lab scientists, elected officials, and investors. The entire event is live streamed end-to-end and the individuals sessions are also archived, along with a complete video of the proceedings, on YouTube.
While a lot of cheerleading goes on at the meeting, it is also a serious conference with a lot of different points of view that range from how to innovate to why the nuclear industry is doing it wrong in promoting its value to the American people. One of the best sessions is about what’s next in terms of collaboration between developers, investors, and the government. One session was ominously titled “Innovate or Die.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an inside the beltway trade association for the commercial nuclear industry, is a participant in the meeting and its public affairs team posted some highlights of the discussions on their website. Here are a few of them.
>> Third Way board member Rachel Pritzker identified three main strands in favor of moving the nuclear industry into a technological future: global competitiveness and jobs; regaining the United States’ global leadership for security; and the need to meet the planet’s burgeoning future energy demand.
>> The U.S. Department of Energy’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative gives private entrepreneurs access to the expertise in DOE’s system of national laboratories.
“GAIN’s mission is to make sure innovative nuclear technologies get to market faster,” GAIN Director Rita Baranwal said. “GAIN is already making a difference in bringing the national labs’ capabilities to innovators. We have awarded $2 million in vouchers to small companies, and have just announced the availability of a second round of awards, opening March 13.”
>> NuScale Power LLC, the furthest ahead of several companies working in advanced reactor innovation, on Dec. 31 last year submitted its application asking the NRC to certify its small modular reactor (SMR) design.
>> Caroline Cochran, founder and chief operating officer of advanced reactor startup Oklo Inc., said her company has had a good experience working with GAIN, having been one of the first recipients of the initiative’s small business vouchers.
Oklo is a Silicon Valley-based company that is developing a two-megawatt “micro-reactor” that could bring electricity to remote, rural native communities or military bases. The company is now working with Argonne and Idaho national laboratories on different aspects of their development process.
>> Micah Hackett, manager of materials development at TerraPower LLC, noted that even a much larger company like his, with wealthy investors and 150 full-time employees, does not have the full set of skills needed in-house. TerraPower has leveraged the knowledge base of a group of vendors and suppliers with which it has partnered—including the federal government.
>> INL Director Mark Peters said that GAIN was established not only for early-stage R&D and as a demonstration platform for first-of-a-kind innovators like NuScale, but also to push for progressive deployment.
“Right now we’re at a tipping point. Advanced reactors have an opportunity to leapfrog our overseas competitors, using the advantage of our national labs and universities, which are still the best in the world,” Peters said.
What is unclear is whether the new Trump Administration, and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, will support advanced nuclear energy R&D. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the nominee to head the Department of Energy, once called for it to be abolished.
It also became painfully clear, at least initially, that he had no idea what the agency does. It is going to take more than a few 3-ring binders of briefing books to close that gap.
In a riveting and frightening appraisal of his shortcomings for doing the job, a piece by Huffington Post writer Dominique Mosbergen lists eight compelling reasons to worry about his abilities to meet the challenges of the position.
Meanwhile, the priorities of the Trump White House appears to be to conduct a running war with the national news media over issues large and small, but which have nothing to do with energy policy and climate change. It is not a hopeful outlook, at least for now.
Transatomic Revises Technology Statements About Its Advanced Reactor Design
In a February 24 article by energy editor James Temple, the publication said, “Nuclear energy startup Transatomic Power has backed away from bold claims for its advanced reactor technology after an informal review by MIT professors highlighted serious errors in the company’s calculations”
The firm, which has been widely cited as being part of the bow wave of nuclear energy entrepreneurs, got its start in 2011 when two MIT PhDs said they could design a nuclear reactor, based on a molten salt fuel, that could run on spent nuclear fuel from conventional reactors.
The firm also said in white papers and other technical publications that its reactor “can generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor.”
These audacious claims helped the firm raise millions in venture capital and gain top drawer technical advisers as well as glowing media profiles. However, audacious claims require similar levels of proof.
In November 2016 the firm posted a new white paper that company downgraded performance levels from “75 times” to “more than twice.”
It says that the design “does not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel,” nor use them as its fuel source. MIT Technology Review’s article makes the point that the promise of recycling nuclear waste “was a key initial promise of the company that captured considerable attention.”
It is a major retreat from the firm’s initial published findings. The MIT Technology Review article will also have industry-wide impacts. It may have the the effect of putting other nuclear energy entrepreneurs on notice that they too may get the same enhanced levels of analysis of their claims.
For its part Transatomic said it realized there was a problem in 2016, which is five years after its work got underway.
According to MIT Technology Review, the changes in 2016 by Transatomics to its claims about performance of its reactor design followed an analysis in late 2015 by Kord Smith, a nuclear science and engineering professor at MIT and an expert in the physics of nuclear reactors.
His review was prompted by concerns about the validity and credibility of Transatomic’s claims since the firm had an R&D relationship with the university.
His starting point uses an analogy which says that promising to increase the reactor’s fuel efficiency by 75 times is the rough equivalent of saying that a firm had developed a car that could get 2,500 miles per gallon.
“I said this is obviously incorrect based on basic physics,” Smith told MIT Technology Review. He asked the company to run a test, which ended up confirming that “their claims were completely untrue,” Smith said.
One positive note is that the new white paper claims the reactor could reduce waste by 53 percent compared to light-water reactors. The viability of the latter finding was recently verified by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
But the analysis found the reactor couldn’t sustain a fission chain reaction long enough using spent fuel for it to be a feasible option, as previously hoped, Dewan said in a subsequent phone interview with the magazine.
This is a very tough experience for Transatomic’s young, idealistic, and ambitious principals. Transatomic has now pushed back its plans to build a prototype reactor by at least a year.
“We certainly have a long road ahead of us,” she said, noting technical, engineering, supply chain, and regulatory challenges. “But I think that momentum is on our side.”
Transatomic’s mistake is not that it sought to deceive its backers with false claims, but that it got ahead of its own headlights in terms of validating the technical results of its research.
With a “rock star” technical advisory committee, as it is described by the magazine, maybe Transatomic’s principals should have gotten them more engaged much earlier in looking at the products of their R&D work.
Inexperience and overconfidence are common faults of many startups, and being called out for these missteps is not necessarily fatal to the enterprise.
MIT Technology Review points out in its article that the company has raised at least $4.5 million from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Acadia Woods Partners, and Daniel Aegerter of Armada Investment AG. Venture capital veteran Ray Rothrock serves as chairman of the company. For now they are sticking with Transatomic.
“We invested in Transatomic because of their reactor’s passively safe design and dramatically reduced costs and waste,” Scott Nolan, partner at Founders Fund, said in a statement.
Rothrock said in an e-mail response to the magazine: “I remain committed to Transatomic’s mission and plan. The world needs more nuclear power. And while we are still early days for [Transatomic Power], I’m encouraged [by the] results so far.”
Dewan acknowledged in an email to the magazine it should have sought peer review or other forms of hard feedback earlier.
“In retrospect, that was a mistake of mine,” she said during the phone interview. “We should have open-published more of our information at a far earlier stage.”