Jan 9, 2012
MIT students have a lot of resources available to them if they want to start a new company. In fact, many do so while still students. One such example is Transatomic Power. Two nuclear engineering graduate students have applied some of their research and PhD work to develop a new nuclear reactor design. They have created a company, Transatomic Power, to help license and deploy it.
A key distinguishing feature of their design is that it is considered to be “walk away” safe. No operation or active staffing is required for the reactor to remain cool and avoid a meltdown, even in the event of an emergency. Additionally, the Transatomic design, modified from a molten salt reactor originally developed in the 1950s and 1960s, uses the nuclear waste from traditional reactor designs as its fuel and it can be installed at existing nuclear plants. Think of it as a trash compactor that not only gets rid of waste that is toxic and hard to dispose of, but powers the whole house too, and then some.
In mid November I had the chance to catch up with the founders of Transatomic Power, nuclear engineering grad students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, for an hour to discuss their startup and what it is like being involved in entrepreneurship at MIT:
Q: In several sentences, what is Transatomic trying to accomplish?
Leslie: Transatomic is trying to solve the nuclear waste problem. There is an enormous amount of nuclear waste being produced in the United States each year – 2,000 metric tons – and 9,000 metric tons worldwide. What our reactor does is consume this nuclear waste while producing electricity. We can take that [existing] waste, put it into our reactors, and use it to produce enough electricity to power the world for 72 years and that’s even taking into account increased electricity demand.
Q: What resources at MIT have enabled you to get where are you now?
Leslie: We have been closely working with VMS [MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service] since April this year and they have been immensely helpful in giving us guidance, making connections and [developing] expertise. Our engineering training did not give us the business skills that VMS helped teach us. VMS’s guidance has been the difference between night and day for us.
Q: Why nuclear?
Mark: To address climate change, nuclear is really the only major option that we have right now for producing large scale, low carbon electricity. Nuclear is “baseload electricity”: 24 hours of the same electricity guaranteed, rain, wind or snow.
Q: What about other Cleantech energy sources such as wind, solar, or hydroelectric?
Mark: Winds die down, the sun sets, and hydroelectric power is site specific and it has largely reached its capacity. If you want to replace fossil fuel power plants on a large scale to make significant cuts to carbon emissions, nuclear is the only option for the foreseeable future.
Q: You recently gave a Tedx New England talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAFWeIp8JT0), now that you are starting to promote your ideas about nuclear energy to a wider audience. What was going to Tedx like and tell us about that experience.
Leslie: It was a great experience hearing about cross-disciplinary work so different from our own. We also made a lot of useful connections there. Our talk is starting to get more publicity and we’re excited about the opportunity to share our ideas with a broader audience. It was phenonemal to see people supporting these new nuclear ideas.
Q: What is Fukushima’s impact on the nuclear outlook?
Leslie: It has certainly had a directly chilling effect on some countries, like Italy and Germany, which are looking to get rid of nuclear entirely. But we think overall it may signal a change in the discussion of nuclear power. We think that there are some countries like France, Japan, China who will not be able to abandon nuclear power because they have no other way of getting electricity to fuel their countries, especially clean electricity. Japan does not have the resources for coal and natural gas plants either.
Mark: Fukushima also highlighted the immense liability of nuclear waste. Since no country has a repository for commercial spent fuel, all the waste is still sitting right beside the reactors that produced it.
How do you like MIT’s entrepreneurship culture?
Leslie: I love the culture here at MIT. I was at MIT for undergrad as well and it was not until recently that I realized that other universities did not have the same culture. At MIT it is perfectly normal to ask a friend what they are up to, and they are working on a startup, and having this startup culture here makes it feel more possible to do something with your own work…it lowers the activation energy, so to speak!
What is Transatomic’s current status?
Leslie: We incorporated the company back in April 2011 and filed patents on our technology. Mark and I own the intellectual property entirely, so that will make it easier for us to license the technology in the future. Right now we are starting our first round of fund raising, and we are looking to raise about 8 million dollars to reach our first set of milestones, which would allow us to develop a conceptual design for the plant. We need to hire a team of about 15 engineers working for about a year and a half to get the design fleshed out. We know from our proof of concept designs that [our design] is safe and works but we need the additional engineering talent to more specifically determine the implementation, because these are big plants. The reactor core itself is 3 meters in diameter, and determining the precise geometries that will enable it to be efficient take a lot of time, work, and talent.
Where do you envision Transatomic’s reactor being deployed?
Leslie: Since it is a small modular reactor it is compact enough to be built on the sites of existing nuclear power plants. It is an on-site waste disposal system that also adds a lot more additional power to the grid.
What is the single biggest obstacle you see for Transatomic to get off the ground?
Mark: Doing new things in the nuclear industry is very hard. The regulatory structure in the United States is entirely based on the types of reactors that we use right now, light water reactors, whereas this is a molten salt reactor. So in order to get regulatory approval you have to completely rewrite the regulatory playbook.
Leslie: Molten fluoride salts have been used for decades and decades in the aluminum refining industry so there is a great deal of experience in handling molten salts and running industrial processes with them, so that itself is not a major issue.
What has the biggest obstacle for the nuclear industry in general?
Leslie: I think the biggest obstacle is public perception of nuclear safety and waste disposal problems. We think that the new nuclear technology that has been developed over the past few years, including Transatomic’s and innovations in passively safe nuclear reactors, will help solve these problems and change the public perception. We think it is possible to make environmentally sound nuclear power and we need to show the public this is possible.
Mark: Even though older reactors have some design flaws that have been corrected, public perception of nuclear safety does not reflect the reality of nuclear safety. The most recent example, Fukushima, has people terrified of nuclear power but there have been no radiation related deaths because of what happened and there likely aren’t going to be.
Mark and Leslie can be contacted at email@example.com