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Advanced nuclear startup Transatomic shuts down, open-sources tech


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Advanced nuclear startup Transatomic shuts down, open-sources tech

More than a year after Transatomic Power Corp. withdrew claims that its molten salt reactor design could run on spent nuclear fuel, the U.S. advanced nuclear startup is suspending operations and making public its intellectual property for others to carry on its technology.

In a Sept. 25 online post, Transatomic Power CEO Leslie Dewan announced the end of the road for the visionary nuclear development company that she co-founded in 2011 with fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology nuclear engineering graduate Mark Massie.

Chaired by venture capitalist Ray Rothrock, Cambridge, Mass.-based Transatomic had originally promised to deliver new nuclear technology that could reuse nuclear waste from existing nuclear power plants. In February 2017, the company had to walk back the design's capability to run on spent fuel after a review of its original analyses by a MIT professor in late 2016 and a study by the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in early 2017 debunked the claim.

"This was a hard moment both for the company and for me personally," wrote Dewan. "I started Transatomic specifically because I wanted to address the nuclear waste problem."

Despite dropping its key selling point, Transatomic aimed to create a prototype reactor, which would use molten fluoride salt as its coolant and as the carrier for its liquid fuel, by the mid-2020s. Unlike existing light-water reactors, Transtomic's 520-MW molten salt reactor would operate at atmospheric pressures with the aid of passive safety valves and gravity, eliminating the need for huge containment structures, and would not need external power to shut down and cool its fuel in the event of an accident, thus posing no risk of a meltdown. The concept reactor would also produce less than half the waste of conventional reactors and possibly make nuclear generation more economical than fossil fuel-fired plants.

As of February 2017, when Transatomic acknowledged the mistakes of its original calculations, the company had raised at least $4.5 million from investors, including Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, to build the estimated $2 billion reactor design.

The DOE also had awarded Transatomic $200,000 in 2016 to conduct research and development with national labs through the agency's newly established Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear initiative. In June 2017, the DOE awarded the company vouchers to pursue its fuel salt characterization study, in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory.

"However, despite our best efforts, we haven't been able to scale up the company rapidly enough to build our reactor in a reasonable timeframe," Dewan said. "We will therefore be open-sourcing our intellectual property, making it available for any researchers — private, public or non-profit — who want to continue the work we've started."

Transatomic is currently in discussions with the GAIN initiative to ensure that the ill-fated startup's work remains accessible to the public and to the advanced reactor community as a whole, said Dewan. She urged the advanced nuclear sector to keep fighting for emissions-free nuclear energy and striving for innovation.

"Above all, keep believing in the power of technology to improve lives, unlock creativity and protect our planet," said Dewan.