Start Up Ventures Shake Up Nuclear Tech

Lately start up companies in the energy sector have concentrated mostly on "renewables" like solar and geothermal for home use, and most talk about meeting the world’s ever-growing energy needs has focused on these areas as well. Innovation in nuclear power in the private sector, has remained more stagnant for many years, and there have been few new nuclear plants opened in the past couple of decades. This may be changing as many people are now entering the field of nuclear energy, and they have new ideas that may be able to reinvigorate the industry.

There are dozens of startup companies currently trying to transform nuclear power. Although there are plenty of challenges facing these firms, such as the difficulty of attracting funding and a strict regulatory environment, they have the potential to disrupt the existing market for nuclear power. After all, Google was once a startup and disrupted the world of online search in less than a decade. SpaceX is another great example: Its present success and ambitious future plans have captured the imaginations of spaceflight enthusiasts and the general public alike.

TerraPower is one of these new companies looking to change the way nuclear power is generated. Having secured investments from Bill Gates among others after being spun off from Intellectual Ventures, it is now working on a way to use waste generated by traditional nuclear plants as a source material for its own reactors. TerraPower has its eye on something called a traveling-wave reactor, which can use depleted uranium-238, produced as a waste product by standard light-water reactors, as a power source. The advantages of this tech are that it can clean up the mess generated by other nuclear energy facilities and can even reuse its own spent fuel to extract more energy from it.

Transatomic Power, founded by graduates of MIT, is also moving forward with its plans for molten-salt reactors and has garnered $4.5 million in funding. Molten-salt reactors have been experimented with in the past, including at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but there hasn't been much advancement in design for many years. This type of reactor consumes fuel discarded by other means of nuclear power generation. Transatomic Power claims that molten-salt reactors are safer than the typical light-water reactor because they'll automatically shut down in the event of losing electric power even if nobody is physically present at the location. Furthermore, salt-water facilities could operate at normal pressures, unlike the typical high pressures commonly found in other reactor designs.

Key to the plans of these and other firms is the development of new materials and techniques. Just as solar power has boomed in large part due to a reduction in the cost of photovoltaic cells, so too must nuclear power enterprises work to come up with innovative materials. Rockbestos Suprenant Cable Company and AFL Global are two of the businesses that produce specialized materials designed to withstand the extreme environments inside nuclear power plants. The two organizations have partnered to make fiber optic cables that are resistant to radiation and flame retardant.

If nuclear power is to remain viable in the future, then it will have to keep up with the overall technical progress occurring with other forms of power generation. New startups backed by investors with deep pockets could bring game-changing advances to the field, although it may take decades before anyone putting money into these newfangled designs sees a return on their investment. Nuclear power could pay off in the long run especially if new reactors are able to process the waste products of older plants, leading to a nearly waste-free, weather-independent, renewable energy source.