Challenging established paradigms in one of the world’s largest industries
Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, the co-founders of Transatomic, are striving to make a difference in the world. They want to bring power and light to those who do not have it and they want to show a way to turn “waste” into valuable fuel.
In this Fast Company Freethink production, Dewan shares her inspirations and talks about the scale of the challenges she, Massie and their team are facing.
It’s important for anyone who shares similar goals in life to hear the message that doing important work is “really, really hard” and that the path to success is bound to be littered with failures along the way.
The way people respond to those “failures” – which are more positively thought of as learning experiences – can be the difference between accomplishment and mere existence.
This promotional version of the message is also worth sharing and replaying when needed for encouragement.
Advanced Atomic Technologies, A reactor that can’t melt down? The IFR comes to mind. Plentiful energy is a good read, too bad the democrats shut down further research of the IFR.
‘ A reactor that can’t melt down? The IFR comes to mind. ‘
Wasn’t the Fermi 1 reactor, near Detroit, from about the same era as the IFR ? It melted a couple of fuel rods, when one of the fuel assembly coolant inlets got blocked. It wasn’t quite the same technology, but both were metal fuelled and sodium cooled. Also not nearly as serious as Three Mile Island, but it’s probably bad karma to be too certain how idiot-proof your reactor is, when there’s not much experience with it – a bit like calling the Titanic ‘ unsinkable ‘.
Let’s face it any source of energy can be dangerous, the IFR was the safest form and IMO we were on the right track. The media and politicians pounce on anything nuclear yet cars catch fire houses explode and burn people every day. Look at the media propaganda after the bombs dropped in Japan and the Fukushima/Chernobyl accident hype.The media spread falsehoods left and right, then we read the reports later to find much of their predictions were false. Either way we’ll never know how good the IFR is since they shut down the further research. 🙁
South Korea has a fast reactor project based on the IFR’s design – pool type reactor vessel, sodium coolant, metal fuel – but they have political pressure from the US slowing their deployment. Russia and India’s FR programmes also talk about eventually moving to metal fuel, and they don’t have the same constraints. I’m sure they’ve all read ‘ Plentiful Energy ‘ too, as the Chinese will have, and have forgotten more about the subject than I’ll ever know, so what’s holding them up ?
All I can say is it’s politics. If the politicians didn’t stand in the way we’d have a energy industrial revolution. Cheap power for the world.
Yeah right. The large multinational corporations, unfettered, would gift us all with massive savings and unlimited energy.
Maybe on Mars. Wise up, Dan.
“Russia and India’s FR programmes also talk about eventually moving to metal fuel”
Russia bets on nitride fuel. The metal fuel is too hard to control.
Interesting that Leslie Dewan is silent on the error she made a few years ago though she talks eloquently about learning from failure:
This article states in part:
“In a white paper published in March 2014, the company proclaimed its reactor ‘can generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor.'”
“But in a paper on its site dated November 2016, the company downgraded ’75 times’ to ‘more than twice.’ In addition, it now specifies that the design ‘does not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel’ or use them as its fuel source.”
Apparently independent verification of nuclear-related calculations was not a part of the paradigm of Ms Dewan’s company. If that has changed, then why not mention it in the “Learning from failure” video?
Speaking as a former member of a nuclear plant design firm, verification isn’t necessarily done for preliminary designs.
Sure, before you submit anything for regulatory review, you spend the time and money for a complete verification review. Especially for a tiny startup, there may be higher spending priorities.
Besides – how do you know it was Leslie’s error? She is the CEO, but most likely isn’t the only one making detailed engineering design calcs.
Side Issue – but related
Natural gas is cheap. Natural gas power plants cost less to build and operate than nuclear plants. I have thought that this would be temporary. I have believed in peak oil. Like the money in my wallet, the supply of oil and gas in the Earth appeared to be finite. I have thought that once the price of “fossil” fuels go back up that nuclear power would be an obvious choice and the path of nuclear progress would continue.
Recently, my forays into the web led me to tales that “fossil” fuels do not originate from biological sources. (At least oil and gas) I think Rod did a post or two on this in the past, but I do not read every post. Is there some merit to the earth continually generating more oil or is this more hooey?
Ms Dewan can design the best reactor in the world, but if the need may be supplied forever by less expensive hydrocarbon burning plants, it may never be built, despite the cries about global warming.
I apologize for the deviation from the main subject.
Leslie failed to seek out criticisms of her IMSR from the group of Scientists and Engineers who were planning to build MSRs in 2014. This was a serious mistake, because they could have pointed out problems with Leslie’s and Mark’s design. Not only did the TAP reactor fail to breed at the ratio that Leslie and Mark theorized, but there was a serious problem with their moderation scheme. The Zirconium hydride moderator required an exotic alloy to protect the moderator from being disolved by the carrier salt, but the exotic alloy was unlikely to work in practice leading to the Zirconium being disolved in the carrier salt. If asked, the Energy from Thorium crowd could have provided Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie with detailed descriptions of some of the problems their plan might cause.
Every innovator can find overwhelming evidence that their designs will never work. Anyone who is truly an expert and original thinker cannot just keep seeking more critics. That’s especially true for an entrepreneurial team aiming to develop a profitable and sustainable business.
Part of being a successful entrepreneur is being willing to make mistakes, some of which might be embarrassing.
Part of being a successful inventor is inventing something that works.
Sure it is. But the process of getting to something that works often involves numerous attempts that don’t work or don’t work very well.
I didn’t see how they expected to get their claimed neutron economy with a mainly-protium moderator either. I would have aimed for something like Li-7 deuteride.
Rod, it is wise for innovators to seek out knowledge from those who know.
What Charles Barton writes is my point. Further, I agree with the statement Charles responds to:
“Part of being a successful entrepreneur is being willing to make mistakes, some of which might be embarrassing.”
Therefore, I find it curious that not only did Ms Dewan not seek out advice from other innovators before going public with a bold claim; she also is silent about the very mistakes she made while she opines about learning from failure in the second video. And yes, the buck stops at the head of the company. Whether she did the wrong calculation or not is irrelevant.
The problem isn’t that she made a mistake. We all do. The problem is that she didn’t get an independent review before going public with her claim that her design would produce “75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor.” Does this have to be an independent review per 10 CFR 50 Appendix B? No, of course not. Kord Smith, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, called it a “peer review,” much less rigorous that an 10 CFR 50 Appendix B independent review. Nevertheless, even a peer review by colleagues at MIT would have sufficed. Even “Dewan says the company retains the faith of its investors, but she acknowledges it should have sought peer review or other forms of hard feedback earlier. ” See here:
Why not say that in the video? Why not say, “Hey, folks, we made a big mistake and it cost us in mightily the public eye. So learn from your mistakes and do not do as we did. Get your calcs independently checked before you go public.”
We all wish Ms Dewan well. But that only happens with humility, a very scarce virtue nowadays.
When I see an article about MSRs like Transatomic, ThorCon or whatever flavor of the month it is, I just attack because I know the promotors live in la-la-land. Mr. Nobody is pretty close to the issue and takes umbrage with the MIT centerfold’s (for WIN a 6 rounds up to 10) lack of humility and rigor; I completely understand his outrage. I too was rather offended when I saw her make Forbes’s 30 under 30 for promoting 60-year old tech that was shelved in favor of fuel products that actually retain fission products and protect the public. Molten salt reactors are not high tech; they are low, low tech (as low tech as a bucket of slop). These MSR reactors are profoundly simple in concept, but look around! Alas, there are none to be seen. We don’t build them for practical reasons. We could build them, but we don’t. The issue isn’t whether or not her hydride moderator is chemically or mechanically stable (which it isn’t). The issue isn’t whether or not her calculations suggest that it is a burner, converter, or a breeder (doesn’t matter). The issue is that somehow this nonstarter attained academic escape velocity and obtained some kind of legitimate status while making her a minor celebrity. The issue is that we are jealous of Ms. Dewan.
I am not fully opposed to MSR research. Only so much can be leveraged from Oak Ridge’s MSR experiment; we need a modern test reactor. The multitude of MSR groups need to consolidate (herd the cats) and push for a modest pilot plant with a cradle to grave plan for no more than several tons of fuel salt. This test reactor would enable the Leslie Dewans and Lars Jorgensens to put in an honest day’s work. Instead of promising us the world while they beg for funding, put them to work on the devil in the details. It would cost next to nothing compared to the ITER.
Here is a hint for the Dewans and Jorgensens: nobody cares about your fuel cycle.
All we care about is:
1. fission product retention
2. fission product retention
3. fission product retention
So not only do you believe that Dewan “should have” consulted with every expert she could find before going public, but that she should specifically and repeatedly, at every opportunity explain exactly what mistake or failure she is talking about?
It’s the reaction of the nukes in this case that helps to explain why we have been so painfully slow to spread new ideas and excite creative thinkers about the amazing potential of nuclear energy.
Pay attention to the public adulation Elon Musk receives even though he’s technically wrong on numerous visionary claims.
First, thank you. Second, I partly agree: “The issue is that somehow this nonstarter attained academic escape velocity and obtained some kind of legitimate status while making her a minor celebrity. The issue is that we are jealous of Ms. Dewan.”
I am not jealous of Ms. Dewan’s celebrity status. Such status holds no attraction for me. Rather, as you rightly noted I take umbrage at the “lack of humility and rigor,” and the promotion of a culture of narcissism and arrogance under the guise of enthusiasm and excitement.
I would also say that in addition to what you point out – fission product retention – utilities care about making a reasonable profit while providing their product – electricity – to the consumer. I cannot testify to the profit making capability of Dewan’s design. But this unceasing youthful enthusiasm while ignoring the lessons of the past is doomed to failure. I go back to Rickover’s paper reactor essay. Indeed, I read recently (I cannot find the web link right now) that Oak Ridge is thinking of entombing in concrete some of the rooms in which it ran the molten salt reactor experiment because there are still areas with 1000 R/hr radiation fields that cannot be cleaned up. If you can’t clean it up, then don’t build it.
PS, I also note the ecstatic delight with which these young people over the past day or so are twittering about $30 million from US DOE for advanced reactor projects, marveling at how wonderful that is. Meanwhile the previous Administration gave billions for useless worthless twirling blades and shiny mirrors while today that $30 million will be bid on once per quarter for the next five years and divided among perhaps a dozen advanced reactor designers no better and no worse than Dewan. What a pittance! The reality of economics is apparently beyond some people.
Another PS, I voted for neither the current President nor his opponent in the previous election. I just want new nukes built – safely, efficiently, effectively, economically. Starry-eyed idealists with their molten salt visions of SMR grandeur are no better than the big corporate weasels who screwed up the AP1000 PWRs at VC Summer by not carefully husbanding their funding.
I beg to differ. The “corporate weasels” have done far more serious and costly damage to the prospects for new nuclear plant construction than the enthusiastic young entrepreneurs have. If you want to talk about a failure to learn lessons from the past, it would be difficult to find a more glaring case study than the decision to start 4 FOAK AP1000s without a strong marketing program and a well planned political pressure effort.
Even if the marketing and political pressure had successfully minimized the negative actions taken by the regulator, the projects might still have been faced with costly delays caused by assuming that all of the innovative components included would work as designed without a lengthy development and operational test period. I’m specifically referring to RCPs, but there were also some unique new valves with explosive charges.
As you pointed out, $30 million is a pittance that makes the inadequate $452 million over 6 yrs SMR license support program look positively generous. However, the innovators could have done a lot with the $8.3 BILLION in taxpayer money that is at serious risk of default if the GA PUC decides Georgia ratepayers should not be solely responsible for paying the cost of completing Vogtle 3 & 4.
That project is in near term risk of cancellation. GA Power has asked the PUC to make its go-no-go decision before the end of 2017. If the project gets cancelled this year, the cancellation write off is worth an additional $150 million compared to what it would be worth under revised corporate income tax rates expected for 2018.
Nobody says, Among the commenters, in the Energy from Thorium comments on the TranAtomic Power White Paper, were several people who were in the process of developing Molten Salt Reactor manufacturing projects. They were all looking at the same problem that faced Dr. Dewan and Mark Massie and they raised questions that have never been answered by Dewan and Massie. In addition to the mistakes that Dewan and Massie acknowledged, are mistakes, that as far as we know, they have not acknowledged; even though they have been pointed out in the past.
“So not only do you believe that Dewan ‘should have’ consulted with every expert she could find before going public, but that she should specifically and repeatedly, at every opportunity explain exactly what mistake or failure she is talking about?”
I did not say Dewan should have consulted with every expert she could find before going public. I said she should have gotten her calcs independently verified (or peer reviewed if you will) as Kord Smith of MIT stated. She even later agreed with this when she acknowledged that the company she heads should have sought peer review or other forms of hard feedback earlier.
I did not state that Dewan should specifically and repeatedly, at every opportunity explain exactly what mistake or failure she is talking about. I stated that she should have said so in the 2nd video above.
“It’s the reaction of the nukes in this case that helps to explain why we have been so painfully slow to spread new ideas and excite creative thinkers about the amazing potential of nuclear energy.”
Many of us have 40+ years of experience in commercial nuclear power. Denigrating that as an over-reaction does great disservice to the pronuclear cause. It would do well for all of us to recall Admiral Rickover’s essay on Paper Reactors:
What Dewan has is a paper reactor. We all wish her success. But real engineering work remains to be done.
“Pay attention to the public adulation Elon Musk receives even though he’s technically wrong on numerous visionary claims.”
Public adulation is a poor metric for acceptability in industries affecting safety like nuclear power, aircraft, rail road, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, medical, etc. It only serves to feed arrogance and narcissism which never seem to be in short supply.
While I have deep and abiding respect for nuclear professionals, I believe we need to acknowledge that we have failed to build a sustainable technology business model.
Yes, it would have been prudent to seek peer review, but Transatomic was – and remains – in very early stages of development. I can speak from painful personal experience is saying that creators who fail to generate sufficient excitement often don’t obtain the resources required to move any further down the path towards real products.
Yup, we agree on that. I certainly don’t wish to defame Dewan in any way. And I hope that she hasn’t lost any investors. Her work is important enough to at least be given a chance in the free market. Just a lesson to everybody else (including me) – even if it’s for marketing, get the calc double checked anyways just to avoid the proverbial egg on the face.
And yes, as one of those 40+ year commercial nuclear veterans, I become very frustrated at times with the strangulation of over regulation and the bureaucratic over reaction by the industry. I have often argued for a level regulatory playing field where no one gets to dump his trash willy nilly into the environment and no one gets largess from the public treasury. But we have had a very adversarial regulator at times, and utility corporations have divided interests because they operate both nukes & fossil plants. On the other hand, to young people who say, “Those regulations were made before I was born,” my response is this:
“Sometimes the regulations were made so that you can avoid the same dumb idiot mistakes that us grizzled old timers made in the past.”
There must be a common sense balance and I am sure we agree that we have a long ways to go before we are there. I have more thoughts, but that’s it for now. My prayers for Dewan’s success. And my dedication is for my employer at “Neutrons Are Us.”
This is a really interesting thread.
The original claim (factor of 75 increase in uranium utilization.which corresponds to a 96% burnup) was patently incredible from the beginning. A neutronics analysis was not necessary to see that. The original 2014 core (1250 MWth) contained 65 t of 1.8%-enriched uranium, and 0.5 t of fuel would be added each year. Even if the reactor were able to remain critical for any length of time with such a small insertion of reactivity, tell me how 96% of this mass of U-238 could have been converted and fissioned in a thermal-epithermal spectrum in any reasonable period of time.
Thanks for stopping by.
Though you’re right about the fact that Transatomic was promising the stars when their tech was only capable of low earth orbit, I wonder what you are suggesting. I happen to like creativity and willingness to challenge paradigms. The nuclear industry needs some intellectual shaking from inside.
which is your opinion on the choice of the moderator? It is clear that the good, old graphite does not serve well the purpose of a compact reactor as it is pursued here. However, I always hear concerns about the thermal stability of hydride compounds, however in the case of ZrH1.7 its stability goes up to rather nice 900°C (btw, is that so also under irradiation?). I don’t know though why they did not use yttrium hydride YH, whose moderating effectivity is practically at par with that of ZrH1.7 but with a whooping thermal stability of 1300°C…
Do you think the use of hydrides poses serious concerns to the design? And do you think using such moderator will be a licensing nightmare?
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