New Yorker (subscription required) // Jun 15, 2013
The New Yorker profiled nuclear startup Transatomic in its June 13th issue. Transatomic was founded by Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, two MIT students, in 2010, and is looking at new and different way to design, build, and operate nuclear generators. The generator would be small, cheap (relative to traditional nuclear power plants), and "walk-away safe," meaning that it could cool itself safely in the event of a power outage. Traditional nuclear power plants face two "inherent problems," the New Yorker reports. There is always the threat of a nuclear meltdown, which in the United States translated to a pause in new nuclear plant approval lasting from 1978 - 2012. The second problem is the nuclear materials themselves-- the manufactured rods need to be replaced before the fuel is no longer radioactive, leading to nuclear waste. The New Yorker reports:
Dewan and Massie’s design seems to solve both problems at once. It’s based on a method that worked successfully at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, in the nineteen-sixties. Called a molten salt reactor, it eschews rods and, instead, dissolves the nuclear fuel in a salt mixture, which is pumped in a loop with a reactor vessel at one end and a heat exchanger at the other. In the vessel, the fuel enters a critical state, heating up the salt, which then moves on to the heat exchanger, where it cools; it then travels back to the vessel, where it heats up again. Heat from the exchanger is used to make steam, and, from this, electricity. At the bottom of the reactor vessel is a drain pipe plugged with solid salt, maintained using a powerful electric cooler. If the cooler is turned off, or if it loses power, the plug melts and all of the molten salt containing the fuel drains to a storage area, where it cools on its own. There’s no threat of a meltdown.