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Nuclear Reactor Startup Transatomic Power going Open Source after Closure

It seldom happens that certain circumstances do not allow one idea to prosper as planned. But Open Source can solve that issue, once the idea is shared with the world. Others can take on that work, build upon and keep improving it.

This recently happened with Transatomic Power (founded by Mark Massie and Dr. Leslie Dewan in April 2011), a Nuclear Startup that introduced a brand new design of its own Nuclear Reactor that is a lot more efficient than conventional ones.

As they haven’t been able to build it within their targeted timeframe, they announced suspending operations on September 25, 2018. But declaring their designs Open Source is certainly going to help change things for the better.

“We’re saddened to announce that Transatomic is ceasing operations. But we’re still optimistic and enthusiastic about the future of nuclear power. To that end we’re therefore open-sourcing our technology, making it freely available to all researchers and developers. We’re immensely grateful to the advanced reactor community, and we hope you build on our tech to make great things!”

Via the Twitter account of Transatomic Power

Things looked really promising in the early days:

Surely, the Startup had some very noble goals as described in the above video from 2016. But what went wrong? What are the good and bad things out of this news? Let’s discuss.

How different is Transatomic’s Design compared to conventional Nuclear Reactors?

Light Water Reactor vs Molten Salt Reactor
Image Credit: Transatomic Science

Conventional Nuclear Reactors are most commonly industrialized as light-water Reactors, which are the most common type of Thermal Reactors. Transatomic Reactors, on the other hand, are improved versions of molten-salt Reactors. Lets briefly point out the differences:

Advantages of Transatomic Nuclear Reactors

  • Light-water Reactors use fuel in solid form while Transatomic’s molten-salt Reactors use liquid fuel. This makes easier maintenance possible.
  • Nuclear waste production in this molten-salt design is considerably lower (4.8 Tons per year) than light-water Reactors (10 Tons per year).
  • Significantly safer than light-water Reactors, even in the worst-case accident scenarios.
  • Operates at atmospheric pressure in contrast to 100 times the same in case of light-water, raising expenses for the latter.

You can check out their Science (or should we now say, “Open Science”) page where all the above points have been discussed in detail in addition to the white-paper after highlighting significant improvements to the original molten-salt Reactor model.

In their assessment paper, we learned about SCALE, a Comprehensive Modeling and Simulation Suite for Nuclear Safety Analysis and Design, homepage located on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory page. This lab is where the first molten-salt Reactor was designed.

Why is making an Open Source Nuclear Reactor Design a better step for Humanity?

  • The better scope of consistently improving the models via the scientific community.
  • An Open model is always good news for our environment.
  • Similar or other industries will also be encouraged to adopt such Open measures.

When Transatomic Wasn’t Open Source

Looking back in the past, there were some claims that had to be revalidated in 2015 and was endorsed early this year by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We found this much earlier quote from co-founder Dr. Leslie Dewan:

“In early 2016, we realized there was a problem with our initial analysis and started working to correct the error,” cofounder Leslie Dewan said in an e-mail response to an inquiry from MIT Technology Review.

“In retrospect, that was a mistake of mine,” she said during the phone interview. “We should have open-published more of our information at a far earlier stage.”

Would Transatomic have to go through all this had they been Open Source from day one? Clearly no. Most definitely, their initial intention was indeed a noble one!

Following are the thoughts from Dr. Kord Smith, who is a professor of Nuclear Science and engineering at MIT and an expert in the physics of Nuclear Reactors. He analyzed the Transatomic Nuclear Reactor design in late 2015.

Smith stresses that the founders weren’t acting in bad faith, but he did note they didn’t subject their claims to the peer-review process early on.

“They didn’t do any of this intentionally,” Smith says. “It was just a lack of experience and perhaps an overconfidence in their own ability. And then not listening carefully enough when people were questioning the conclusions they were coming to.”

More importantly, Transatomic now realizes two very noteworthy principles highlighted on their Open Source page:

(1) Climate change is real, and unless massive action to de-carbonize the grid is taken soon, it will threaten much of humanity’s way of life.

(2) Novel nuclear technologies present the best way to address the issue, by rapidly expanding carbon-free energy at scale and making fossil fuels a thing of the past.

One critical thing considering the above two principles is that the newly available open resources from Transatomic will help address the issue of Nuclear waste production and innovate ways to reduce it.

Though it is sad that the company is shutting down, a new addition to the Open Science community is certainly great news for Open Research Practices and we are much glad about the later development.

Their Open Source page is now titled “Open-sourcing our reactor design, and the future of Transatomic”. Considering the latter part of this title, can we expect more Open Designs from them in the future? Have a feeling that we haven’t yet seen the last of Transatomic Power!

Do you agree they should have followed an Open Source Approach from the beginning itself? Do you like their new approach and improved design? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Thanks for the article :) I really hope this model of Open-Sourcing leading edge research results in quicker (and safer) from brain-to-market innovations.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Albert. I agree with you completely. More of such initiatives are much needed for better Open Science practices in the industry to create greater trust among consumers.

  • Couldn’t agree more! Its really good to know about the Tesla towers in Russia in recent news. The only good thing about this news in here is that the designs are now open and hopefully the existing nuclear designs would at least be replaced to get toxicity to the minimum, if not replacing them with a Tesla tower instead!

  • why go nuclear ???. free energy can be drawn straight from the environment (aether),
    Nikola Tesla demonstrated this over a hundred years ago that’s where the real research should go but there’s no profit in free and it’s all about money (greed), so we’ll just have to keep paying through the nose!!!

    • Couldn’t agree more! Its really good to know about the Tesla towers in Russia in recent news. The only good thing about this news in here is that the designs are now open and hopefully the existing nuclear designs would at least be replaced to get toxicity to the minimum, if not replacing them with a Tesla tower instead!