Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.
A recent podcast about a carbon-negative technology startup had a small connection to beer. Today’s podcast also concerns a way to reduce our carbon footprint, and has a small connection to beer. In every other way, the two startups could hardly be more different.
Today’s startup invites us to rethink nuclear energy. Their plan? To put cheap, portable nuclear reactors onto barges and float them out to sea. What could go wrong? According to today’s guest, basically nothing. The reactor design avoids the type of fuel rods that gave us the fictional meltdown in The China Syndrome and the real-life ones in Chernobyl and Fukushima. In fact, my guest will claim his reactor cannot meltdown or explode.
One of these reactors would be able to supply electricity, clean water, heating, and cooling to 200 000 households. All with a carbon footprint as low as any other technology—and there are co-generation opportunities that would seem to lower it even further.
The startup is Seaborg Technologies, based in Copenhagen, and we’re lucky to have its co-founder and CEO, Troels Schönefeldt, with us today to explain how this isn’t all too good to be true.
Troels, welcome to the podcast.
Troels Schönefeldt Thanks. And hi.
Steven Cherry So you start with a conventional nuclear fuel such as uranium, and then it’s mixed into a salt, but not just any salt. What makes fluoride salt special?
Troels Schönefeldt Well, you’re starting very much from the basics. The thing about fluoride soldiers that you can buy it in alternative healing stores because it’s a rock with healing abilities. But the fact that it’s a rock is quite important here. It melts at 500 degrees centigrade and we can dissolve uranium into it. We can then pump that liquid into a reactor and generate a lot of energy. All of that is nothing special. But the magic happens when there’s an accident, not if but when there’s an accident, because since this radioactive material is now contained in a rock, it doesn’t come out as a gas as it would in a conventional reactor. So instead, it can only come out as a liquid rock that solidifies like a lava. The safety features of the reactor inherent in the physics and chemistry of this rock, making the reactor very safe. And since safety is the fundamental cost of nuclear, it also means that we will have a very cheap technology.
Steven Cherry While your reactor isn’t carbon negative, it’s actually radioactive negative—that’s a term I just invented—in the sense that it can use waste fuel from existing nuclear reactors.
Troels Schönefeldt Yeah, we can. We usually say there are three upsides. One is that it cannot melt down or explode, which is just explained. The second one is that it cannot be used for nuclear weapons. And then the third one is that we could burn nuclear waste. The only issue there is that currently the regulatory system doesn’t allow it. So therefore, we just pragmatically said, well, what we need is the energy, so let’s stop there. And then solve the regulatory burdens afterwards.
Steven Cherry There’s regulatory issues and then there’s the practical questions of, you know, moving whatever spent fuel rods and other nuclear waste to your reactor, although your reactor is portable. And we’ll get to that in a minute. But if all of that could be worked out, the upside would be pretty great, right? We would take our current nuclear waste with its long and dangerous lifespans and basically turn it into a short half-life waste, such as what hospitals end up with from radiation therapies, for example?
Troels Schönefeldt Yes. And it’s a very simple question, yes, and that’s quite attractive. I think many people would worry about the waste issue related to nuclear. The reality is that it’s actually not that big because the amount of material is so small. However, it is something that needs handling for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, which is highly problematic. So it would be highly attractive to reduce it to something which needs storage for a few hundred years, which is within a handleable timeframe. And that’s what we can do. But being able to do something technically is not the same as being allowed to do it. So the burden there, I would say, is just mainly a regulatory burden.
Steven Cherry It’s easy to minimize the difficulty of current nuclear waste because of the small amounts, but it has been a pretty serious hurdle, both physically and politically. So, I mean, it seems like this is a wonderful technology, even if it didn’t generate large amounts of electricity on its own, if it if it could ameliorate the nuclear waste problem to that degree.
Nuclear power was originally thought to be too cheap to meter, as the expression went, but it’s always turned out to be an expensive way to generate electricity. Today, the price of solar energy is below that of even coal, and it continues to fall. Are Seaborg’s reactor designs cost-competitive? And will they continue to be so?
Troels Schönefeldt Yeah. Well, that’s a ... a quite amazing question. And I think it taps into what I would see as the big issue of all of the nuclear industry, because actually in its foundation, nuclear technologies are really cheap and this “too cheap to meter” is in my opinion ... It was never wrong. It was just, it wasn’t implemented. Some tech choices were made early on in the nuclear history that made us venture down the road where you have very unstable high pressure systems that need constant monitor and control and where the consequence of an accident is ... Now, I don’t know what word to use here because “dire” is not big enough, but—
Steven Cherry Catastrophic comes to mind—
Troels Schönefeldt —catastrophic. If you have an accident, you have a gas leakage that drifts for thousands of kilometers and all you need to do is not breathe, which is which is problematic. I think it’s typically overestimated in the danger, but that is nevertheless the consequence that you have a gas drifting around the world. Now, with that in mind, the natural way to go for the nuclear industry was focus at safety, more and more at safety, because you need to you have this insane level of consequences of accidents. So what you need to do is reduce the likelihood of that to virtually zero. And that’s been the strategy of the nuclear industry. And they actually did a decent job at that and say and today, nuclear reactors is one of the safest energy technologies, if not the safest energy technology out there. But that also means that it costs a lot of money because all of these systems means you have four levels of redundancy on every subsystem. You have high pressure pumps and low pressure pumps and medium pressure pumps in case of different leakages. And those are all levels of redundancy. So that just turns into costs.
So when you look at the business model, which is the essence of any industry, you look at the business model of a nuclear industry, what their salespeople are selling you. If they come to you and they say if you give us 20 billion euro, then in somewhere between 10 and probably more like 15, maybe 25 years from now, you will suddenly have the entire electricity production of a country the size of Denmark overnight. Right.
That’s not in any way an attractive investment; it’s not attractive for grid stability; it’s not attractive for anything. And that means that basically a nuclear reactor today has become such a big, massive undertaking that even replacing old nuclear reactors is out of scope. Because if you had a nuclear reactor that was aging and was about to shut down and already 20 or 25 years from now, and you were to risk building a new nuclear station instead of it, you basically—you would have to rely on on the timeliness of the new nuclear project that is supposed to take over the old one. If you fail on that, you won’t have electricity. And electricity is such a fundamental thing for industry and everything. So you will basically kill an economy that is supporting several million people by failing that target. And with nuclear failing, again and again, I think that means that the nuclear industry, while it has become very safe, it has no business model anymore.
This is the foundation of what we’re changing because all of this arose from safety. We take a different approach: We’re not reducing the likelihood of an accident to zero, there will be accidents. We should avoid them as much as we can, but there will be accidents. Hopefully, there will be a lot of accidents because we will have a lot of these reactors. What we do instead of reducing the likelihood; is reduce the consequence. Now the consequence of even the worst disasters or even acts of war where you actually explode the reactor. The consequence there is that this flouride salt will flow out of the reactor, explode out of the reactor. If you bomb it, it’ll explode there, lie on the field. It’ll solidify. And now you shouldn’t go onto that field. You should actually keep 10 or 20 feet of distance until you clean it up and you can go there with a Geiger counter and clean it up. It’s wildly expensive, but you can do it. And that changes the fundamental safety profile of the technology. And in doing so, we change the cost, which again, in turn changes the business model.
And this is where it starts to get really exciting for me, because that means that you can suddenly fight climate change with a business model where you, the customer out in the market, will get cheaper electricity. The manufacturer, which is us and our partners, will earn money and the investor will have an attractive case simply because you reduce the cost of the technology. So suddenly the climate fight becomes an economic gain. And I think that’s fundamentally what we need to fight global warming.
We’ll be back to hear more about affordable and safe nuclear power with Troels Schönefeldt.
IEEE Spectrum Radio is supported by COMSOL, the makers of COMSOL Multiphysics simulation software. Companies like the Manufacturing Technology Centre are revolutionizing the designs of additive manufactured parts by first building simulation apps from COMSOL models, allowing them to share their analyses with different teams and explore new manufacturing opportunities with their own customers. Learn more about simulation apps and find this and other case studies at comsol.com/blog/apps.
We’re back with my guest Troels Schönefeldt, CEO of Seaborg Technologies, a Danish startup that uses fluoride salts and a specially designed moderator that reduces costs dramatically.
Troels, you have a calculation that claims that your nuclear power is as green as wind energy and greener than solar energy. How does that work?
Troels Schönefeldt That’s actually not our calculation. That’s an assessment by, I think, by the U.N. or somebody where they assess the energy production and that’s as it’s related to CO2. I mean, you always need mining, right? And with the amounts of energy we can produce in a very little amount of material here—that is not only us, that’s actually also nuclear in general—with the amount of energy you get per use of material, you have very, very low mining requirements. Actually, you have way lower than you would if you were to place wind and and way, way lower than solar. In that way nuclear in general is much cleaner than any other energy technologies we know of today. And then on top of that, because we are getting smaller and more agile, we get even cleaner than that. But yeah, there’s always mining. Right.
Steven Cherry The idea of molten salts in a reactor isn’t entirely new. Why is it commercialized now when it wasn’t before?
Troels Schönefeldt That’s a good question. If you read up on the projects that have been done in history, there was like the first reactor—this was done for the military—for eight days it operated in the mid-50s and then in the mid-60s, one went online for five years. And then China had one operating for a little while in the early 70s and then nothing since then.
The guy in the US who shut down the second reactor, who cut the funding for the second reactor, was actually called Glenn Seaborg. And since we’re called Seaborg Technologies, we probably don’t think he was the stupidest guy. So he did that for reasons. Right. And when you start looking into it, it turns out that their project had massive difficulty solving issues with graphite. Without being too technical, in a molten salt reactor—in any reactor—you need a moderator on any thermal reactors, you need a moderator that slows down neutrons to maintain the chain reaction. In a conventional reactor, that’s water, but you cannot use water in a molten salt reactor. So instead they use graphite and they couldn’t solve the problems around graphite at the time.
If you watched the series Chernobyl, you probably also know the graphite is flammable and can be a big issue there. There are things there that are not that good, but the sum of it all, they couldn’t get graphite to work. And we started looking into this again. We thought we could get graphite to work. Turns out that’s a massive undertaking with a lot of research needed and a lot of data pointing against it. So that would be really hard. And then one day, while cleaning a kitchen sink, somebody’s got an idea that we could probably use sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is ... you know, that a drain cleaner.
But sodium hydroxide is actually a quite excellent moderator. It turns out it was tested in the early 50s, too. They showed that all the neutronics, that’s all the neutron-related stuff, it works very well. It’s very good put into a reactor. The only issue is that it’s highly corrosive. So they couldn’t make it work and they actually gave up and we figured out a way to control that corrosion. At least we figured that out on paper to begin with or with a theory. And we started investigating. And today we have proven that in the lab, so we have a way to control this, meaning that we now have a new type of moderator available, and since the moderator was the issue, we can basically replace it and then now taking an insurmountable challenge and removing it. Great. But then we’re adding a lot of new challenges because we are now doing something new, which always adds challenges.
Steven Cherry Are you have a bunch of new funding, eight figure money measured in euros, and you’re doubling and tripling your staff and plan to have a reactor in place in Southeast Asia by 2025?
Troels Schönefeldt That’s that’s correct. We plan to we really need to hire here. There’s a huge urgency in in resolving the climate issues and the global warming issues. And and in order to meet that target, we need to work fast. We really, really need the right people to come and work on this issue. So that’s the first thing that’s important to.
Steven Cherry You would like to have a reactor in place in Southeast Asia by 2025.
Troels Schönefeldt Well, yeah, that’s our goal. But the thing is that you would like to have a reactor there by 2025, because if we don’t do that, I mean, we are going to burn this planet. The thing about Southeast Asia is that they are on the equator and if you know something about geophysics, you know that on the equator there’s no wind or no significant wind. And then they are on islands. And it’s small jungle islands, many of them. So they cannot really rely on solar because most days are clouded and they don’t have any high altitude rivers. There’s no jet stream. So anything for future technologies to take over. There’s basically nothing. They have coal, gas, and nuclear power. With nuclear today being the most expensive and most cumbersome of all the potential solutions, they basically have the choice between gas and coal.
If nobody solves that within the next few years, there’s almost a billion people in Southeast Asia and the energy released they will need from coal and gas is comparable to the energy released from the world today. So even if we manage to decarbonize the other half of the globe, they will produce the same amount of electricity with no alternatives. So the thing is, I want it in 2025. We think we can do it in 2025, but everybody absolutely needs to be done now—as soon as possible. 2025 is a long time to wait. There’s no chance we could do it earlier, but we can’t afford to be much delayed as a planet.
Steven Cherry We should be clear. That’s a billion people not counting China and India.
Troels Schönefeldt And I will say that’s only a niche market. Right, because that sounds a little bit insane that you have a billion people in a niche market, but currently one billion people on this planet have enough electricity and there are more people that are completely without electricity than have enough. And those people are in general placed around the equator. A lot of those places around the equator and in tropical zones where you have these climate problems. And where you don’t have rivers, as we do in the US and Europe and China. So basically more than half of the world’s population, they cannot rely on renewables no matter how big developments happen and how good we make them and how cheap we make them, they will only belong in the right climate. So it stretches far outside Southeast Asia. The thing about Southeast Asia is that they are economically booming these days. So they are very interesting because ... and they need to solve the problem now, then we will solve the rest of the world afterwards.
Steven Cherry Now, we haven’t talked about the portability of these reactors, but that’s that’s also an element here when we talk about Southeast Asia.
Troels Schönefeldt Portability of modularity or whatever people prefer to call it. I would just call it agility. In the energy market in general, you have big, heavy objects. I mean, a windmill is not that big, but it is pretty big. It’s not a small thing to transport around. And once it’s there, it’s not going to be moved around. So the energy market is fairly static and we’re building on barges. So that means that you will suddenly get mobility in the market. And I would call it agility. And you are also enabling new production pathways. So you can for example, we are planning to use shipyards in Korea, meaning that you can leverage existing supply chains that have a massive amount of production capacity and that has high quality, high consistency, high delivery efficiency and that exist today. You can utilize those to those existing supply chains to manage your products, meaning that we actually actually start in mass production basically.
If you want us to build not one reactor to start with, but a thousand, we could start by building a thousand. That will take like three or four years on these shipyards. So it’s basically unroofed in how fast you can scale it. And then because it’s a barge, it can be moved to anywhere with water and anywhere with water like the sea, but also big rivers or even small rivers. So something like 95 percent of the world’s population we can reach from with this kind of deployment, and especially on island regions such as Southeast Asia, I find that kind of revolutionary and it will change the entire energy market because this is not something you can do with other technologies. In part, you can do it with car batteries and solar cells and stuff like that. You can move that around, but not on a big scale, not enough to industrialize the city. So this is kind of a new thing.
Steven Cherry You have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, and I’ve heard you joke that as CEO, you don’t get to use it very much. You’re being at a startup at all is a bit of an accident, as I understand it. You were about to take a job at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA. What happened?
Troels Schönefeldt Well, that wasn’t me, actually. I was my CTO. But yeah, the rest is correct. I have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics where I specialized in advanced moderators. I thought I was going to be a scientist. So I really wanted to continue after my Ph.D. with postdocs. But then I as you said, we brewed beer and we got so good that I could get incredibly drunk, drunk enough to find a company. And then instead of waking up with a hangover, I woke up with a company and also hangovers. So that took me down another path. So when I was done with my Ph.D., I actually had a couple of postdoc offers, which had been my dream for a decade. But instead I went all in on Seaborg full time, no salary working from my bed at home because I couldn’t afford a table. But that’s how it works.
Steven Cherry I promised everyone a beer connection. I’m glad we finally got to it. Well, Troels, unlike many people of my generation, I’m not predisposed against nuclear power. In fact, my father was a mechanical engineer who worked on the water flow systems of nuclear power plants for the last half of his career, including the two never-finished plants of the Washington State Public Power Supply System. If nuclear power can be made safe—and that includes its waste—then it can be an important contributor to the shutting down of our fossil fuel based generators, which can’t happen soon enough. So I wish you and Seaborg all the best of fortune, and I thank you for joining us today.
Troels Schönefeldt Yeah, thank you.
Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Troels Schönefeldt, CEO of Seaborg Technologies, a Danish startup with a plan to built safe and effective nuclear reactors based around molten salts.
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This interview was recorded 23 February 2021 on Adobe Audition via Zoom. Our theme music is by Chad Crouch.
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