LONDON – A former chief scientist for one of the world’s biggest consumer-goods companies says he can make nuclear power cheaper and safer and wants $30 million so that he can prove it.
After working 25 years at Unilever PLC, Ian Scott came out of retirement in 2013 to found Moltex Energy LLP. Three years later, the biochemist says he has come up with an atomic-reactor design that produces more power for less money than standard pressured-water unit like the ones planned at Hinkley Point in Somerset, England.
“The Stable Salt Reactor is a U.K.-developed technology that can produce electricity at a third of the Hinkley-C strike price,” Scott said in an interview in London. “It can store energy at grid scale — catalyzing the further rollout of renewables — and can be powered by the country’s existing nuclear waste.”
Nuclear and renewable technologies are pieces of the same puzzle needed to mitigate global warming, said the 64-year-old Scott. His company’s Stable Salt Reactor technology could radically change the economics of nuclear power and may be able to be rolled out fast enough to help prevent catastrophic climate change.
Since leaving Unilever, where he rose to become one of its chief scientists, Scott has been traversing the globe to pitch his nuclear vision. He has hobnobbed with Silicon Valley executives, explained his calculations to Chinese and Indian nuclear scientists and convinced the U.K. government to shortlist his company for a possible contract.
“I’m partly doing this to save the world,” he said. “I did not come out of retirement to make a lot of money.”
Scott figures $30 million will buy his design the time it needs to win first-stage regulatory approval. The Moltex reactor builds off molten-salt technologies developed at the U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory that were abandoned because they couldn’t be used militarily.
Unlike in conventional reactors, the Moltex unit doesn’t need a high-pressure containment vessel. That makes it much simpler and cheaper to build, according to Jon Brooking, technical manager at WS Atkins PLC, which calculated that some capital costs of building the plant would be in the range of £909 to £2,515 ($1,200 to $3,300) for each kilowatt of capacity, with the most likely cost being £1,414 (($1,850).
Using that data, Moltex estimated its Stable Salt Reactor could provide energy at a levelized cost of £29 ($38) a megawatt-hour — less than a third of the £125 ($165) a megawatt-hour that Electricite de France’s new plant at Hinkley Point will cost.
Details on Scott’s nuclear vision:
Technology: Moltex builds off molten-salt fast reactors (MSRs), developed in the 1950s. The company’s biggest innovation is the way it packages its fuel — a mixture of salt, natural uranium and plutonium waste — inside of zirconium-clad rods. When the fuel rods are inserted into a pool of molten salt, convection heat is channeled to drive turbines. The reactor would operate with already-certified nuclear material and requires fewer mechanical parts than existing designs, thus conceivably facilitating regulatory approval.
Safety: The Moltex reactor operates under regular atmospheric pressure, which eliminates the risk of explosions seen at the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents. That is important because when something goes wrong, it is the explosive force that spreads plumes of radioactive contamination. If something did go wrong, a damaged fuel rod could dilute inside the coolant of a stable salt reactor before automatic shutdown. There might be a mess to clean up, but it wouldn’t escape in a big bang, according to Scott.
Sustainability: Moltex draws off existing stockpiles of reactor-grade plutonium, natural uranium and salt for fuel. In the longer term, the stable salt reactor can run with widely available thorium. The power produced would emit no greenhouse gases. Another significant benefit of the stable salt design is its ability to store excess power produced from renewable sources.
Competition: While the Moltex design includes novel features like fuel rods, it is far from the only entity looking to commercialize molten salt reactors. China has plans to build a molten salt reactor at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics over the next few years. Terrestrial Energy Inc. wants to build a commercial unit using the technology in Canada by next decade. Moltex is only one of 32 companies short-listed by the U.K. to build the first commercial small-modular reactors by the 2020s.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.