by Lizzette Chapma | bloomberg
In recent weeks, some of Silicon Valley’s best-known technologists have hailed a historically polarizing energy source — nuclear power — as the solution to cutting carbon emissions and turning the world away from the now-controversial Russian gas.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk wrote on Twitter that while nuclear is “critical” to national security, the risk of radiation is high. And venture capitalist Marc Andreessen called for “1,000 new state-of-the-art nuclear power plants in the US and Europe right now.”
The war sparked a sentiment that has been building in the startup world in recent years, where billionaires including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel have opened their wallets to support the next generation of nuclear companies. None of the advanced reactor startups has yet produced an operating commercial product, but some believe that the combination of technological advances and a new urgency to ditch fossil fuels is a catalyst for the sector. Maybe – which has mostly ended in regulatory purging since the 1970s.
“We wouldn’t have a conversation about innovation in nuclear power today without the investment and thinking of Silicon Valley leaders,” said Josh Freed, an expert on climate and energy at the Third Way, a public policy think tank in Washington.
According to research firm PitchBook, last year, venture investors poured a record $3.4 billion into nuclear startups — more than every year in the past decade combined. That number reflects very early-stage startups as well as more mature companies like Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion Energy Inc., both of which raised funding rounds of $500 million or more in 2021. The average in the last decade was less than 10. One year deal. Last year that number increased to 28.
The VC funding comes after a decades-long drought for nuclear power. After it was developed in the 1950s, accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima as well as safety and waste storage concerns hardened public opinion against the technology. Meanwhile, the high cost made it less attractive than natural gas and other alternatives, as did regulatory hurdles. The Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, Greenlight in 1973, was the last nuclear project to be approved in the US, faced significant delays and cost escalation, and only began operations in 2016.
But as concerns over climate change grow, the benefits of nuclear power have become clear. Like solar, nuclear power has no carbon emissions; Unlike solar, it can reliably produce energy 24 hours a day. It is also a path towards energy independence. The war in Ukraine pushed gas prices in the US to an all-time high earlier this month. While building more nuclear reactors won’t ease the current pain – even newer, smaller designs will take years to license and build – proponents say it could help tide over the next crisis.
Recent innovations in nuclear fission, a decades-old technology that captures the energy released when atoms split, include improved methods for storing nuclear waste and cooling systems, meaning new reactors could be smaller and more efficient. . Meanwhile, venture-backed startups that focus on nuclear fusion, the technology that captures the energy created when atoms merge, are moving past the science project phase and commercialization faster than previously anticipated. moving towards.
Fusion, a sort of holy grail for energy, has never successfully produced more power than is needed to make a nuclear reaction actually take place. But some startups believe they are getting closer to changing the equation. “Silicon Valley has been the foundation of the entire private fusion industry,” said Christopher Mowry, chief executive officer of Vancouver-based General Fusion, which is backed by Bezos and others. Maury, who also serves on the board of the non-profit industry group Fusion Industry Association, said venture investments have helped dozens of fusion startups mature to the extent that governments are starting to engage. In one instance earlier this month, the US Congress approved record funding for a public-private partnership program to build new Fusion devices.
David Kirtley, a former implementer of fusion programs for the US Department of Energy, started a fusion startup called Helion in 2013. The following year, he joined Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley startup incubator, where he said he learned to “reprogram”. His thinking of being more ambitious. At YC, “they didn’t talk about a one-year deadline,” Kirtley said. “Everything was next month and next week.”
Helion has raised more than $570 million from investors including former YC chairman Sam Altman, Thiel’s Mithril Capital and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. Altman, who serves as chairman of Helion and is a significant shareholder, said he believes fusion is the cleanest, cheapest form of energy that will someday change the world. “All my conversations with them were about how they can move faster,” Altman said.
Helion aims to demonstrate pure electricity from fusion, meaning the system makes more electricity than it consumes in 2024 and a commercial system by the end of the decade. “I wish we had joined Y Combinator five years ago,” Kirtley said. “We can be even further.”
Nuclear fission startup can have a more immediate effect. TerraPower, founded and bankrolled by Bill Gates, uses advanced cooling materials including molten-chloride and liquid-sodium to create smaller, cheaper and more efficient reactors than conventional reactors that use water for cooling. Is. TerraPower plans to build two reactors in collaboration with the Department of Energy, with the first commercial reactor being located in Wyoming. TerraPower said late last year it would apply for a construction permit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2023 and expects to begin operations in 2028.
Foreign Affairs Director Jeff Naveen said TerraPower has seen renewed interest from countries including Romania and Poland after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Not surprisingly, we are seeing the most interest from places that border Russia and depend on them for energy,” Naveen said. John Kotek, vice president of policy development and public affairs for the Washington-based Atomic Energy Institute, said its member companies “have been busier than usual since the Russian Saber rattle began.”
Concerns about energy are particularly acute in Europe, which derives most of its fuel from Russia. Some countries that used to turn their backs on nuclear power are now reconsidering. “If Germany had not stopped nuclear, it would have needed less gas,” said Judy Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance. “The invasion is a reminder that nuclear power is indeed reliable.”
Despite increased interest from governments, TerraPower’s Naveen said the company has yet to reach a deal. It’s a reminder that even the most advanced startups are still years away from widespread commercial rollout. Naveen says: “It takes time to sell a nuclear power plant.”
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