The future of safe, clean, and small nuclear power stations.
Meeting rising energy requirements in a safe and climate-friendly way is one of the key challenges humanity needs to solve. Danish start-up Seaborg Technologies has a blueprint for the future of power that uses a new type of nuclear reactor that is safe, can be manufactured quickly, and deployed on barges to any location worldwide.
Seaborg CEO Troels Schönfeldt talks to Azeem Azhar about how the future of power stations could be sailing to your town soon.
They also discuss:
Nuclear Fusion’s Time is Coming, Exponential View Podcast, 2022
Why Energy Storage is the Future of the Grid, Exponential View Podcast, 2022
AZEEM AZHAR: Hello, and welcome to Exponential View with me, Azeem Azhar. The world is changing at an amazing pace and we’re entering the exponential age. It’s a fundamental rewriting of our economic and social order catalyzed by radical remarkable technologies. On this podcast, I want to make some clarity to the complexity of this change and help understand the trajectories of these technologies and their implications in business economics, geopolitics, and our lives. In today’s discussion, I turn to the question of nuclear power. This technology has struggled with public perception, regulation, and cost for many years but can nuclear power find a place in our new clean green societies? Now, I’ve got a history with nuclear power. As a 10-year-old, I went on a school trip to visit Bradwell nuclear power station in the North of Essex in the UK. Bradwell was a huge brutalist complex, large concrete cube set by the banks of the River Blackwater. My friends and I received a tour of the facility, seeing the control room, and receiving a goody bag at the end of the day. That leaving gift included booklets on the future of electricity. It would be too cheap to meter and stickers that declared my love of fission. Those stickers ended up on my door. Bradwell, an old design for a comparatively small nuclear power station was decommissioned in 2002 after 40 years of service. A few years later, I was planning on visiting the Soviet Union as part of a school trip to practice my Russian language. As always, this 10 day trip would start in Moscow but for the first time in years, it would end not in Leningrad as it was then known but in the Southern historic city of Volgograd. We were due to travel in mid-May 1986 but just a few weeks before our trip, the Soviet government grudgingly admitted that there had been a mishap at a nuclear reactor. A day or so later, Swedish scientists detected a large radiation cloud across Europe. And the explosion and meltdown in Chernobyl reactor number four put pain to my excursion to Soviet Russia. But I remained fascinated by the prospects of nuclear fission as a source of energy. In 60 years of operating and nearly 19 millennia of cumulative reactor years, there have only been two serious incidents, that’s at Chernobyl and that at Fukushima. The former could be ascribed to the very poor construction, managerial, and safety standard so common across the Soviet Union. The latter resulted in just one death from radiation exposure but likely many more fatalities from the stresses and traumas of the sudden evacuation. Nuclear power has largely proven its safety credentials. It’s also proved to be strategically useful. Countries like France where nuclear power has historically driven 70% of electricity production are less unhacked to petrol states. And of course, nuclear power does not add to the carbonyl atmosphere helping us in the fight against climate change. But the promise of electricity that is too cheap to meter has not been met. Rather, nuclear power has become too expensive to build. In the decade to 2019, the cost of electricity from solar photovoltaic installations has dropped by a factor of five or more. The cost of electricity from nuclear energy has increased 60% in price. What went wrong? And is there a future potential for nuclear energy in the exponential age? My guest today thinks so. His firm Seaborg Technologies is one of a new cohort of startups intending to deliver new generations of cheaper, smaller, safer nuclear fission reactors. The goal is to meet global energy needs, not just in the West but across the world to raise human welfare and take aim at the challenges of climate change. Troels Schönfeldt, welcome to Exponential View.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Thank you.
AZEEM AZHAR: Troels, nuclear power is this great enigma. I mean it’s a tremendous potential but in the last 20 or 30 years, it’s got the hallmarks of a difficult market. It’s been getting progressively more expensive to build, nuclear power stations rather than being too cheap to meter they’ve been too expensive to build. It’s quite unpopular in the popular imagination and the regulatory hurdles have been getting seemingly higher and higher. It looks like quite an unattractive market for an entrepreneur to enter and yet here you are quite the contrarian. Tell us about that.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Yeah well, firstly, it is quite an attractive market. I think mainly because the arguments that often is posed by Greenpeace actually hold truth when it comes to nuclear. However, it’s also a necessary market because we have global warming and that’s a problem that cannot be solved without nuclear. It’s simply an impossibility and I actually think that’s an interesting market for an entrepreneur.
AZEEM AZHAR: Definitely, because obviously, the conventional thinking tells us that we shouldn’t approach a market like this so you need someone who’s going to think out of the box. I’m also curious though, you as an entrepreneur coming from Denmark, which has a historical close association with the physics of the atom and the physics of fission from an academic perspective but from an industrial perspective has not necessarily been a country we would think of as leading the charge when it comes to nuclear. How did you as a [inaudible 00:05:12] find your way into this industry?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: I actually have a master’s from the Niels Bohr Institute, a master in particle physics and nuclear physics. But nuclear physics in the form where I know about the wave functions in the nuclear is not where I can do anything with a nuclear reactor. That’s not part of it at all because it’s Denmark and we are anti-nuclear. It is mentioned there for 15 minutes at the university if you become a nuclear physicist in Copenhagen, there’s 15 minutes on actual nuclear reactors. But Denmark actually has a really, really strong history in the early nuclear industry, nuclear fission. Which is what it all begins with, was discovered in the basement of the Niels Bohr Institute here. And after the Second World War, there were only very few that said actually nuclear can be used for peaceful purposes. And one of the big ones was Niels Bohr. He came back from the Manhattan Project and started preaching nuclear for peaceful use. In the 60s and 70s, the global anti-nuclear weapon movement was in Denmark, and somebody here decided to convert it into an anti-nuclear power campaign that they then actually manage to spread to the world. The anti-nuclear power movement actually started in Denmark. And Denmark was the first country to ban nuclear in ’85 so the year before Chernobyl. Denmark has a really, really strong history both in pro and early nuclear history but also in anti-nuclear history.
AZEEM AZHAR: But that’s a fascinating little dynamic but I’m curious, you have, as you say, sort of 15 minutes in your nuclear physics program that’s looking at some of the science of fission and you’ve then taken the bold step to build a company. How did that happen? What was going on? I love Copenhagen but I kind of imagine there were beers involved and maybe there was a dusk in a summer’s day. And it’s one of those beautiful Northern European June or July days and you’re with some friends and out comes this idea. But tell me, what really happened?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: That was pretty much what happened, to explain it simply. It was a series of poor decisions. I took a PhD and I wanted to do something with nuclear power. I’m born and raised anti-nuclear so it was not easy for me to admit it. But when I was studying, started looking at the facts and I could see that it was necessary. And I had fallen in love with different reactor concepts. One of them being the molten salt reactor and the more I looked into it the more in love I got. And me and some friends while we were studying at the Niels Bohr Institute, we had been brewing beer. And I was doing my PhD at the European Spallation Source and the Technical University of Denmark. We had gone different directions but we kept brewing beer. And I usually say that we started out being pretty bad at brewing beer but eventually we got good enough that we got so drunk that we founded a company to make nuclear instead. Sometimes you wake up with a hangover other times you wake up with a nuclear startup.
AZEEM AZHAR: You said that you fell in love with the molten salt reactor when you were studying them and that’s the foundation that you are using for the reactors that you are building at Seaborg, is that correct?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: We’re designing a fundamentally different type of nuclear reactor. The powerful bullet points is that it cannot melt down or explode, it cannot release gases, it cannot be used for nuclear weapons. It could even burn nuclear waste so we can get rid of some of the old waste stockpiles. That was the really quick sales pitch.
AZEEM AZHAR: This theory has been around for quite a while so what was the difference between then and now because we haven’t really seen any commercial molten salt reactors in operation?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Well, actually there was the first molten salt reactor was operated already in ’54 so it was one of the first reactors in operation. The second one was tested in US from ’65 to ’69. There was a third one operating as the very first reactor in China ever in ’71. But the thing is that they used graphite at the time. And graphite turns out that it doesn’t behave very favorable under radiation. There’s also some other issues with graphite such as the flammability and other things. It has some issues. It’s not easy to get that commercialized and that’s why they abandoned the project or at least according to the reports that’s the main reason. Our approach is actually doing something other than graphite which is sodium hydroxide or drain cleaner instead.
AZEEM AZHAR: It’s the same stuff that we pour down our drains to clean out hair blockages, right? Sodium hydroxide?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Yes, it is. Drain cleaner. Everyone has that in their kitchen.
AZEEM AZHAR: And you are going to put it into these reactors for a certain purpose?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: It has sodium hydroxide. It has oxygen and sodium which well, it’s not really relevant for anything. It doesn’t do anything to neutrons. And then it has hydrogen so that’s the hydroxide part. And the hydrogen is an excellent moderator so it’s a material that is liquid up until around 1300°C which moderates nutrients so it’s quite nice in a high-temperature reactor.
AZEEM AZHAR: Troels, can you help us picture what one of your plants looks like? How big is it? How many per people are working on it? Is it humming? Is there an excess road to it and a fence around it? I mean, give us a sense of what a Seaborg power plant looks like.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Well, it’s on a patch. A patch is basically just a ship with no engine. We’ll just chuck it to the harbor and it’ll be lying there on the harbor. We’ll, of course, get some designers to make it look cool but it’ll be in the industrial harbor so you mostly won’t see it. A 200-megawatt facility has around 100 meters long and 30 meters wide. And yes, there will be a fence around it on the harbor because you want stuff like this to be fenced off for obvious reasons. And there’ll probably be a couple of security guards. You order it, it shows up in your harbor 24 years later, a truckload arrives and take it away to a facility where they’re specialized in dismantling these things.
AZEEM AZHAR: I just want to unpick that a little bit with a couple of details. When we think about power stations, nuclear or coal there’s always an operating room, control room with lights flashing, and lots of people sitting around? Where do those people live for a Seaborg power station?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: I mean, mostly they would probably be local but one of the smart things about being on a patch is you can operate it like a maritime facility. That means you could have a helicopter there and you could fly in competent workers from anywhere you want. But you could also just have a small plank going ashore and have people come and go. The patch itself will come with a control house in the end, looking like the house of on top of a ship. Where there’s a kitchen and a training facility. Maybe that’s a pool on top and there’s the control room and some cabins.
AZEEM AZHAR: Right. You talk about a tug showing up to take it away. Could you just describe the life cycle then of a single unit?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Say you are the owner you want to own one of these. That means we have to give you to deliver your electricity. Some company wants some electricity. You say, okay, I’ll deliver that electricity. I want to buy one of these. You invest in one of these. You call us, say, I want one of these. Three years later, in a harbor in South Korea or in a shipyard in South Korea we will have a patch that has been tested and is functioning and working, and then you will be sent an invoice. And once you pay your invoice, it sails out the harbor. It goes to your wherever you want to plug it in, puts itself on the docks there and goes down all of that. Then you plug it in. There’s a huge cable you have to throw up on the dock and plug into that over-dimension power jack and you have electricity. Twelve years down the road, we come in for a replacement of the two reactors with two new reactors. You will not see a lot but there will be a boat coming in doing that. And then 24 years down the road, you call a truck boat and you say, hey, I want to get rid of this. It comes, it takes it away to a facility where they’re specialized in dismantling these things. They already exist today and you pay the bill, that’s it. I call it a blue field like a Greenfield but we are in water so blue field. You have a harbors patch and then you use it for 24 years and then you have a harbors patch again, that’s it.
AZEEM AZHAR: I want to help people understand the distinctions between this kind of a design and the communal guard in the nuclear reactor. You said they can’t melt down, they don’t operate at high pressure so they can’t blow up and blow the lid of the reactor off. They’re not producing gases. They can’t contaminate things with radiation. And you even said, “If you wanted to try to damage it, it actually maintains its sort of degree of safety.” All of that is kind of quite a powerful sales pitch to people who are worried about the safety of these things but how do those benefits actually occur? How do you build them into the system? Is it clever engineering? Is it something else?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Today, conventional nuclear reactors have border-based reactors. It’s a system where you fission some uranium and that creates a lot of energy but the nuclear industry in its early days saw that there were some safety issues on this and that makes sense. You have to do that as an industry. And they were actually behaving irrational and got there but they saw these issues and they started saying, “How can we not be liable for this?” They built a system around this where the government takes the liability and the operator only is liable if they are not in compliance. The approach to safety is compliance first, where I would argue that your approach to safety should actually be safety first. The government or regulator will add more and more requirements. That means that the industry has to live up to more and more requirements and that will make it more and more expensive. And it does make sense but nobody’s thinking about the safety and then ultimately that also makes it impossible to innovate?
AZEEM AZHAR: In the countries that actually most need cheap electricity, the international regulatory environment essentially prevents them from developing a local industry.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Yeah. When you formulate it like that you make it sound easy. It’s not that just that they need cheap electricity. It’s also that and they might not even be able to get that from conventional nuclear anyway but they want nuclear. For example, if I look at Southeast Asia, it’s on equator which means that there’s almost no wind. And so no wind turbines. It’s jungle area so that means that they have a lot of clouded days and Monsoon seasons so no solar. And they don’t have any high-altitude rivers and they don’t have any big geothermal winds or anything. They don’t have access to any of the renewables at any relevant scale meaning that they have a choice between coal, gas, and nuclear. And you know what, that’s a billion people. If that billion people gets out of poverty in the only way possible today which is gas and coal then we will double the CO2 release of the planet just like that.
AZEEM AZHAR: You’re doing something completely different. We understand that you’ve got a reactor design that is, it is safe by dint of the physics rather than safety through regulatory requirements. It is at its heart the nature of the design has all of these safety features. Help us understand how you go about building something like that.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: You do it by physics and chemistry, that’s it. Instead of fixing stuff with engineering, if you have a fundamental problem, you have to fix it with engineering. Find something which doesn’t have a fundamental problem is the solution. And I will say that all the advanced reactors that different startups are looking at all have inherent safety features so all of them will be way more safe than existing reactors. And existing reactors are already really safe they’re just very expensive to make safe. But a molten salt reactor takes it a step further. It becomes fundamentally safe. What I mean with that is like we have fluoride salt so that all the listeners will be really happy that I’m showing you this on screen because we can see each other. I’ll show you here. Too bad if you’re only listening but this is a piece of fluoride salt. I have that in my pocket. We buy this in a healing store in Denmark and it has apparently healing power.
AZEEM AZHAR: It’s a healing crystal.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Yeah, apparently.
AZEEM AZHAR: That’s beautiful.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Fluoride salt it’s good for your spirituality. I don’t think they write on the healing sides that it’s also really nice for nuclear power but it is really nice for nuclear power. It doesn’t dissolve in water or anything so it behaves like a rock. We take this material, we melt it at 500°C and we dissolve the uranium fluoride which is another fluoride salt into this material. And we pump it into a nuclear reactor core. And then that creates fission just like normal, nothing fancy. You take it out and you extract the heat and create electricity. There’s nothing magic there. You now have a liquid fuel. But the magic here is that fluorine which is the element of fluoride salt it’s the most reactive element in the periodic table. But as it’s uranium fissioning some fluorines fall off too. And these fluorines they attack these things right away and typically bind to these fission products. And in binding they create a new fluoride salt and fluoride salts they’re insoluble in water and behave like a rock. It’s okay, fair enough it’s so hot. It’s 500° plus so it’s liquid. But if this gets out of the reactor it just solidifies. That takes it to new levels of safety. Because say somebody comes by with a modern bunker-buster bump and they drop it right spot on into your reactor. That’s the kind of the worst-case scenario. This liquid salt hits the water there’s a steam explosion and nonradioactive steam comes out. Then it sinks to the bottom of the harbor as a rock. When it hits the fields it’s liquid therefore a few seconds and then it solidifies. And it’s there as rock pebbles basically and then it stays. There’s no radioactive gas release meaning that even in that case, that safety case is so dramatically different than existing nuclear reactors. That it’s just, it’s like comparing a space shuttle and a bike.
AZEEM AZHAR: But the other element in that fluoride salt that isn’t fluorine is still going to be a radioactive isotope?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Yes.
AZEEM AZHAR: So there will be some radioactivity there?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: It will be some radioactive ions bound to a fluorine.
AZEEM AZHAR: The point being it’s not being dispersed, it’s not being spread, it’s localized.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: It’s not just that it’s not being dispersed it’s that it’s incapable of being dispersed. You couldn’t do it. You could take these rocks and you could then ground them up and to powder and throw them around and then it’ll fall as sand on the floor and it’ll be there and you’ll have a reactive contaminated area that wouldn’t be nice. It’ll be expensive to clean up but again, it’s not a problem for people that are five meters away from it, right? It’s a problem for if somebody goes and sleep on it or plays football on it but you shouldn’t. It’s a very resilient technology.
AZEEM AZHAR: We spend a lot of time on safety because I think people are obsessed with safety around nuclear reactors. But there are rather other really important aspects of the Seaborg design that I think are really interesting. One of which is that the reactors themselves are quite small compared to traditional nuclear reactors. I see benefits of modularity, smaller reactors can be installed in grids that are less mature than the British national grid or the Danish national grid, or the German national grid. They can be put at the city level not just at the national level. How does the modularity and the compactness of the reactor drive the uniqueness of Seaborg?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Our reactor can fit in a 20-foot container, basically. They’re very small but these are natural things. You don’t want a 1.6-gigawatt reactor. That’s a too big single point of failure in your grid. It’s one of the problems with existing reactors but everybody is working on fixing that. We are just playing the same game.
AZEEM AZHAR: Before a more general audience, can you just help us understand what these scales mean? It’s sort of a modern nuclear reactor might be rated at one gigawatt or one and a half gigawatt which is powering, what a million homes or a couple of million in homes at that sort of level?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Three million, I think but and if you look at a country like Denmark, we are six million people. If we were to build nuclear reactors which by the way, by law we don’t but if we were to want nuclear reactors we would build a nuclear reactor. They come in 1.6-gigawatt chunks. You don’t want a single point of failure that’s a refueling cycle. You want four units of those. And four units would then cover our entire electricity consumption so four reactors. But imagine if one of those fails, it’s a huge hit on our grid. And also it’s basically in one chunk, we are buying our entire grid. With the modern industry and nuclear delays up between a few years and a few decades if you want to build a nuclear reactor, what you do is you put 20 billion Euro on the table on day one.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: And then a couple of years later, you probably are asked to put in 10 billion more Euro and you’ll do that. And then you’ll have some delays and at some point between 5 and 25 years from now, you will suddenly get the entire electricity production of Denmark delivered to your grid overnight, right? Obviously, you want to break it up into smaller chunks where it’s in our case, we say 100-megawatt reactors, 100-megawatt electric which comes in pairs so you have some redundancy of failure. We produce 200-megawatt units that correspond to a large wind turbine farm or a small gas power station. I would say a city of 50,000 people.
AZEEM AZHAR: And one of the things I’m really curious about, it’s one of the drivers of what I call the exponential age is learning rates, right? It’s learning rates that has driven the unit cost of silicon chips down. It’s learning rates that have driven the cost of lithium iron batteries down or the cost of cell photovoltaics. When you look at the sort of techno economics of your reactors, do you see sort of significant learning rates where the end for the kind is going to be many, many percentage points cheaper than first of a kind and that those are of benefits that you’ll see as you build and sell more of these?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: When you talk solar, it’s your production methods and the chemistry behind it and all of these things where your savings are. When you’re talking nuclear, you’re talking steel. It’s a more bulky thing so you wouldn’t expect these factor trends to just appear out of nowhere. However, there are some places where we can optimize. For the first reactors, we are leaning on existing supply chains. Those turbines, we are today building for coal power stations we will use those for our reactor so same steam temperature and pressure and all of that. Use off-shelf component where you can and that includes the nuclear fuel. We want to use existing nuclear supply chain for procurement of the fuel. But as I said, we can easily burn nuclear waste in these reactors. We are just not allowed to but that’s a place where you could save a lot of money because in a nuclear reactor today, the cost driver is the Cap-Ex cost of the facility. Then secondary is waste and fuel but in our reactors, the facility is so much cheaper that the cost driver becomes the fuel and the waste. That means that if we can recycle that waste which we can technically do, then that’s a massive cost saving. There are some chunks we can cut off but it’s not going to be significantly cheaper, certainly.
AZEEM AZHAR: What is your sort of target cost for one of these compact molten salt reactors?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Hello. I would say when our current cost estimates and those are changing fast these days due to the conflict in Ukraine. Basically, Russia owns half of their world nuclear fuel supply and that’s a cost driver. But the current estimates is that we are approximately half-priced as the cheapest in the Southeast Asian markets. Of course, you need a margin for the investors to earn something on the products and for taking the risk of the owners of the plants. It won’t necessarily impact the electricity price of Southeast Asia we just mean that you could expand the grid faster for less money.
AZEEM AZHAR: If we go to sort of a different way of looking at the cost of electricity, often the way one thinks about it is this idea of the levelized cost of electricity over time. And what we saw was that in the decade to 2019, the levelized cost of electricity from solar photovoltaic dropped from $350, $380 per megawatt-hour to $65 to $70 per megawatt-hour. It was a really, really steep price decline whereas nuclear energy rose by about 60% towards about $150 per megawatt-hour. And I guess from a-
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Yeah. Sorry, I could answer that question but I’m going to call board on it. Does that mean that if you buy a solar panel on Greenland or if you buy one in Sahara or if you buy one in California? Or is it if you buy one in somewhere Norway where it’s always clouded or the North of UK where it’s all clouded as well?
AZEEM AZHAR: It’s a median right across the ranges, right? It’s a median across the installations that take place, right?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: No. No, it’s not and yeah, it’s a median amongst installation that do take place, which is way already in the favorable areas because otherwise, you wouldn’t have built them there. LCOE the levelized cost of energy is highly sight-dependent for all technologies even for coal. If you build a coal in a region with no roads, I promise you it’ll be more expensive. If you build them in a region far away from where there’s mines, it’ll be more expensive. If you build it next to the mines, that’s really cheap. For all of the technologies, they have their niches and LCOE is varying a lot. There’s a big difference in LCOE from North Europe, to South Europe and from Europe to US and from US to Asia. I could tell you some numbers which would be in the optimal case where you just built this on a patch and leave it in the harbor but that would never happen because you would never need it in that harbor. It’s a very complicated thing. What I can say is that in Southeast Asia, in the markets we have looked at there we are approximately half price of the competitive technologies. I hardly think we can beat wind power in the North Sea actually. And I hardly think we can beat solar and California but then if we were to build this in California, we could supply their energy supply security that they crave for because of all their solar destabilizing the grid. We could provide stability. That would be more expensive than the solar because they can do incredibly cheap solar there. It’s still a needed thing so it also depends on what you’re paying for.
AZEEM AZHAR: Yeah. I mean and I think that’s interesting because that talks to the way in which the policy and industry has to look at the energy mix, right? Because you may be willing to pay for more expensive energy at certain times because it provides you that resilience to the grid, right? I mean, that’s the benefit beyond the absolute sort of dollar cost that the consumer ends up paying.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Look around your local area at the grid and you’ll find some places which are not going to be very economical. For example, here in Denmark, we have a place called, Copenhagen which is a gas power station. It operates for approximately two or three times, two hours a year and it’s always fully staffed. It’s therefore the emergency when something else sets out. I can promise you that electricity price it’s really, really high to have a fully staffed plant and produce six hours of electricity. It depends also on the product you buy. This LCOE is just a blatant number. We are very compatible in LCOE and I would say in the markets we are half the price and we’ll also produce a higher value product but that depends from market to market.
AZEEM AZHAR: Let’s talk about the timelines for rollouts.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: We were planning on 2026. Of course, that requires a lot of things to work out. One of the things that was required was the fuel supply chain and that would have to come from Russia to reach that timeline. Currently, I would say it’s a little bit up in the air and my guess is 28. We’ll be the first commercial power production. If you were to put the money on the table to build a coal fire station or wind turbine farm today, you wouldn’t have it by 28. That’s still a very short time in the energy market.
AZEEM AZHAR: I mean, energy as you say is a sort of slow moving market that requires all sorts of considerations from raising the capital to regulator requirements to how do you plug into a grid and market to market. Do you need much regulatory changes? Do you require national or international regulators to look at your technologies in different ways in order to make that 2028 timeframe?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: If you ask your best friend in the nuclear industry, he will say that the biggest barrier to deployment of new types of nuclear power is regulatory. I will say that there are good reasons for that but it just means that the regulatory framework is broken. The nuclear regulatory system is built up around you have a couple of layers, you have the industry itself, they report to a national regulatory body. They report then to, or they are liable to a government and that government is liable to the international community via the international atomic energy agency. And that is a UN organization. It’s actually the biggest UN organization. You basically report to UN and it does make sense when you have an accident which can spread a few thousand kilometers from the site. Then of course, your neighboring countries and their neighbors and their neighbors would want to know that you’re safe. And for that, you require some international regulation so that part makes sense. For a nuclear newcomer country, it’s extremely hard to build a regulatory body which your neighbor’s, neighbor’s, neighbor’s countries can rely on. And that’s just, it’s virtually impossible if you are a developing country. It takes decades to build. What we’re doing instead is we are saying, actually we build our reactors on patches because then we can use shipyards where they’re good at building in well-developed countries to produce high-quality products and deliver them to where they’re needed in developing countries. And that requires that we comply to maritime law. Instead of putting the maritime law under the nuclear framework, we decided to go the other way and put the nuclear law under the maritime framework. We are actually adding more rules. They can actually approve this to international standards. And in our case, we use American Bureau of Shipping or we want to use American Bureau of Shipping. We are already working with them to do this and they actually are involved in maritime but also in onshore nuclear regulations. They know what they’re doing. They’re competent to make this approval then you get a flag state to sign off on it. That could be any highly regarded international nation that is trusted already. And then you have all the international law and regulations and safety standards those are confirmed internationally. Then you bring that product to the local place and the local authorities can put whatever rules they want on top of that. And you will also obey those but they don’t have to be liable towards international community because that has already happened by the maritime framework.
AZEEM AZHAR: What are the technical hurdles that stand between where you are today and getting those first reactors running? What are the things that you feel you have to overcome?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Yeah. Is this where I should say that I lost my connection level? That’s a lot. I mean this is obviously a huge opportunity. And I’m saying that if we meet our targets, which is not likely but it could happen but if we meet our targets, we’ll be probably the world’s largest company of one of them. There’s a massive upside but it comes with a lot of investment risk here or technical risk. And I classified them and first we have to do this regulatory change which is not a small thing to do. Then we also have on the tech side. Fluoride salts, I said it there that fluorides react very aggressively with these fission products to attach them and create these stable salts that are safe. But that also means that the fluorine that’s your reactor vessel quite dramatically. It’s highly corrosive and handling that corrosion is no small task. There’s a lot of work around that. Even worse, we are using sodium hydroxide and I said that there’s a lot of challenges with graphite. In my opinion, those challenges might be insurmountable. We’ve replaced those challenges with a new set of challenges because sodium hydroxide is not easy to work with. We came up with it when we were physicists only and started working on it because from a physics point of view, it’s nice. And we assumed that it wasn’t very corrosive because I mean you use it in your sink. If you could pour it down your drain, it’s probably safe, right? It’s not poisonous but it turns out it’s wildly corrosive. When we hired our first chemist he said, “No, you can’t do it.” He spent a few months on literature studies and he came back and said, “Okay, actually the literature is a little bit inconsistent.” And then he spent a few months and he came back and said, “I have a theory for why.” And then six years later, we actually have it under control in the lab and on small scale that’s not a small step. There’s a lot of things that has to go right for this to happen. In the beginning, we found unknown unknowns all the time and we have survived through them. It comes with a huge development risk. We are building a nuclear reactor here. It’s not a small investment and we have to prove that it’s safe and not prove academically that it’s safe. We have to actually go out there and test stuff and see that it actually works. We simultaneously have this regulatory process running. And so the chemists are pretty solid on their fundamental chemistry. They have to, of course, expand that and expand our knowledge so we become even better at it. But there’s also a lot of data that needs to be produced in this process which will help the regulatory verify our claims. We have to go out externally and verify some of it. And some could be at university, others has to have higher quality than that. There’s a lot of auxiliary activities running next to us just building that into probably the first reactor. And then in the process of building this reactor, we also need to start, I mean, you’re not going to build a reactor without a plan for getting rid of it. We also have to develop the baseline for decommissioning and dismantling and we will start evolving for the next product cycle because as I said, 12 years down the road, we’ll come and install two new reactors. We need to fix where do we expect to be able to optimize so we can fit those cavities with the right framework for those optimizations at a later stage. There’s a lot of different developing activities in parallel should to the actual prototyping and getting to market.
AZEEM AZHAR: And of course, public opinion is a challenge here so how do you go about changing public opinion as well?
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: We are changing the public opinion. Since I was small and it’s been a while, not that young anymore but since I was small we are talking about climate issues. We have known about this for so long and look at the issue. We have talked about the issues for so long and it’s still there. I am sick and tired of talking about climate. We don’t need climate talking. We need climate action so let’s just go out and do it. We just need to make it cheap enough that people would want it and then we need to make it scalable. We don’t need to change the public opinion on this. That will change when it’s there and when they get cheap electricity, the popular opinion will change.
AZEEM AZHAR: Well, Troels Schönfeldt from a series of accidental bad decisions to a pathway and an ambition to being one of the largest companies in the world… that’s quite the journey. Thank you so much.
TROELS SCHÖNFELDT: Pleasure is all mine.
AZEEM AZHAR: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast, look out for other podcasts in the series, the discussion with Nick Hawker the CEO of First Light Fusion, a fusion startup is super interesting so is my conversation with Michele DellaVigna of Goldman Sachs on the economics of the carbon transition. This podcast is a production of E^Pi(i)+1, Ltd.
The future of safe, clean, and small nuclear power stations.