The Promises and Pitfalls of Nuclear Energy Startups

Jacob Wolf
March 17, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Nuclear fission reaction vs. nuclear fusion reaction. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear energy is a controversial topic. Nuclear energy has the potential to revolutionize how people around the world access energy, making energy cheaper and more sustainable. However, concerns about safety and viability have swelled in recent years, fueled by the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and the falling prices of other sources of energy. Despite this, there is still significant excitement surrounding the development of nuclear technologies, represented by the $1.6 billion invested in 55 nuclear startups in the last five years. [1, 2, 3] This excitement is inspired, in part, by the allure of nuclear fusion: a process that, if perfected, could simplify the starting material for the reaction as well as the clean up from the reaction. [2, 3, 4] However, in the race to secure funding and achieve this efficiency, startups can be encouraged to make false or exaggerated claims about the capabilities of their models. In this note I discuss the promise these startups hold for the development of nuclear energy technologies as well as the potentially negative effects of startup culture on the field of nuclear energy as a whole.

Promise of Nuclear Energy Startups

Traditionally, nuclear power has been generated using nuclear fission, a process where heavy nuclei are split and the energy released is captured. Nuclear fusion, where two light nuclei are merged, is appealing because it is easier to source the materials needed to achieve fusion (deuterium and tritium) and because fusion produces less radioactive waste. [4, 5] This distinction between the process of fission and fusion is shown in Fig. 1. However, nuclear fusion has thus far been elusive on a large scale due to the cost prohibitiveness resulting from the difficulty of the process of generating fusion. [4] However, nuclear energy startups like General Fusion, Helion Energy, and Tri Alpha Energy see this as an opportunity and are actively developing models for reactors to accomplish fusion at scale. General Fusion, for example, hopes to have an operating fusion reactor in 2020. [1]

Another space for innovation is that of dealing with the radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors, a significant concern in considering the environmental impact of nuclear energy production. In this space, TerraPower is developing a traveling wave nuclear reactor which breeds and mechanically maintains its own fuel. [1, 2] Additionally, another company created by two students in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Transatomic Power, is developing a reactor that will be powered by molten salt and nuclear waste. [1]

Pitfalls of Competition

In racing to develop these technologies, nuclear energy startups must compete for funding to bankroll their developments, most of which will not happen until many years in the future. This extended time frame creates barriers to specificity in the estimates and claims these companies can make. [1] Transatomic Power is one example of how this environment can encourage false or exaggerated claims about the capabilities of these startups. Transatomic Power, which is backed by Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, originally claimed in March 2014 that the reactor it was developing could generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor. [7] However, in a white paper released in November 2016, the company tempered this claim, instead saying that their reactor achieves more than twice the fuel utilization of light water reactors. [8] The company acknowledged this mistake and open-published their revised analysis for the sake of transparency. [7] Still, this is concerning for the effect it could have on the perception of nuclear energy. A 2016 Gallup poll of public opinion regarding nuclear energy showed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans opposed nuclear energy. [9] When startups make false or dramatically unrealistic claims about the technologies they are developing, this could cause public opinion to become even more negative as trust in nuclear energy solutions is lost.


Developments in nuclear energy have clear potential, and some of the most influential people in technical development and venture capital are interested in the opportunities the technologies offer. [1] However, in developing these technologies and the cultures of the companies creating them, it will be essential to prioritize transparency in order to promote safety and sustainability and to inspire trust in these technologies.

© Jacob Wolf. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] K. Fehrenbacher, "How Startups Can Save Nuclear Tech," Fortune, 6 Jul 15.

[2] Y. Poddar, "Can Startups Make Nuclear Fusion Possible?," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[3] M. Camacho-Horvitz, "The Rise of 21st Century Nuclear Tech," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[4] R. Allain, "Nuclear Fission Works Fine, but Not Fusion. Here's Why," Wired Magazine, 5 Nov 15.

[5] S. Atzeni and J. Meyer-ter-Vehn, The Physics of Inertial Fusion (Oxford University Press, 2002), Ch. 1.

[6] B. Levin, "TerraPower and General Fusion," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[7] J. Temple, "Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises ," Technology Review, 24 Feb 17.

[8] "Neutronics Overview," Transatomic Power Corporation, November 2016.

[9] R. Riffkin, "For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy," Gallup News, 18 Mar 16.