Science Gazette

How a Swiss start-up intends to reimagine nuclear power


Transmutex is working on a new kind of nuclear reactor that uses thorium instead of uranium to generate electricity. These power plants would be able to generate energy in a safe and non-radioactive manner. An ambitious project that has the potential to transform the nuclear energy landscape.

“It’s difficult to say no when a Nobel Laureate invites you to collaborate with him.” Federico Carminati, a nuclear physicist and the creator of the Swiss firm Transmutex, vividly remembers receiving a phone call from Carlo Rubbia, the head of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva at the time.

“It was 1990, and I was working at CERN as a rookie employee. Rubbia approached me about helping to construct a new sort of nuclear reactor “Carminati recalls something.

The project generated a lot of excitement, but in the end, the notion of combining a thorium reactor with a particle accelerator was shelved. The nuclear business was uninterested in innovation, and the issue of radioactive waste storage was not yet a significant concern.

The times have changed in the last thirty years. Nuclear power has shown its limitations, particularly in terms of waste and safety. It was time for Carminati to resurrect Rubbia’s idea. He and a French entrepreneur, Franklin Servan-Schreiber, created the start-up Transmutex in 2019. Their goal was to completely “reinvent” nuclear power.

Instead of uranium, thorium is used

Heat is generated in a nuclear power plant by dividing atoms, a process known as nuclear fission. In a traditional reactor, a neutron beam is used to attack the fuel material, which is commonly uranium or plutonium. As the atoms split, energy and additional neutrons are released, causing a chain reaction. The heat created is then utilized to make steam, which is subsequently used to generate electricity.

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A nuclear power plant provides energy in big amounts and continuously without generating greenhouse gases. It does, however, produce radioactive waste, which most nations, including Switzerland, are unsure where to put permanently.

Transmutex’s approach is to replace uranium with thorium. Thorium is a non-radioactive metal found in abundance in rocks across the Earth’s crust. “It’s a lot more democratic than uranium,” Carminati explains. The majority of the uranium used in nuclear power plants is mined in Kazakhstan, Australia, and Canada.

Thorium is fissioned in a sub-critical reactor and then fed into neutrons through a particle accelerator. This implies that, unlike traditional reactors, the facility will not be able to maintain a chain reaction. The reactor shuts down promptly if the neutron flow is halted. This feature would have averted disasters like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

There will be less nuclear waste

According to Carminati, a thorium reactor with a particle accelerator has several benefits. Thorium by-products have a far shorter radioactive decay period than uranium – 300 years instead of 300,000. There would also be a huge reduction in hazardous trash. “We’re talking about a few kilos rather than tons,” Carminati explains.

The thorium cycle would also help to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. He claims that the by-products of thorium fission cannot be utilised to build an atomic weapon.

That’s not all, however. Nuclear waste from current nuclear power plants might potentially be used to run a thorium reactor. The movement of ultra-fast particles allows trash to be burned and energy to be produced. Furthermore, some of the short-lived radioactive waste may be converted into stable elements via a process known as ‘transmutation’ (hence the name of the Transmutex start-up). “This might alleviate the issue of highly radioactive waste buildup and storage,” Carminati argues.

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Collaboration between Russia and the United States

Transmutex aspires to capitalize on Swiss and foreign-developed technology. It plans to develop a particle accelerator that is more powerful than those now used for cancer therapy in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute, Switzerland’s foremost research centre for natural and technical sciences.

International partners have already been drawn to the start-up. The Russian business Rosatom, which specializes in nuclear submarine engines, is looking into developing the reactor. One of the most major nuclear research institutions in the United States, Argonne National Laboratory, is working on thorium fuel.

“We have all of the necessary components to develop a new sort of reactor; all that’s left is to put them together,” Carminati explains. By the early 2030s, Transmutex hopes to have a demonstration prototype available.

“Renaissance of nuclear power”

A new generation of nuclear power facilities seems to be on the horizon. The idea is being revived due to the need to decrease CO2 emissions and worries of lengthy power outages. Currently, the 440 or so nuclear power stations in operation across the globe provide around 10% of the world’s energy.

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