As the tech downturn continues, nuclear fusion investment remains strong — in 2021, beyond €2.7 billion was injected only in this area. More recently, the UK Space Agency has pledged £2.9 million to allow Rolls-Royce to develop a nuclear reactor that could operate on the moon and power future settlements there.
Back on Earth, nuclear technology plays an important role in achieving global carbon neutrality and limiting global warming to 1.5°C. In its 2022 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) highlighted its importance in improving multiple sectors, including energy, which is responsible for more than a third of global energy-related emissions.
The report stated: “With one of the lowest carbon footprints among low-carbon technologies, 24/7 availability and the ability to work flexibly, nuclear power can make an important contribution to the stability and security of a fully carbon-free energy system, and a good complement to renewable sources.”
In December, a major scientific breakthrough was made by the US Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration, announcing the achievement of nuclear fusion. This milestone opens the door to further progress in national defense and the future of clean energy.
With regard to the latter, British projects are also being worked on — scientists from the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) project to develop a prototype power station, with which they hope to generate an unlimited supply of clean energy by 2040. In addition, the country has recently competition for small modular nuclear reactors to enable the energy transition.
The energy crisis continues to this day, partly due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Governments are now looking to invest in new and innovation-led ways to power homes and businesses across their country.
A new way of thinking
The innovative approach to technology creation and the “new way of thinking” synonymous with startup culture makes it perfect for disrupting the age-old nuclear technology industry. But what exactly can startups offer when it comes to nuclear energy?
“The nuclear sector has evolved significantly in recent years, with the next generation of startups transforming the way the industry operates,” said Elisabeth Rizzotti, COO of the London-based nuclear technology company. Newcleo. The startup is working to generate safe, clean and sustainable nuclear energy through the development of Generation IV reactors – a technology that is internationally recognized as the next step in the evolution of nuclear power plants.
“Like space exploration, the industry is no longer moving limited to research and what is received from government funding, but is embracing an entrepreneurial spirit and showing heightened dynamism that is attracting significant amounts of private investment.”
So, what are some of the key terms around nuclear power? Here are four to aid your understanding:
- Nuclear fusion is a process in which two light atomic nuclei fuse into one heavier nucleus, releasing enormous amounts of energy.
- The 4th generation of nuclear fusion – an area often tackled by startups – involves a system of reactors and fuel cycle facilities such as fuel fabrication plants and reprocessing facilities. This system could control the weaknesses often associated with nuclear power, such as low fuel consumption, accidents and high costs.
- Nuclear fission is when a neutron hits a larger atom, forcing it to split into two smaller atoms. When each atom splits, an enormous amount of energy is released. This reaction is used in all nuclear power plants.
- Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors with a capacity of about one third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear reactors.
Thrive in the industry
European startups thriving in this industry include a Danish company Seaborg Technologies, whose mission is to make the generation of nuclear energy cheap and sustainable. It has created compact molten salt reactors that it hopes will become one of the most sustainable energy sources in the world. Last summer, Seaborg was chosen as the recipient of an EU innovation grant, with 74 startups sharing €382 million in grants and/or equity investments. The amount for each startup depended on their needs, with a maximum of €17.5 million.
Another startup to watch is based in Sweden LeadCold, which is developing a small nuclear reactor cooled with liquid lead. The startup hopes to have the first reactor ready for commercial use by 2030.
“Given the industry’s unique characteristics, we are looking for startups that can benefit from solid foundations and resources to compete,” said Maria Cristina Odasso, Head of Business Analysis at LIFT, an Italy-based VC that has raised more than €58 million and invests heavily in nuclear startups. Its portfolio in this notoriously expensive sector includes Seaborg Technologies, LeadCold, Copenhagen Atomics, Moltex Energy and Newcleo, the latter of which closed a €300 million capital raise last year and schedule to raise £900 million more.
“This includes a strong science base, the expertise and heritage of the team and management, intellectual property and technological know-how, and a network of key stakeholders.”
Odasso notes that there is currently an interesting trend of new projects and startups around the world that include the so-called “new nuclear energy.”
“There are several startups and industrial projects working around 4th generation nuclear fusion and on the SMR concept,” adds Odasso.
Regulations and knowledge sharing
Despite the potential that startups bring to the nuclear industry, operating in this highly regulated field is a huge challenge. Safety and security are the industry’s number one priorities, with international regulatory requirements adding another layer of complexity.
As of March 2023, the IAEA has 176 member states, all of which must adhere to the extensive regulatory frameworks that ensure the safety of nuclear installations throughout their lifetime. The Safety Standards and Code of Conduct for Research Reactor Safety contain the international requirements and recommendations for developing regulatory systems, which inevitably create significant, but vital hurdles for startups to overcome.
“It’s a challenge,” Odasso admits. “Resources and skills for the regulatory process need to be planned and secured from the start. Otherwise, the company will never leave the research world to start a concrete industrial project.”
Newcleo’s Rizzotti believes that governments and policymakers have a key role to play, particularly in terms of initiatives and policies that promote investment and growth in the sector, but that also applies to education.
“Aside from regulation, this goes all the way through to schooling and STEM education as we try to build the next generation of nuclear talent,” she says.
Rizzotti emphasizes that Newcleo takes a strong stance on knowledge transfer and looks to its more experienced team members to collaborate with those new to the industry to ensure their expertise is merged with the latest approaches and practices.
While it will take time, she believes this is the best way to ensure a positive future for the nuclear industry. approach across the industry.
A new offer
Startups thrive in the challenging nuclear industry, creating innovative technology that proves disruptive.
“The compact nature of SMRs is a far cry from the large factories of the past, offering shorter and easier build times and much more viable delivery schedules,” says Rizzotti.
“For Newcleo, our most important evolution rests on closing the fuel cycle with the use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuels, which use existing nuclear waste. This will reduce the environmental and financial costs of disposing of such waste, reduce the risk of proliferation and avoid the need to mine new nuclear fuel.”
As innovation increases for nuclear startups around the world, so does a new demand for expertise in the field. Skill shortages in technology worldwide have been much talked about, and the nuclear industry is no different. While innovators and founders may have the ideas, a lack of experts can hinder growth.
“It is likely that our biggest challenges are yet to come, and will likely be in the form of removing the regulatory hurdles for a type of technology that has not been built before, despite being based on existing and proven technologies,” adds Rizzotti. . “But we feel well positioned to overcome them with the scientific talent, skills, business framework and financial set-up we have.”
The nuclear startup ecosystem will continue to evolve in 2023, with the France-based nuclear fusion startup Renaissance fusion already announced a €15 million seed round this year, alongside numerous similar announcements outside Europe.
Odasso predicts that in 2023 we will see new startups emerging in both the fusion and fission market segments and will attract a huge amount of funding from both private and public funding.
Given the latter, she expects to see significant improvement over the next 18-24 months for a number of existing players, consolidating their projects as major SMR industry players.
For Newcleo, the startup will expand its global team even further in 2023 and hopefully secure the acquisition of sites in both the UK and France, enabling it to fully prepare for the deployment of its technology and produce the required quantities of MOX. fuel.
“The next decade will be fundamental to the future of energy security, independence and the planet we live on. Clean, inexhaustible energy must be immediately available,” concludes Rizzotti. “We are absolutely committed to doing our part to make this happen.”