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After helping lead e-book revolution, E Ink co-founder goes nuclear

Posted by Scott Kirsner  June 4, 2012 10:24 AM

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I get a lot of e-mails from entrepreneurs about a lot of different kinds of companies they're starting.

But it is not every day — nor every decade — that I get an e-mail from someone who is working on a new venture that will design and manufacture nuclear reactors.

So I was somewhat stunned when Russ Wilcox, former CEO and co-founder of the display-maker E Ink, e-mailed Friday afternoon to let me know that he had signed on as CEO and co-founder of Transatomic Power. The company, Wilcox informed me, is designing a "modular and rail-shippable" 200-500 megawatt reactor, "suitable for the replacement of coal plants." It could be manufactured at a central facility, and then shipped to where it is needed. His co-founders are Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, both PhD students at MIT's nuclear engineering department.

The reactor will rely on nuclear waste to produce power. They call it a "waste-annihilating molten salt reactor," and it can run entirely on the used fuel pellets produced by today's reactors, while reducing the volume of that waste. It's targeted initially at replacing coal plants, and later older nuclear plants, Wilcox explains, "which together make up about 60 percent of U.S. electricity production." He says the company's reactor design could produce roughly thirty times the electricity per pound of fuel, compared to traditional light water reactors.

Transatomic has so far raised $760,000 from individual investors, Wilcox says. I obviously asked about the high cost of developing a new reactor technology and bringing it to market.

"Developing, licensing and building the first commercial nuclear plant at our scale is a proposition that costs several billion dollars," he says. "But we can get to a pilot plant for much less, and use that to justify the big follow-on investment. The lifetime sales potential for a breakthrough power plant that is safe, cheap, and eliminates the waste problem is in the hundreds of billions. More importantly, the world needs this. And if we can manufacture in the USA and export to the developing world, it means a lot of new jobs."

As for the high degree of difficulty of designing a new kind of reactor as a startup company, Wilcox says, "I think the peple who know me see this as completely consistent with an overall goal of taking on big challenges, and doing something the world needs. I love science, and with E Ink I was already involved with the movement of one project from MIT out into the world. This is different, but also a repeat of what I've done before." The company doesn't yet have an office, and Wilcox says they're not doing much hiring as they work on honing the design and talking with utilities.

Last month, I noted that Wilcox had joined the board of Harvest Automation, a Billerica robotics startup. He has also made about a half-dozen angel investments.

Another nuclear reactor startup, Terrapower, has raised money from Cambridge's Charles River Ventures. That company is working on a kind of reactor called a "traveling wave reactor," which relies on depleted uranium, a waste product of uranium enrichment, as its fuel.

Here's a video in which Transatomic co-founders Massie and Dewan talk about their reactor design; their segment starts at about six minutes in.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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