This new technology for nuclear power could help fuel the AI revolution (2024)

Ancient alchemists once tried transmuting elements, toying with metals like lead to create gold. That pursuit of quick riches has since been abandoned, but scientists are now using a similar idea to level up one of the world's most promising energy sources.

Transmutex, a Swiss startup, is pioneering a new method for "nuclear transmutation" that not only destroys nuclear waste but can also turn it back into energy — solving a key problem in nuclear energy production.

Scientists have long considered nuclear energy one of the cleanest and most reliable forms of energy production. However, the waste it creates must be stored in deep geological repositories for thousands of years to prevent the environment from being exposed to harmful radiation. Transmutex says its technology can "transmute" 99% of the world's high-level radioactive waste into new fuel.

Nagra, the Swiss agency that manages nuclear waste, validated the claim as a "theoretical possibility" in a letter to the company last month.

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Switzerland, however, has pivoted away from nuclear energy, in part because of the safety concerns made apparent by Japan's f*ckushima disaster in 2011. But such disasters are rare and many other countries —like the United States and Saudi Arabia, for example — are betting on nuclear energy as the most efficient and sustainable option.

"To reach our goal of net zero by 2050, we have to at least triple our current nuclear capacity," US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in May.

Tech companies at the forefront of the AI revolution are also turning to nuclear energy to power their vast AI data centers.

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Transmutex CEO Franklin Servan-Schreiber believes the company can help these businesses go nuclear by destroying that long-term waste.

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"If we know how to deal with the waste, even if it takes a long time, we still know that in the future there is a limit to that waste, which is not gonna be a million years. That's the key," he told Business Insider in an interview.

A new fuel cycle for nuclear power

This new technology for nuclear power could help fuel the AI revolution (1)

Transmutex's technology uses high-energy subatomic particles known as neutrons to destroy highly radioactive nuclear waste. While it can take hundreds of thousands of years for nuclear waste to decay to safe radiation levels, Transmutex says its technology can shorten that timeframe to just decades.

Servan-Schreiber says that over time, this system can also turn that waste into fuel that can be used again in nuclear power plants — a sort of nuclear recycling program.

"Because you're able to burn waste and release energy, overall the process is very profitable," Cameron Porter, a venture capitalist who manages Steel Atlas and is an investor in Transmutex, told Business Insider.

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Nuclear physicists say the company's technology avoids one of the biggest concerns with nuclear energy: that the same fuel used to power nuclear plants can also be used to manufacture atomic weapons.

"We don't want that to happen," Andrei Afanasev, a professor of physics at George Washington University's Institute for Nuclear Studies, told Business Insider.

Transmutex avoids this risk because it doesn't produce plutonium, a key element for making nuclear bombs.

The technology is also more efficient, Afanasev said. According to the Department of Energy, spent nuclear fuel can still have about 90% of its potential energy even after five years of operation in a reactor.

With nuclear reactors, "you just throw away a big chunk of energy that you could use for everybody," he said. "So this technology addresses this issue. They can extract more energy from the existing fuel."

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AI firms on the lookout for energy solutions

The AI industry is looking for new, more reliable power sources as the race to develop artificial intelligence ramps up.

"Energy, not compute, will be the No. 1 bottleneck to AI progress," Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on the Dwarkesh Podcast in April, referring to the computational resources needed for training and running AI models.

Oklo, a startup backed by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, is betting on generating nuclear power through small nuclear reactors. Its Aurora reactor can run on spent nuclear waste.

This new technology for nuclear power could help fuel the AI revolution (2)

Servan-Schreiber said nuclear power might be the only way to support the industry's massive energy demands.

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"AI requires massive, industrial-scale amounts of energy," Servan-Schreiber said. "Only nuclear power will be able to supply this massive energy demand in a reliable manner. With a technology like Transmutex (only one currently being proposed), the US can build classic uranium-based nuclear plants, such as the Vogtle plant in Georgia, without being burdened with high-level nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years."

This new technology for nuclear power could help fuel the AI revolution (2024)
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