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🌊 Nuclear Energy
Gm startup riders! This week’s good stuff for your startup brain includes:
☢️ Nuclear Energy: past, present and future, + startups working in the space.
🍬 Startup Candy: Sequoia’s generative AI map & Lenny’s GTM napkin.
💵 Deals & Jobs: 14 startup deals in Spain (>€400M).
☢️ Nuclear Energy
This week my friend and colleague Jose María Hernanz, Partner at JME.vc, takes us down the fascinating nuclear energy rabbit hole. Lets go:
Humans are struggling to achieve efficient and sustainable ways to generate energy.
There is evidence that suggests that increasing nuclear energy production could be a powerful way to solve this problem relatively safely in the short term, or at least improve the status quo - as a powerful complement to renewable energy production.
The debate around nuclear energy production is becoming increasingly crucial amid the current geopolitical situation. Regardless of being for or against its production - it should be approached with an open and critical mind.
⏳ How we got here
The tl;dr of Nuclear Energy History
There are 4 well defined phases in the history of Nuclear Energy development:
1895-1945: time where the likes of Pierre and Marie Curie, Rutherford, Niels Bohrn Hahn or Strassman discovered and studied radiation, worked with different materials/elements and the building blocks of what we know about nuclear technology was developed.
1939-1945: all economic and human resources where focused on the development of the atomic bomb
1945-1955: period where the application for naval propulsion and electricity generation was the ambition
1956-onwards: years where the improvement of nuclear power plants has been mastered and the development of new technologies are being studied
Science/scientist discovered and developed a controlled way to manipulate uranium atoms that causes the production of energy and they applied it to different means.
All in all, we have witnessed several decades where the basis of nuclear energy was being discovered, some years where the main focus was the development of the atomic bomb and later, years where they studied how to apply nuclear physics to improve different industries such as medicine, energy and pharmacology.
How does nuclear energy work?
In a nutshell: nuclear reactors apply energy (“throwing” neutrons) to a Uranium atom > thanks to the laws of physics this creates more neutrons (fission) that hit other atoms, that creates more neutrons, and so on…. > giving rise to a phenomenon known as a chain reaction*.
This activity in turn boils water (or gas), water steam moves turbines, which in turn generate mechanical energy which is then transformed into electrical energy. The latter is then connected to the electrical grid.
This is a very simplistic explanation but the important thing to remember is that nuclear energy leverages the laws of physics to create controlled heat without burning anything.
Evolution of the nuclear power reactors
Since 1951 when the first nuclear reactor was able to produce electricity, we have had different improvements and technologies. There are 4 generations of nuclear reactors:
1st generation: referred to the ones developed between 1950-1960. The last of this kind was closed in 2015.
2nd-3rd generation: The ones currently operating. From the second to the third generation there have been some safety enhancements but nothing really remarkable.
4th generation: Still in development mode. Under this generation we can see several important improvements such as the reduction of high-level waste, the higher energy yield, the use of more types of fuels, and the re-utilization of current nuclear waste. According to press, China has already built a IV generation reactor and connected it to the grid. However, we cannot expect a mass-construction of these kind until 2040-2050.
On the technology side, there are different types of reactors technology. The most used are the PWR and BWR with 69% and 20% of the market share respectively.
PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor): 2 circuit design. It uses ordinary water as coolant and as moderator (to slow down neutrons). The water in this reactor can reach up to 325ºC.
BWR (Boiling Water Reactor): 1 circuit design. Water is at a lower pressure compared to PWR. The water in this reactor can reach up to 285ºC.
Others: PHWR (Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor); AGR (Advanced gas-cooled reactors); LWGR (Light-water Gas reator); FNR (fast-Neutron Reactors)
We show below the breakdown of nuclear reactors by type and geography. (Source: world nuclear association)
Additionally, there are a number of reactors under construction. As we show below, countries such as China are betting hard on this energy source. 54 new reactors are expected to be built by 2028, with China and India leading the way:
There has traditionally been two main concerns from the general public when discussing Nuclear Energy: (i) An explosion of the reactor (ii) Nuclear waste
1/ Nuclear plants accidents ≠ Nuclear explosion
Many people believe a nuclear power plant can explode as if it was a nuclear bomb, similar to Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
This is not possible as the “fuel” of a nuclear reactor and the “fuel” of a nuclear bomb is different. A nuclear reactors needs uranium with a 3-10% of the isotope U235 and a nuclear bomb needs uranium with a >90% of U235.
A history of nuclear power plants accidents
Here’s an overview of all the major nuclear reactor accidents that have occurred since the birth of this technology:
Where and when = Ukraine, 26 April 1986
Direct Casualties = 46
Other consequences = 5.000 Thyroid cancer were reported (15 died) due to direct contact with radiation, c.350k people were evacuated, environmental loss.
Where and when = Japan, 11th March 2011
Direct Casualties = 0
Other consequences = evacuation of Fukushima and am environmental impact.
What happened = Japan suffered the worst earthquake in its history also resulting in a Tsunami. This caused al the reactors in the country to properly shut down. However, due to the tsunami, the emergency generators from 3 reactors failed. This caused the cooling system to shut down, causing it to overheat and to explode.
We have also seen other reactors malfunctions such as Three Mile Island, but you have probably not heard of it as all the safety systems worked perfectly and the only consequence was the closure of the plant.
Despite Chernobyl’s and Fukushima’s terrible accidents, it could be argued that Nuclear Energy production, net net, has had less of an impact on our planet than the likes of fossil fuels (with well documented environmental and health implications) or even hydro-electric energy production (accidents like the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure in China, with an estimated death toll of 30K-240K lives).
2/ Nuclear Waste
Although highly problematic, nuclear waste management systems have proven to be relatively robust and safe over the years. Importantly, improvements in new reactor technology are starting to generate far lesser waste - for instance, 4th generation reactors have the potential to use >90% of the Uranium fuel vs. 5-10% currently.
🗺️ Market Map
Let’s throw out some numbers and have a top-down view of the current impact of nuclear energy in the world.
There are c440 nuclear power plants in the world. Additionally there are 150-200 ships powered by >200 small nuclear reactors, this includes submarines, ice-breakers and others.
54 plants are under construction
They currently generates c.10% of worldwide electricity (20% of industrialized countries)
We have recently known that despite Fukushima, Japan has annouced they will increase their efforts on nuclear energy development.
France possesses 56 nuclear reactors.
Germany has developed a plan to close all reactors by 2022. However, in light of recent events, we are seeing them extend the life of 2 power plants.
Spain runs 7 nuclear plants, producing c.20% power supply, with 0# currently under construction. Interestingly, while in the early 70’s Spain developed an ambitious plan to build 24 power plants, only a few became active.
The following table show the mix of energy generation of Germany, France and Spain as of 9th october 2022. As we see, Germany generation is skewed towards fossil fuels, France nuclear and Spain is in the middle.
Conclusion, France is generating 62 gCO₂eq/kWh, Spain 243 gCO₂eq/kWh and Germany 352 gCO₂eq/kWh.
It is also interesting to understand the countries involved in the supply of the main nuclear reactor fuel (the mining and the enrichment of Uranium).
Countries mining Uranium (2021 numbers):
Countries enriching Uranium (2020 numbers):
Here’s a few examples of interesting companies working in the space.
Xenergy - new generation reactors and fuel.
P.s.: if you are a founder working in this space we’d love to meet you.
When deciding to implement a Nuclear Energy strategy, it is important to assess the reality on the ground, backed by evidence. It has become commonplace for politicians across the world to use Nuclear Energy to promote their particular agendas - on both sides of the debate.
Blanket statements regarding Nuclear Energy are harmful, and investments in developing its underlying technologies, particularly when it comes to its production safety and waste management, have taken a significant toll as a result.
Energy production is a field full of trade-offs and gray areas, and it should be approached with the scientific method in mind.
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🍬 Sartup Candy
💵 Startup Deals & Jobs
You love startups and want to enjoy a Spanish lifestyle? Come join the Spanish startup ecosystem. Here’s a list of recently funded startups:
Factorial (hr tech) raised 120M
Zunder (chargin solution for electric vehicles) raised 100M
Stratio BD (augmented data) raised 65M
Lodgify (traveltech) raised 30M
IriusRisk (cybersecurity) rasied 28M
Seqera Labs (data pipelines) raised 22M
Toqio (fintech) raised 20M
Depull (healthtech) raised 13M
Nuubo (healthtech) raised 8M
Penpot (design tool) raised 8M
Tucuvi (medtech) raised 5M
Prophero (proptech) raised 5M
Metricool (metrics) raised 5M
PandaGo (mobility) raised 4.7M