Peter Thiel, Trump’s ‘shadow president’ in Silicon Valley, invests in ‘the Theranos of nuclear power’

Silicon Valley’s most prominently polarizing billionaire has his “fingerprints all over the administration” of President Donald Trump, according to a new report.

We speak, of course, of Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, libertarian and member of Trump’s transition team.

Meanwhile, another report described Thiel’s fingerprints on a firm just called “the Theranos of the nuclear power industry” after it was probed by a group of MIT professors who found its claims to be overblown, as were those of the infamous Palo Alto blood-testing startup.

But first, back to the nation’s capital: To get cozy with the most powerful man in the world, Thiel got in on the ground floor, seeding the Trump administration with his proxies, a Politico report said.

“Working with a staff of four to six aides from an office in Trump Tower, Thiel dispatched associates from his investment firms to help staff agencies across the government,” according to Politico. “Their reach extended from the Department of Commerce to the Pentagon and eventually to the White House, where one of his closest aides, Kevin Harrington, was recently elevated to the National Security Council.”

Someone identified as a senior Trump-transition aide told the news outlet that, “When you have offices and you bring staff with you and you attend all the meetings, then you have a lot of power.”

That power has given, it appears, a very high seat indeed to Thiel, 49, the iconoclastic PayPal co-creator, Facebook investor, venture capitalist and co-founder/chairman of data-analysis firm Palantir, which calls itself “the war on terror’s secret weapon.”

“At the Presidio, the old Army fort in San Francisco where Thiel’s investment firms are housed, many of his employees have taken to calling him ‘the shadow president,'” according to Politico.

Thiel’s push into political power fits a pattern, the Feb. 26 report suggested.

“His support for Trump was a signature long-shot bet that is paying big dividends in terms of access to and influence on the new administration,” Politico reported.

A Thiel spokesman declined to comment to Politico for its story. The news outlet said a senior White House official said only, “Peter has been a very prominent supporter of the president’s and we are grateful for his support.”

According to another new report, Thiel has also been a supporter of Transatomic Power, a Massachusetts startup that claimed its molten-salt nuclear reactor could generate spectacular amounts of energy from spent nuclear fuel produced by conventional reactors.

“In a white paper published in March 2014, the company proclaimed its reactor ‘can generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor,'” said an article in the MIT Technology Review.

That claim helped Transatomic bring in millions of dollars from investors, including Thiel’s Founders Fund, according to the Feb. 24 article.

But Transatomic’s assertions also caught the attention of MIT nuclear-science and engineering professor Kord Smith, who in 2015 analyzed the firm’s projections then enlisted two academic colleagues to probe further.

Smith told the Technology Review that he believed Transatomic’s claims were “incorrect based on basic physics.”

He asked the company to run a test, which resulted in confirmation that “their claims were completely untrue,” Smith said.

Smith added that promising to increase a reactor’s fuel efficiency by 75 times is equivalent to saying you’d developed a car that could get 2,500 miles per gallon, according to the Technology Review.

Transatomic CEO Leslie Dewan told the publication in an email that she was “very glad” to have the professors’ “robust technical analysis,” and she said her firm was “committed to moving ahead with our plans for low-cost, safe nuclear power.”

Founders Fund expressed confidence that it had made the right move in backing Transatomic.

“We invested in Transatomic because of their reactor’s passively safe design and dramatically reduced costs and waste,” Founders Fund partner Scott Nolan told the Technology Review in a statement.

“Together, these unlock the viability of grid-scale, carbon-free energy production. These aspects of their design are stronger than ever and we’re extremely excited about the company’s execution and future potential.”

MIT’s Smith noted that Transatomic failed to subject its technology early on to peer review, but suggested the overblown claims were not crafted to deceive.

“They didn’t do any of this intentionally,” Smith told the Technology Review. “It was just a lack of experience and perhaps an overconfidence in their own ability. And then not listening carefully enough when people were questioning the conclusions they were coming to.”

Still, the indication that Transatomic over-reached in its claims, paired with its leadership by the young, attractive nuclear physicist Dewan, appeared to have drawn the following conclusion from website Ars Technica automotive editor Jonathan Gitlin:

“Oh look,” Gitlin tweeted, above a photo of Dewan and a link to the MIT Technology Review article, “it’s the Theranos of the nuclear power industry.”

Theranos, whose labs have been shut down in the wake of findings that the firm’s heavily hyped blood-testing technology was unreliable, was founded by the telegenic Elizabeth Holmes.

Dewan told the Technology Review by phone that not imposing peer review earlier was her mistake.

“We should have open-published more of our information at a far earlier stage,” Dewan said.

Longtime Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ray Rothrock, chairman of Transatomic, told the Technology Review via email that he stood fast behind the company’s mission and plan.

“The world needs more nuclear power,” he said. “And while we are still early days for (Transatomic), I’m encouraged (by the) results so far.”

 

Photo: Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, center, listen as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. (Evan Vucci/AP)

 

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  • terry floyd

    The science of the Thorium molten salt breeder reactor
    has genuine origins in the successful Manhattan Project.
    Eugene Wigner was instrumental in advocating scientific
    decisions during the early days of it’s begining, such as
    composing and translating the critical “FDR” letter with
    Leo Szilard and Albert Einstien. Wigner later was present
    and member of Enrico Fermi’s team in Chicago , which
    assembled the intial “pile” that was the first man made
    nuclear chain reaction.
    Wigner and his Alvin Weinberg understood by July, 1944
    to build a consumer friendly nuclear reactor Thorium was
    the element and to build weapons Uranium would be the
    correct choice. So after the war Wigner and Weinberg began
    the great trek of R&D of the Thorium reactor (ORNL-1966-1972).

  • “The world needs more nuclear power…”

    And the nuclear security state it requires?

  • Arthur Burnside

    Ethan Barron has totally misrepresented the supposedly “overblown” claims
    by Transatomic Powers’ Leslie Dewans. Her calculations were not correct when she intially estimated how much energy her molten salt reactor could extract from nuclear fuel, claiming 75 times, when recent checks by MIT professors, who are on the board of the transatomic corporation and are MIT nuclear professors involved in overseeing the design and testing of the molten salt reactor. In other words, the company itself discovered and made known the error in Dewans’ original calculations. But the fact that her reactor can extract twice rather than 75 times the energy is laughingly irrelevant
    in the scheme of things. The actual effect will be to increse the estimated fuel costs from (virtuallty nothing) to roughly 1/3 of a cent per kWhr hour, which is still virtually
    an insignificant cost, that will in no way alter the practicality of the reactor. And it will still reduce the nuclear wastes radioactive level VERY significantly. The cost of storing nuclear wates is actually not that much – nuclear reactors that have been paying I believe a penny per kWhr, were paying way too much. So I can safely assume that nuclear waste costs will be less than 1/3rd of a penny per kWhr.

  • Arthur Burnside

    Kord Smith’s claim that Dewan’s 75 times estimate was like someone claiming 2500 MPG is incredibly misleading and stupid. The simple fact is that nuclear fuel costs very little (3/4th of a cent per kWhr). Guess what? Fuels costs that are half that (actual case) or costs that are 75 times less , are also very small and insignificant. In other words, a fraction of something small and almost insignifcant, is also very small and
    insignificant, irregardless of the size of the fraction. Back to the classroom, Kord,
    your “big discovery” is mostly of no importance in the scheme of things. The molten salt reactor is everything anyone could want, although there are a hald dozen other companies and two govts rushing to design the molten salt reactor, and at least one of them (Moltex Energy) is very impressive andeven cheaper to build than Transatomics’ design. Molten salt is the future of energy, everyone familiar with all the energy technologies knows that to be a true statement. Economics alone will force adoption of this technology. Nothing can compete with it, especially unreliable renewable
    generators.

    • jimhopf

      You’re absolutely right. While this is definitely embarrassing, the whole subject matter is just not that important. Uranium supplies are nearly limitless, and uranium ore cost is a negligible fraction of nuclear’s overall cost. The real challenge nuclear faces is cost (although most of that is due to excessive regulation, as opposed to lack of technical merit, which calls into question notion that some new reactor design/technology will solve the cost problem). Anyway, if someone can design a significantly cheaper nuclear plant, it will be a great boon, as it’s large scale deployment would greatly reduce air pollution (and its enormous, associated public health impacts) and O2 emissions.

  • It’s really quite simple, Theranos was FDA approved for one test and setting sales projections off of 250 tests. The formula is common in Silicon Valley: False projections based on investor ROI (not what the market can bear) to give the appearance of hypergrowth for an overvaluation which is fraud. DOJ & SEC are finally wise to this formula and as a result we’ll see a lot more venture capital-funded startup executives going to jail. http://www.killingmycareer.com/about/

  • Fenimore Hardy

    Ethan’s analogy between Theranos and Transatomic is terribly weak. His partisan attacks against his inner tormentors are out of place on this website, except perhaps as satire. But satire must be better crafted, much better.

    As it is, it would be more interesting piece if it provided hard details and less whining and innuendo about Peter Thiel’s alleged power within the Trump administration.

    Ethan Barron writes in the style of a polemicist, rather than as a straight-up journalist.

  • WMDingbat

    If you don’t like the Theranos comparison let me offer another. Transatomic is much like Molycorp, a massive pump & dump scam based entirely on hype and wishful thinking (or fraud): the cult like company ( Moly-cult) was aggressively defended by an army of its future victims to the end.

    Like Molycorp, Transatomic is ethically and technically stillborn but its early investors will not accept losses from their juvenile due diligence efforts. They will fan the flames of a mindless mob and create massive returns on the backs of the retail investment sector.

 
 
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