Nuclear Energy with Staying Power

by Julie Barr on June 18, 2015 · 6 comments

in Alumni Life, Energy, Engineering, In the News, Research, Science

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Image: National Geographic

Leslie Dewan ’06, PhD ’13 has a plan to solve the nuclear power debate—one that isn’t just safer and more efficient but actually involves eliminating the nearly 300,000 tons of nuclear waste.

After a double major in nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering, Dewan spent her first few years after undergrad at local MIT alum-founded Vecna Technologies then returned to MIT to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering. “I couldn’t stop thinking about energy issues and environmentalism and better ways to generate carbon-free electricity,” says Dewan. “I knew there had to be a way to make better, cheaper nuclear reactors that would address waste issues head on.”

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Dewan and Massie in the lab

By the second year of her PhD program, Dewan teamed with Mark Massie SM ’10 and laid the groundwork for their company, Transatomic Power Corporation. In 2011, Transatomic established and commercialized a design for an innovative nuclear reactor that safely consumes nuclear waste, delivering vast amounts of affordable, clean energy. “We started this company because we believe it is possible to power the world while helping it thrive,” says Dewan.

There are many debates about nuclear reactors, with safety concerns, waste concerns, and environmental concerns. Dewan points out that almost all nuclear reactors worldwide are based on the same model, one which was widely adopted in the 1960s and has many limitations. Transatomic’s design is a compact, low-cost molten salt reactor that can tap into the immense amounts of energy left behind in spent nuclear fuel and use this waste as a fuel source.

The reactor has the capability to convert the 270,000 tons of nuclear waste found on Earth today into enough energy to power the entire world for 72 years. “Conventional reactors are only able to use about 3–4 percent of the energy that they could potentially get out of uranium,” says Dewan. “To some degree, that’s why the used nuclear fuel right now is so dangerous because there’s so much energy that’s left in it. Our reactor has the ability to extract up to about 96 percent of the energy that’s in the nuclear fuel.”

Today, Transatomic Power Corporation has completed the conceptual design phase and is running materials and component tests under a sponsored research agreement with the Nuclear Engineering Department at MIT. Although nuclear is notoriously slow moving given the regulatory pathway to implementation, they plan to start the production of a prototype facility by 2020.

Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Dewan was chosen as one of 14 National Geographic 2015 Emerging Explorers, has been named to TIME magazine’s “30 People Under 30 Changing the World” and MIT Technology Review’s “Innovator Under 35.” Dewan and Massie were both named to Forbes “30 Under 30” in Energy.

Dewan was recently elected to the MIT Corporation and will be starting her role in July. An active member of the MIT community since age 17, she is excited to take on a new level of engagement. “MIT has been so instrumental,” says Dewan. “Shaping my life, teaching me to be not just an engineer and an entrepreneur but really helping me grow as a person. Having this opportunity not only to be able to give back to MIT, but also influence and shape it as it moves into the future is something that I’m extremely thrilled about.”

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim OBrien June 18, 2015 at 7:21 am

What happens if the molten salt gets loose or can’t cool the reactor due to pump failure? Molten salt has been proposed before so how will this be different?

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Tom Hafer June 18, 2015 at 11:36 am

Good for her. I just hope that she receives the support of the “greens” rather than their typical superstitious rejection of anything with “nuclear” in the name. In the long run, this is the way to prosperity both for the world at large and for the nation that perfects and markets this technology.

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David A Weitzler June 22, 2015 at 4:12 pm

I am completely impressed with the work that you and your team are doing. Pardon my plagiarism, but “What the world needs now is you, you, you; that’s the only thing that could ever help it through.”

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Phil Siemens July 26, 2015 at 12:37 am

How about some actual technical info, like, what’s the innovation?
If the reporter isn’t up to explaning this,
could we at least get a link?
This reads like a publicity release.

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Ken Glick (EEI) July 27, 2015 at 10:53 am

Exactly. Although this is a press release, any technological revolution in the nuclear power industry – especially one that reduces nuclear waste by almost 95% – should come with a complete breakdown of how this reactor works. Even if the explanation is overly technical, it still should be included.

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Kim OBrien July 27, 2015 at 10:36 am

Considering the re-publication of “How do Birds Sit on Power Lines.” from the MIT ‘Ask an Engineer’ series. One is left wondering how real and reliable this article is. MIT has its own over self promotion bias in these slice articles.

Energy is necessary for modern life so if we are going to replace carbon as a source of fuel we need to consider all the alternatives. Considering the number of nuclear plants world wide and the number of bad accidents (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fucashima.) even with old technology we have done fairly well. If nuclear is going to be part of the solution it has to come out of the ‘secret nuclear bomb’ closet.

The great majority of the worlds people will not accept a ‘we will make the fuel for you’ by the 10 nation nuclear club.

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