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.”
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.”