Leslie Dewan  thinks it’s a really exciting time for the nuclear industry right now. But, isn’t the world trying to become more nuclear-free?

Remember Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and more recently, the meltdown at Fukushima after that tsunami? Human error and natural disasters aside, there’s also the small problem of radioactive waste – Plutonium-239, taking 48,000 years to degrade to the point of not being lethal to all life on earth. Yet Dewan, a nuclear engineer, has cofounded Transatomic Power and aims to show that nuclear can be a safe way to generate electricity. She started the company because she believes it’s possible to power the world while helping it thrive.

Her solution: a nuclear reactor than consumes spent nuclear waste to generate electricity. With millions of barrels of highly toxic waste standing in protected areas around the world, Dewan reckons we might start utilizing them soon, and viewing them as a resource, rather than a liability.

In addition to Transatomic Power, there are around 43 other nuclear reactor design companies in North America, all busy attracting big investments for new, innovative designs that focus on safety, the environmental and better efficiency.

We can’t all be nuclear scientists, and most of us will need a few years of university study to understand how it all works, so Real Leaders asked the 30 year-old Dewan to explain what, how and when, and why she thinks it’s a fun time to be going nuclear.

transatomic power

Why has this idea not been thought of before?

It actually was, in the 1960s. An earlier type of nuclear reactor called the molten salt reactor was first developed in the U.S. back in the 1960s at the Oakridge National Lab. That design showed tremendous safety benefits, but required highly enriched uranium as fuel that was too expensive. What my co founder and I did was revisit this design and change some of the materials and geometry of the reactor core to make it able to consume nuclear waste. This type of reactor cannot melt down. In the 1960s no one really cared about this fact, as there’d never been a nuclear accident before.

Where did your idea come from?

Mostly from reading old design manuals, journals and lab reports from the 1960s. It’s staggering how much information was generated and then discarded. Many of the new nuclear reactor designs are now being based on this old technology.

You’re very young to be a nuclear scientist.

If you look at the age distribution of nuclear engineers worldwide you’ll notice many nuclear scientists in their 70s and early 80s, at the end of their careers. Then no one for a few decades, and then many nuclear engineers in their 20s and 30s. That gap, when hardly anyone was joining the field, was caused directly by nuclear accidents such as Three Mile Island. Very few engineers joined the industry following those accidents and many existing engineers transitioned to other fields. This created a labor shortage in the nuclear industry and much technology and innovation was not pursued as vigorously as it should have been.

How exactly will your new reactor work?

Instead of using highly enriched fuel we can use either low enriched uranium or spent nuclear fuel. Conventional nuclear reactors today don’t extract as much energy from their fuel as they could. You can’t keep solid fuel within a reactor for more than four years before it physically starts to break down. By then you’ve only extracted around 4 percent of the potential energy from the uranium and you’re left with 96 percent waste that’s radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Our reactor will break nuclear waste particles in two, bringing the lifetime for the majority of the waste down to a few hundred years.

By reusing nuclear waste, we’re talking about a source of energy that’s almost free. There’s a small cost to opening up spent fuel canisters, dissolving the waste in fluoride and melting it into salt form.

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You’re on record as saying this idea has the potential to provide 72 years worth of energy for the planet? 

Yes, the amount of nuclear waste that’s currently above ground is 272,000 metric tons worldwide. This could produce a tremendous amount of electricity, enough to power the world for 72 years – even taking into account increasing demand. It’s a staggering fact to me as an environmentalist, and we should be investigating every possible way to take advantage of nuclear waste before it’s buried underground or put in repositories that are permanently sealed.

We are on a planet with limited resources that are running out fast, so reusing materials seems like the way to go? 

Absolutely, I want nuclear power to work alongside solar and wind power and other renewables like hydro and geothermal. We’re all fighting the same battle, and trying to find better carbon-free sources of electricity. I’m starting to see people within the environmental movement becoming more open towards nuclear. As an example, I recently received an award form National Geographic.

Was there a specific time in your life where you thought that you wanted to do something significant; something positive for the planet?

I had two excellent physics teachers in high school, both of them women. Both urged us to think big and not limit ourselves in any way. This was a strong message at an early age. In grad school, doing my PHD in nuclear science, I was told by a professor not to work for an existing company, but to do something big, something new. My vision is a future with limitless, low cost electricity that will help raise the global standard of living, while still protecting the environment. The challenge is to develop carbon-free energy sources that are cheaper than coal. I am demonstrating that nuclear is certainly an option, and having a great deal of fun along the way!