By Dr. Leslie Dewan
As an environmentalist and a nuclear entrepreneur, I have no problem finding problems to solve. I’ve been told I’m a bit crazy to try to invent, engineer and commercialize an innovative nuclear reactor. Meanwhile, global emissions are rising, air pollution from burning fossil fuels is causing a global public health crisis, and over a billion global citizens still lack adequate access to clean, safe energy. But having the opportunity to solve both of these problems is why I became a nuclear engineer. That’s why we’re building a new kind of nuclear reactor at Transatomic Power.
Growing up in Massachusetts, I was fascinated by the natural world. I was drawn to the outdoors, and grew concerned as I learned more about climate change and the threat it posed to our environment. As a kid, I loved polar bears, which evolved into concern about their arctic environment. I did the little things I could to try to protect our natural world. I recycled, tried to remember to turn off the lights, and made sure my parents and friends understood the importance of protecting the environment.
As the daughter of an engineer, I was also drawn to the power of the human mind to invent new solutions to big problems. My parents would bring me to the Museum of Science in Boston, and I was struck by the amazing contributions by physicists and engineers that changed peoples’ lives for the better. I’ve known for a while that I want to be one of those engineers, using my training in science to make a difference in the world.
While nuclear engineering can be esoteric – lots of equations and time in front of a white board or computer screen – I’ve always tried to keep my work connected to improving people’s day-to-day lives and making a difference in the world. I became a nuclear engineer because I am an environmentalist and I’m concerned about global energy poverty.
The combined challenges of global energy poverty and global warming call for solutions that can provide affordable sources of power that do not emit carbon dioxide. Transatomic Power’s molten salt reactor – the technology I’m developing with my team – does exactly that. Our reactor will generate carbon-free electricity at a price that is less expensive than coal and competitive with natural gas in most of the world. We envision our technology as a key part of the world’s clean energy future.
The current generation of nuclear power plants provides 60% of America’s carbon free electricity and continues to serve our country well. Without today’s nuclear fleet, our air would be dirtier, the carbon crisis would be worse, and our efforts to keep global temperature rise below 2-degrees would be far more difficult. Our goal is to improve on these designs to make nuclear power more accessible.
Like all nuclear reactors, the Transatomic reactor produces electricity by creating steam. Our novel approach updates an earlier design utilizing liquid fuel dissolved in a molten salt coolant. This enables our reactors to have a high-power density and allows the fuel to remain in the reactor for decades, increasing efficiency and decreasing waste. In addition, our reactors do not require active cooling. In the event of an emergency, our reactors can shut themselves down even without human intervention. These inherent safety systems will make our reactors cheaper to build, license and deploy. By providing an affordable, environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, our goal is to help meet a growing global demand for emissions free power.
I could go on for hours about our technology. Sometimes it’s easy for physicists and engineers to get lost in the details of our work. I know that many of my colleagues and peers came to this profession for different reasons. But for most of us, there’s nothing quite as exciting as finally solving a difficult technical problem. Sometimes that’s getting a complex equation right, or thinking about ways to solve a complex engineering or material science question. But my work on those relatively small problems is done in the context of solving the big challenges of climate change and energy poverty.
On Earth Day, it’s worth taking a moment to recognize the role that scientists and engineers will continue to play in providing emissions free power for our planet. I’m proud to be part of a dynamic nuclear engineering community working to solve climate change, protect our air, and meet the growing demand for clean electricity.
Dr. Leslie Dewan, Cofounder and Chief Executive Officer of Transatomic Power, is a member of the Nuclear Matters Advocacy Council. Nuclear Matters is a coalition to raise awareness about the value of nuclear power and the need to preserve existing nuclear energy plants.