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Transatomic power

Could nuclear waste offer a new, safer energy source?

November 10, 2014
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On Nov. 11 at 5 p.m. in Salisbury 104, nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan will speak to the WPI community about how to “Save the World with Nuclear Power.” Her talk tomorrow afternoon is part of the continuing seminar series sponsored by the Energy Sustainability Project Center.

Leslie Dewan is co-founder and chief
executive officer of Transatomic Power

Dewan is co-founder (with Mark Massey) of Transatomic Power, a company in Cambridge, Mass. Both nuclear engineers, Dewan and Massey are developing a molten salt nuclear reactor that runs only on nuclear waste, consuming it safely and in the process creating clean energy at low cost.

Their company, created in 2010, is in the process of commercializing the reactor.

Its development is critical to the energy field, notes the company website, because, “It solves four of the most pressing problems facing the nuclear industry: ecological stewardship, public safety, nonproliferation, and cost efficiency.”

Dewan, who holds a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT with a focus on computational nuclear materials, was named one of Time’s 30 People Under 30 Changing the World, in December 2013, as well as a Forbes 30 Under 30 in Energy, in December 2012. After graduating with SB degrees from MIT in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering, she worked in robotics in Cambridge.

ECE professor John Orr heads the Energy Sustainability Project Center. He first became aware of Dewan’s work after watching one of her TED Talks.

“This seemed like a natural to bring to WPI,” he says. “There certainly is interest in nuclear energy on campus. We feel it is important for our students to be informed about the wide variety of sustainable energy from multiple sources.”

Established last year, the Energy Sustainability Project Center focuses on highlighting energy-related research. By coordinating student projects as well as faculty research across disciplines in the field of energy, it emphasizes sustainability as well as the impact of science on humanity, a central component of the WPI mission.

Dewan’s talk is the fourth in the center’s seminar series on topics relating sustainability to the need for economical energy sources across the world.

Previous seminars have addressed the Solar Decathlon China 2013 as well as the Electric Power Energy Symposium, and, last month, the work of ME associate professor David Olinger on energy from kites.

Orr notes that Dewan’s perspective is especially valuable for the WPI community.

“We need to draw on more than what we think of as acceptable alternative sources like wind and solar,” he says. “They can’t meet our energy needs. We need other sources that can be sustainable.”

Although there are problems with nuclear energy, he continues, there are also benefits, and it “deserves to be considered in the sustainable equation. This application addresses waste storage and recovery and some of the safety aspects.”

Moreover, as a start-up company, Transatomic Power also tells the story of successful entrepreneurship, a valuable example for WPI students considering the limitless possibilities ahead.

“Not all entrepreneurship is in software,” says Orr.

– BY LAURA PORTER