In this episode of My Nuclear Life, host Shelly Lesher interviews Dr. Leslie Dewan. Leslie earned her PhD in Nuclear Engineering from MIT and is a cofounder of Transatomic Power, one of the first startup companies attempting to bring a Generation IV reactor to market. Leslie’s understanding of nuclear energy has allowed her new company, Criticality Capital, to invest money in the sectors that need it most. Shelly and Leslie discuss how we can improve in the way we harness nuclear energy, and what Leslie sees as the path forward.
As a PhD student, Leslie cofounded Transatomic Power with one of her classmates. Leslie explains that she and her classmate both wanted to figure out a way to solve some of the existing issues with nuclear reactors that were holding them back from broader adoption. This included issues with waste, safety, proliferation, and cost. They systematically examined older, abandoned designs from the early days of nuclear power to find a design with good bones that they thought they might be able to improve upon. The molten salt reactor stood out to them, and they were able to improve it by changing out some of the materials and further optimizing the geometry of the system with better types of computational simulations.
Shelly and Leslie discuss the naivete Leslie had as she began Transatomic, as well as the challenges she faced as she spoke with potential investors. Their project was long-term and expensive, and it wasn’t until they eventually spoke to investors who had previously invested in aerospace that they had people that understood this type of undertaking. Leslie also explains the role government regulations played in the company.
A few years into Transatomic, the company decided to put out papers describing how the design worked. Leslie tells Shelly how a reader pointed out a fundamental mistake in their calculations. The reactor would not be able to run solely on spent nuclear fuel - something Leslie felt was a critical part of the design. After one and a half years of redesign, Leslie and her team realized they were no longer going to be one of the first companies to market. They made the decision to put an end to the business side of the work and release all of their information to the public domain. While they weren’t able to commercialize their work, parts of it live on in other experiments. Since transatomic, Leslie has been putting together an investment fund to build up the nuclear ecosystem as a whole. And in the future, she just might bring a reactor running on nuclear waste to market.
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Dr. Leslie Dewan is a nuclear engineer and entrepreneur, with a focus on new nuclear power technology and carbon-free energy production. She was the founder and CEO of Transatomic Power, a company that designed safer nuclear reactors that leave behind less waste than conventional designs. Leslie received her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT, with a research focus on computational nuclear materials. She is a member of the MIT Corporation and MIT’s board of trustees. She was named a TIME Magazine “30 People Under 30 Changing the World,” and MIT Technology Review “Innovator Under 35,” a Forbes “30 Under 30,” and a National Geographic Explorer, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
Special thanks: Lexie Weghorn and Barb Bennie
Production costs for this episode provided though National Science Foundation Grant PHY-1713816.<o:p></o:p>