Leslie Dewan, Nuclear Engineer

How did you get interested in nuclear engineering?

She was inspired by her high school tear who was the first female graduate in nuclear physics at MIT. Dewan ended up going to MIT as well and while she started out wanting to major in physics she switched to nuclear and mechanical engineering.

You have said that nuclear power is “elegant.” Explain what you mean.

She is fascinated by how new the energy is (60 or 70 years) and how with nuclear power you are able to manipulate the very heart of the atom.

Since the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power has been under a dark cloud. How would you respond to critics who say it is too dangerous?

Dewan points out that if you look at statistics nuclear power has a rate of 0.04 deaths per terrwatt-hour making it thousands of times safer than coal energy and tens of times safer than solar or wind energy. She also believes that as time passes nuclear power plants will become safer.

You’re conducting research that sounds like sci-fi. What are waste-annihilating molten salt reactors and how do they differ from current nuclear technology?

She’s designed a different version of what’s called a “molten salt reactor”.  These were considered during the 1950s and 60s but back then there had been no major accidents and the molten salt reactors were bulky and expensive so they decided against them and most of research on the reactors stopped.

The main advantage of these reactors is that instead of using solid fuel they use liquid one.  Conventional reactors need a continuous supply of electric power so they can pump water over the core to keep it from overheating. With a molten salt reactor, if you lose electric power, the fuel drains into a tank and freezes in a couple hours.

Nuclear waste is a huge problem. Can these new reactors solve the headache?

Conventional reactors consume only about 3 percent or 4 percent of the energy from uranium. This is what makes nuclear waste is so dangerous, because there’s so much energy left in it. By using liquid instead of solid fuel will make the amount of energy extracted about 93% more energy.  In extracting more energy she will reduce the radioactive lifetime of the waste. Conventional nuclear waste is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Most waste from our planet will remain radioactive for hundreds of years which while still is a lot is in a human’s lifetimes versus thousands of years which is a geological scale.

What inspires you in your work?

Dewan is a self-proclaimed an environmentalist. She wants to use the molten salt reactors because she believes this is the best way of producing large amounts of carbon-free electricity. She says “the world needs nuclear power, alongside solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, if we want to have any hope of reducing fossil fuel emissions and preventing global warming”leslie-dewan.jpg

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