Meet Nuclear Power’s Comeback Kids
Leslie Dewan and Jacob Dewitt are part of a new generation of nuclear scientists pushing for use of safer technologies. Both young founders took to the TechCrunch Disrupt stage today to chat about their work in developing upgraded types of nuclear power generators designed to eat their own waste.
Literally. Both MIT-trained nuclear physicists founded separate but similar startups for nuclear power generators that run on their own radiated waste, eliminating the need to truck and store discarded radioactive material.
For those unfamiliar, nuclear power plants generate radiated uranium, most of which must be shipped and stored deep in the ground for hundreds of thousands of years to shield us from its radioactive poisons. That not only poses a danger in trucking the waste and possible spillage but is also harmful to our planet.
There’s also the design issue of our currently approved nuclear reactor models, which create all that radioactive waste and rely on water to cool. Nuclear fuel was seen as a golden solution to clean, cheap energy in the 1950’s and 60’s, but the design that won out originally came from plans meant for submarines.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is the perfect (and most recent) example of what can go wrong with a design that relies on water to cool the core. The power plant needed a constant energy supply. Any loss of electricity and the core overheats, leading to a high-pressure meltdown, which is exactly what happened in 2011.
However, a liquid fueled reactor uses salt waste so if you lose electricity all of the salt drains out to a separate tank and it freezes solid within a couple of hours. This means this type of power plant won’t have a meltdown.
Dewan, a founder of Transatomic Power, developed a molten-salt type nuclear reactor based on technology that has been around since the 1950’s, but for some reason was skipped in preference for the current design. Dewitte, founder of UPower, built a smaller, unconnected reactor that can be loaded into a shipping container or the back of a truck and sent to remote, off-the-grid parts of the world that still lack energy. Dewitte told TechCrunch in an earlier interview that his model can produce energy for 2000 homes for up to 12 years before heading back to the facility.
Both these reactors are designed to shut down rather than blow up, should they go offline.