Leslie Dewan on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS: “I think that for now, the U.S. is still leading the world in nuclear technology. But one of my biggest concerns is that that won’t always be the case.”
CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS features an interview with Co-founder & CEO of the Transatomic Power Corporation, Leslie Dewan. Dewan speaks to Fareed about her aspirations to build a carbon-free, sustainable, and scalable nuclear reactor to generate great quantities of electricity.
Dewan on the repercussions of conventional nuclear power: “So each conventional nuclear power plant in the U.S. today produces about 20 metric tons of high-level waste that’s radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Dewan on government funding of nuclear technology: “I think that for now, the U.S. is still leading the world in nuclear technology. But one of my biggest concerns is that that won’t always be the case.”
A full transcript of the interview is available after the jump
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: PRESIDENT OBAMA RECENTLY ANNOUNCED BIG PLANS TO CUT CARBON EMISSIONS FROM POWER PLANTS. WILL THIS BE A DEATH BLOW TO FOSSIL FUELS AND CO2 EMISSIONS? WELL, NO. UNDER THESE NEW RESTRICTIONS, CARBON-EMITTING COAL AND NATURAL GAS ARE STILL EXPECTED TO MAKE UP AROUND TWO-THIRDS OF AMERICAN ELECTRICITY IN 2030.
SO IT LED ME TO WONDER, IS THERE ANOTHER WAY? MY NEXT GUEST SAYS YES. LESLIE DEWAN IS COFOUNDER AND CHIEF SCIENCE OFFICER OF TRANSATOMIC POWER. SHE’S ONE OF “TIME’S” 30 PEOPLE UNDER 30 CHANGING THE WORLD.
ZAKARIA: So, Leslie, you came up with this idea after finishing your qualifying exams for a Ph.D. at MIT. You had some free time 12:41:30 and so you and a friend decided — what?
LESLIE DEWAN, TRANSATOMIC POWER: Well, my classmate and I, Mark Massie, right after we finished our qualifying exams, decided that we wanted to do something big and different and interesting. We figured that this was the smartest we were going to be for a while, because we had just finished studying for 14 hours a day for about two months.
SO, DEWAN AND HER CLASSMATE STARTED LOOKING INTO NUCLEAR REACTOR DESIGNS.
THEY REASONED THAT NUCLEAR POWER IS CARBON-FREE, SUSTAINABLE, SCALABLE, AND CAN GENERATE GREAT QUANTITIES OF ELECTRICITY. IN FACT, THEY COULDN’T IMAGINE TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE AND KEEPING UP WITH THE WORLD’S ENERGY DEMANDS–WHICH ARE PROJECTED TO INCREASE BY 50% IN THE NEXT THREE DECADES–WITHOUT A SIGNIFICANT EXPANSION IN NUCLEAR POWER. SO, IN 2011, SHE INCORPORATED A COMPANY CALLED THE TRANSATOMIC POWER CORPORATION.
ZAKARIA: What are the problems that you were trying to solve?
DEWAN: So each conventional nuclear power plant in the U.S. today produces about 20 metric tons of high-level waste that’s radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. And there isn’t really a solution for it yet.
UNTIL NOW, PERHAPS… USING A DESIGN THAT WAS INVENTED 50 YEARS AGO, THEY CREATED THE WASTE ANNIHILATING MOLTEN SALT REACTOR– OR WAMSR. THE WAMSR USES MOLTEN SALT TO DISSOLVE NUCLEAR FUEL. THAT ULTIMATELY REDUCES BOTH THE RADIOACTIVITY AND AMOUNT OF THE WASTE. THEIR NEW REACTOR COULD CREATE ABOUT 10-20 KG OF LONG-LIVED WASTE PER YEAR INSTEAD OF THE 20 METRIC TONS PRODUCED BY TRADITIONAL COMMERCIAL PLANTS. 20 KG IS ABOUT THE SIZE OF A GRAPEFRUIT.
DEWAN: And the remaining waste that comes out, it’s waste that’s radioactive for just a few hundred years, so much shorter than the hundreds of thousands of years from other plants.
AND HERE’S ANOTHER BIG PLUS. AROUND THE WORLD TODAY, THERE EXISTS ABOUT 270,000 METRIC TONS OF HIGH LEVEL NUCLEAR WASTE. WAMSR COULD “EAT” THAT WASTE AND TURN IT INTO ELECTRICITY.
ZAKARIA: So this sounds great. // why wouldn’t everybody adopt this design?
DEWAN: That’s what we’re hoping ultimately.
ZAKARIA: Is your plan more expensive?
DEWAN: It’s actually about half the cost per megawatt overnight construction of conventional nuclear reactors. And that makes it — we can be on par with coal. And we’re trying to reduce the cost further to make it on par with natural gas.
THE IDEA MAY BE COST EFFECTIVE, BUT, INNOVATION IN NUCLEAR IS OFTEN THWARTED BECAUSE OF CONCERNS OVER SAFETY. WHILE COAL, NATURAL GAS, AND EVEN AIR POLLUTION KILL MANY MORE PEOPLE EVERY YEAR THAN NUCLEAR POWER, NUCLEAR ENERGY DOES HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO BE CATASTROPHIC. EVERYONE REMEMBERS THE DISASTERS-THREE MILE ISLAND, CHERNOBYL, AND FUKUSHIMA.
ZAKARIA: So what would have happened if your plant had been at Fukushima?
DEWAN: So my plant uses the liquid fuel rather than a solid fuel. So if it lost electricity, if the operators had to leave the site, the liquid fuel would drain out into an auxiliary tank, completely gravity-fed, just based on the inherent physics of the design. And it would freeze solid over the course of about two or three hours. So if it fails, it fails in a solid state rather than a meltdown liquid state or a gaseous state.
ZAKARIA: And the big problem at Fukushima is that it’s in a liquid state and it is therefore producing huge amounts of radioactive water, right?
DEWAN: Yes. That was one of the biggest issues there.
TRANSATOMIC POWER HAS ABOUT $3.5 MILLION IN FUNDING, AND THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY RECENTLY AWARDED ITS FOUNDERS THE FIRST EVER ENERGY INNOVATION AWARD. BUT, DEWAN FACES SEVERAL OBSTACLES. SHE’LL NEED TO CONVINCE COMPANIES THAT IT’S WORTH UPENDING THE INDUSTRY AND INVESTING IN NEW TECHNOLOGY. AND, PERHAPS, HER BIGGEST HURDLE: THE REGULATORS. SHE’LL NEED THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S SUPPORT…AND MONEY.
ZAKARIA: Do you think, looking at this whole world of advanced nuclear reactor 12:49:30 designs, that American technology in this area leads the world?
DEWAN: I think that for now, the U.S. is still leading the world in nuclear technology. But one of my biggest concerns is that that won’t always be the case.
ZAKARIA: Is it realistic that between issues of not in my backyard and all those kinds of issues and regulatory issues is that likely that you’re going to be able to build this plant in the United States or is your best hope that your first plant will be built in China?
DEWAN: We’re committed to building the first plant in the United States for a range of reasons.//This is American technology. It was invented here 50 years ago and so we want the U.S. to gain the benefits of it first before we bring it somewhere else.
DEWAN HOPES TO HAVE A FULLY BUILT, ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY NUCLEAR REACTOR WITHIN 8-10 YEARS. AND THEN SHE’LL HAVE TO SELL IT OF COURSE. BUT IF SHE CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN IN AN INDUSTRY THAT’S IMPERVIOUS TO CHANGE, THE REWARDS COULD BE GREAT. SHE COULD HELP GET RID OF MUCH OF OUR NUCLEAR WASTE AND GENERATE ENOUGH ELECTRICITY TO POWER THE GLOBE FOR THE NEXT 72 YEARS.
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