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.

The biggest misperception of nuclear is the safety side: understanding what really happened at the accidents that gave the industry that blemish. Jacob Dewitte, UPower
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.

Dewitte and Dewan actually studied concurrently at MIT and are part of a new generation of environmentalists pushing for a change in U.S. nuclear regulations that could allow the use of their likely safer, cleaner reactor technologies.

And they are backed by some very well-known investors. Transatomic has received $5.5 million from Peter Thiel and Founders Fund. UPower came out of Y Combinator and has so far raised $4 million from CrunchFund, Sam Altman and others.

But the road ahead comes with several challenges. Dewan and Dewitte still must combat both old, slow-moving regulatory agencies and public perception about nuclear power. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC) doesn’t even have guidelines of approval in place to work with either design. It could take up to 20 years to get through the regulatory process, according to Dewan.

“The regulatory process is not built for a startup, with milestones,” Dewitte told the Disrupt audience. “So what we are doing now is testing in the beta scale.”

But both seem positive we could see something in the next five years. Recent movement in the House could help. H.R. 1158 could enable newer energy technologies to come forward, opening up possibilities for Transatomic, UPower and others like the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower. That bill passed the House in May and is now up for a vote in the Senate.

On the popular opinion side, Dewitte believes it’s a generational matter. “The Cold War was the overshadowing moment affecting our parent’s generation,” he said. Dewan hopes better communication can help. “The nuclear industry needs to be transparent,” she said. “The internet helps that tremendously.”

[gallery ids="1213979,1213977,1213976,1213975,1213974,1213973"]