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Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs

For 28-year-old Leslie Dewan — and for a growing number of other young scientists interested in energy — nuclear energy isn’t about meltdowns and catastrophe. They see atomic power not as an existential threat to the planet but instead as the best way to save it, and they’re trying to revive the stalled industry with next-generation reactor designs that could change the way a skeptical public views atomic energy. Dewan just finished her doctorate* in nuclear engineering at MIT, and in her spare time she co-founded a start-up called Transatomic Power, which has plans to build a safer and cheaper nuclear reactor, one that couldn’t melt down like the older plants at Chernobyl or Fukushima. “I’ve always been concerned about global warming,” she says. “It seemed to me like working in nuclear power was a logical way to do something to help the environment.” But the nuclear industry today faces major challenges. Yes, there are scores of nuclear reactors being built around the world — including in the U.S., where new construction ceased for more than three decades beginning in the mid-1970s. But existing nuclear plants are being shut down out of concern for safety and cost. Germany has already announced that it will be phasing out all of its atomic plants over the next decade, and the U.S. has seen plants close early — including the San Onofre nuclear plant in southern California, which is being decommissioned because of equipment failure. The Fukushima disaster — while unlikely to have a measurable health effect — could cost more than $100 billion to clean up. This past weekend brought news of a scandal in South Korea over faked safety tests and bribes at nuclear plants. Last week Duke Energy shelved a planned new plant in Florida because of licensing problems and concerns about cost recovery. With fracking keeping the cost of natural gas so low, any new nuclear plant faces both economic and safety headwinds. (MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?) So if nuclear is going