A Nuclear Renaissance? Bill Gates and the Future of Nuclear Power.
The premier of the HBO hit Chernobyl this past spring brought the horror of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl power plant back into the consciousness of those lived it. It also confronted those of us who had only known of the accident from our History classes, reviving a fear of nuclear power among the post-Cold War generation.
The word ‘nuclear’ is very powerful. It conjures up memories and stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fear of nuclear fallout during the Cold War as well as proliferation and development concerns in the Middle East and North Korea. ‘Nuclear’ in the context of energy production does not fare much better. Since the first construction of nuclear reactors in 1954, there has been a great deal of public concern regarding their safety.
Today, the public image of nuclear power generation is still predominantly negative as it is chained not only to the meltdown at Chernobyl which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) in a recent report,led to the eventual deaths of up to 4,000 people, but also to the disastrous nuclear meltdowns at the United States Army’s experimental Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One in 1961, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. Therefore, it is no surprise that nuclear power’s positive attributes are often overlooked in light of the technology’s painful history.
Prior to the events aforementioned, there was a great deal of hope for nuclear power production. In President Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace speechto the United Nations he asserted that nuclear energy had the unique opportunity “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” Is it possible for this positive outlook to be resurrected?
For Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft and philanthropist, it is. In his 2018 year-end letter, Gates asserted that unlike other sources of renewable energy like wind and solar power, ‘Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day. The problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation’. This, however, is not a new revelation to Gates, but indicative of a project of his that has been in progress for over a decade. In 2008, TerraPower, a company based in Washington DC, was established with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The aim of TerraPower is to develop smaller, safer and less expensive nuclear reactors, ‘to meet growing electricity needs and lift billions out of poverty.’
But most importantly, how will these reactors be safer? In other words, what makes TerraPower’s technology different?
The answer to these questions lies in TerraPower’s development of traveling-wavereactor technology and today’s advanced computing capabilities previously unimaginable only a few decades ago. If applied to a nuclear reactor, such computing capabilities and automation would lower the risk of human error which is attributed as the cause of accidents like Chernobyl. For example, the automation of TerraPower’s traveling-wave reactor would allow for the reactor to be located underground without refueling for sixty years, which would drastically reduce the likelihood of human error and the potential for theft of nuclear material.
Traveling-wave technology also has its own benefits. Likened by Gates to a candle, the traveling-wave reactor only needs a relatively small core of uranium-235, which fuels conventional reactors, to act as a wick to ignite the rest of the candle, which in turn would be composed of depleted uranium-238.
Traveling-wave reactors, unlike current nuclear reactors, could be primarily based on the wasted fuel of conventional reactors (uranium-238). This would help utilize and remove not only the 80,000 tons of wasted fuel currently stored in the United States, but from all over the world. The use of primarily uranium-238 in traveling-wave reactors will also dampen nuclear proliferation concerns by dramatically decreasing the amount of uranium-235, which can be enriched to produce nuclear weapons.
While all of this indicates that the future of nuclear power production is burning bright, the path to perfecting this technology has not been and will not be moving forward free from setbacks and criticism. In 2015, Terrapower signed a partnership deal with China National Nuclear Corp., which, in 2017, agreed to build TerraPower’s first prototype reactor in Cangzhou, a city south of Beijing. Gates’s high hopes for TerraPower and its partnership with China National Nuclear Corp. in China’s nuclear energy development were made clear in hisspeechat Peking University in 2017 where he announced:
I’ve had the opportunity to meet several times with President Xi and am encouraged by his commitment— and by his leadership at the Paris Climate talks. China was one of the 22 countries that committed to doubling their investments in clean energy innovation over the next five years. I’m also working with Jack Ma and other investors who have pledged to invest $1 billion [£810,000 million] in the development of early stage energy technology so we can move the best ideas from the research lab to the marketplace. China already is one of the world leaders in renewable energy. And it recently announced that it will spend $360 billion [£292 billion] on renewable power sources by 2020.
The promise of TerraPower’s partnership with China, however, was short lived. TerraPower was unable to escape the effects of the trade war between the United States and China that saw the Trump administration place $250 billion [£203.1 billion] on Chinese imports. Due to new rulesannounced by the United States’ Energy Department in 2018 that, ‘while not banning all nuclear deals with China, require a high degree of assurance that the technology wouldn’t be used for military or other unauthorized purposes.’ For TerraPower this meant that no new license applications or extensions of current authorization will be granted in relation to China Nuclear Power Corp., thus stalling all development of the traveling-wave reactor in China.
According to U.S. Secretary of Energy Nick Perry, these new requirements stem from the fact that ‘the United States cannot ignore the national security implications of China’s efforts to obtain nuclear technology outside of established processes of U.S.-China civil nuclear cooperation.’
This has not stopped Gates, however, who expressed in his year-end letteran interest in building TerraPower’s reactor in the United States if regulations are changed. Gates has also told lawmakers that he would personally invest $1 billion[£810,000 million] and raise $1 billion [£810,000 million] in capital to supplement state fund in order to keep development moving forward.
Gates’s rallying calls have not gone unnoticed. In 2019 Congress approved$221 million[£179.8 million] to help companies develop both advanced and smaller modular reactors. However, with the cost of building TerraPower’s reactor estimated around $1 billion[£810,000 million], this is unlikely to help TerraPower or other companies continue their projects. In the eyes of TerraPower, this contribution, although a step in the right direction, pales in comparison to the $40 million [£32.5 million] research grant the company alone received from the United States’ Energy Department in 2016. Ultimately, TerraPower’s best chance at funding the construction of its reactor is to do so with the help of a foreign partner. Although the spending power of China is hard to match, the director of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council, Randolph Bell,suggests that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all viable potential partners for TerraPower.
TerraPower also faces challenges in the feasibility of its reactor design. A report published by Massachusetts Institute of Technologyasserts that the traveling-wave reactor does not work as well as Gates claims, stating that ‘These designs […] require advances in fuel and materials technology to meet performance objectives.’ For example, many critics cite the fact that what TerraPower has discovered in terms of the candle metaphor and the traveling wave that allows the wick to ignite the rest of the candle, does not burn the uranium-238 evenly and consistently. As a result, the design of the reactor must be altered to find a way to robotically reshuffle the fuel rods to ensure that all the fuel is spent while keeping the reactor running. Additionally, Terrapower has yet to find a strong enough metal to encase these fuel roads. Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said on the topic of TerraPower: ‘We think the vendors of advanced nuclear power designs are saying they can commercially deploy them [reactors] in a few years and all over the world […] We think that this is counterproductive because it is misleading the public on how fast and effective these could be.’ Thus, while TerraPower has been working on this technology for over a decade and often touts its promise, there remains a number of large issues that need to be addressed before it can make a proposal to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
While it is unclear whether nuclear power may prove to be the answer to our energy needs in the near future, it is clear that a new light of potential is being shed on this feared technology and the world is taking notice.