A Window Into the Nuclear Future
TerraPower—with the backing of Bill Gates—has a radical vision for the reactors of tomorrow
Bill Gates reshaped the computer industry by pumping out new versions of Microsoft Windows software every few years, fixing and fine tuning it as he went along.
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He’s now betting that he can reshape the energy industry with a project akin to shipping Windows once and having it work, bug-free, for 50 years.
Thanks to his role funding and guiding a start-up called TerraPower LLC, where he serves as chairman, Mr. Gates has become a player in a field of inventors whose goal is to make nuclear reactors smaller, cheaper and safer than today’s nuclear energy sources. The 30-person company recently completed a basic design for a reactor that theoretically could run untouched for decades on spent nuclear fuel. Now the company is seeking a partner to help build the experimental reactor, and a country willing to host it.
It’s a long-term, risky endeavor for Mr. Gates and his fellow investors. The idea will require years to test, billions of dollars (not all from him) and changes in U.S. nuclear regulations if the reactor is to be built here. Current U.S. rules don’t even cover the type of technology TerraPower hopes to use.
“A cheaper reactor design that can burn waste and doesn’t run into fuel limitations would be a big thing,” Mr. Gates says. He adds that in general “capitalism underinvests in innovation,” particularly in areas with “long time horizons and where government regulations are unclear.”
TerraPower is one of a host of inventors, reactor makers and electric utilities trying to kick-start innovation in a field that hasn’t seen a big technological advance in decades. President Barack Obama wants to help, too, designating $853 million for nuclear research, including small-scale reactors, in his proposed 2012 budget.
The type of reactor TerraPower is working on, a traveling-wave reactor, could reduce the need for enrichment and reprocessing of uranium. Executives at the Bellevue, Wash., company say their reactor could even be buried in the ground, where it could run for 100 years.
To understand how a traveling-wave reactor works, think of a wood-burning stove. Today’s reactors use dried wood—enriched uranium-235—that burns hot and quickly. A traveling-wave reactor would start with a little bit of dried wood to get a hot flame going, but most of the fuel would be green, or wet, wood—depleted uranium-238. The wet logs wouldn’t burn as hot as the dried ones, but they would continue to burn long after the hot flame goes out.
Burning the enriched uranium would shoot neutrons into the depleted uranium making up roughly 90% of the fuel. That process would produce plutonium, which would create energy as it continued to get hit by even more neutrons. It’s a slow, controlled reaction that could continue over many years without need of human intervention. And in TerraPower’s design, the core of the reactor, where fission takes place, would be small: a cylinder about 10 feet wide and 13 feet long.
Another plus: Large supplies of depleted uranium are available as a byproduct of today’s water-cooled reactors. Removing it from those reactors and reprocessing it for reuse is a costly procedure, and a source of worry that radioactive material might fall into the wrong hands. Reducing the need for reprocessing could save money and reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.
The idea for traveling-wave reactors has been around for decades but was mothballed amid waning U.S. interest in nuclear power. Then came a boost in the 1990s from a research paper by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, including Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and the brain behind Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defense initiative; and an acolyte of Mr. Teller’s named Lowell Wood.
Mr. Wood recently found a receptive ear in Nathan Myrhvold, a former Microsoft executive and head of Intellectual Ventures, a patent and invention firm in Bellevue. Mr. Myrhvold is a close friend of Mr. Gates, who is also an investor in Intellectual Ventures. In recent years the three men have done a lot of brainstorming about future technologies, including the traveling-wave reactor.
The reactor idea intrigued Mr. Gates, who was studying energy and climate change at the time. Among the reactor’s other potential advantages, Mr. Gates says he was interested in its potential for producing cheap, zero-carbon energy and its ability to turn “what is a waste product into fuel.”
Mr. Gates got the project rolling with seed money in the tens of millions of dollars. Venture-capital firms Charles River Ventures and Khosla Ventures invested $35 million last year. Nuclear-industry veteran John Gilleland is TerraPower’s chief executive; a network of part-time researchers and scientists around the country offer input.
Looking for a Home
The traveling-wave reactor is still virtual, existing only in software on computers at TerraPower headquarters. Mr. Myrhvold says there is a basic design, not a full blueprint. But it’s enough for the next step: building a test version of the reactor. TerraPower is looking for a customer, such as an electric utility, and a country that is willing to house an experimental reactor.
The company has made pitches in France and Japan, Mr. Myrhvold says; both have big nuclear-power industries. He’s also made the rounds in Russia, China and India, he says. So far, there have been no takers.
One country he is certain won’t be a customer anytime soon is the U.S., which doesn’t yet have a certification process for reactors like TerraPower’s. It would likely be a decade or more before the reactor could be tested on U.S. soil. “I don’t think the U.S. has the willpower or desire to build new kinds of nuclear reactors,” Mr. Myrhvold says. “Right now there’s a long, drawn-out process.”
Policy experts say that’s with good cause. “Our regulatory process, while burdensome, is there for a reason, and it does represent the gold standard around the world for nuclear safety,” says Paul Genoa, director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington.
Mr. Myrhvold says he hopes the process will speed up and spark innovation to meet the world’s growing energy demand. “Let’s try 20 ideas,” he says. “Maybe five of them work. That’s the only way to invent our way out of the pickle we’re in.”