Can you imagine the horror – in the middle of an emergency at a nuclear facility, an engineer is yelling at his fellow employees “I can’t reboot it! I told it to shut down, but it just locked up and won’t do anything!”
OK. It’s a little overboard, but it is the first thing I thought of when I found out one of the major investors behind TerraPower, a new nuclear power design start-up, was none other than Bill Gates. Combine that with the fact the CEO of Intellectual Ventures (TerraPower is a spinoff of it) is none other than Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief strategist and chief technical officer at Microsoft, and you can see how the frightening scenario built in my mind. But step back a minute and look at some of the other ventures Bill Gates has thrown his philanthropist power behind with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (improving global healthcare, reducing extreme poverty and enhancing American educational opportunities and access to information technology), and the picture seems a little less frightening.
TerraPower recycling nuclear energy
The main technology TerraPower is pushing is pretty awesome – TWR (traveling wave reactor) uses the castoff waste of the uranium enrichment process to power a nuclear facility for 40 to 60 years, with no recharging of the fuel. That’s pretty spectacular. That’s recycling to the nth degree. You pack a bunch of depleted uranium (a useless byproduct of uranium enrichment, stockpiled all around the world as nuclear waste) into a nuclear fission “battery” and start the slow chain reaction process of generating power. The process creates a constant, stable and sustainable amount of power over the life of the fuel, which is something not possible with today’s nuclear reactors.
To run the simple numbers, there is roughly 750,000 metric tons of depleted uranium stored in the United States alone. Just eight tons of this stuff could power 2.5 million households for a year using the TWR system. Let’s just skip the math on how to reach it, but that basically means these reactors could power all the households and businesses in the entire United States for well over 1,000 years using the waste we already have on hand. That’s pretty revolutionary and earth friendly.
The design of the new plant is vastly more efficient than current LWR (light water reactor) plants all over the world. The uranium waste is equivalent to a coal plant and less than a LWR, and no CO2 gas emissions unlike the approximately 600,000 metric tons a coal plant emits every year. Because it’s more efficient than the LWR plants, it actually has a cost similar to coal burning plants, and doesn’t require millions of tons of coal like the coal plant would over the 60 year lifespan; it would be burning through our depleted uranium stockpile.
Nuclear security for the world
In a big bonus to the security of the world, it would initially require very little enriched uranium to start (eventually requiring no enriched uranium) and doesn’t have the waste product of enriched plutonium; both of these products are used in nuclear weaponry. This means a low-cost, non-weaponized energy solution that can be deployed anywhere in the world for the same cost as a coal-burning plant. In other words, we could reduce our pollution of the air by millions of metric tons per year by replacing all coal-powered plants (or simply never building them) for no difference in cost.
It’s all well and good for the world. I just hope they can develop a stable operating system for the computers running the first plant when it opens in 2020. Rebooting a nuclear plant just sounds scary.