Bill Gates’ Nuclear Reactor Hits a Roadblock
Matthew Greenwood posted on October 21, 2019 |

Bill Gates is optimistic about the future—and the role of nuclear energy as an environmentally friendly energy source—but he faces significant obstacles along the way.

His company, TerraPower, is working on new technologies to revolutionize nuclear power. One of them is a traveling wave reactor (TWR). A TWR doesn’t rely exclusively on enriched uranium, which is expensive to acquire and the waste is problematic to store with a half-life of almost 4.5 billion years. Rather, TWR initiates the reaction with enriched uranium then switches to depleted uranium, the waste left over from uranium enrichment. A TWR could run on depleted uranium for decades.

Rather than cooling the reactor with water, a TWR uses liquid sodium as a coolant. The reactor can therefore operate at a lower temperature than conventional reactors and is less vulnerable to a Chernobyl-type accident.

TerraPower is also developing a molten chloride fast reactor, which uses molten salt as a coolant and as the fuel medium, giving it the potential to significantly boost efficiency.

At TerraPower’s state-of-the-art Bellevue lab, engineers put sophisticated computer models of the company’s technologies through real-world tests without having to use actual radioactive fuel. Powerful cutting-edge computers process the data at a complexity and speed previously unheard of in the nuclear industry.

“The new thing is advanced physics, enabled by modern computing power that was really only available in the last 10 to 15 years,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower president and CEO.

TerraPower and the Traveling Wave Reactor.

TerraPower recently hit an important milestone: 1,000 hours of continuous operations on an isothermal loop that is testing the effects of moving molten salt through a reactor. This is a significant step forward in the company’s efforts to create a licensed demonstration reactor.

One major problem with a TWR power plant is the price. It will cost about $3 billion to build a demonstration reactor. Even Bill Gates isn’t rich enough to fund it himself. TerraPower had signed a promising agreement with China to build a demonstration reactor, but the project has been shuttered due to China-U.S. trade tensions. The company is now lobbying Congress for a public-private partnership to fund the reactor.

Despite the setbacks, Gates still seems optimistic about nuclear power’s potential.

“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,” Gates said. “The problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation.”

Read more about developments in nuclear power at Nuclear Propulsion: How We Could Reach the Stars with Current Technology.

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