- Billionaire Bill Gates took one step back and put one foot forward this week. He announced that TerraPower, the firm in which he is a major investor, will pull out of its plan to build a prototype of its Traveling Wave advanced reactor in China.
- Also, he wrote in a widely distributed email letter that he plans to do more in 2019 to promote the use of nuclear energy to address the challenge of climate change.
TerraPower Pulls Out of China Joint Venture
TerraPower, a nuclear energy startup which includes Bill Gates as one of its key investors, has been forced to cancel its plans to spend $ 1 billion to build a half-size prototype of its advanced design nuclear reactor in China. It is unclear whether the firm will look for a new partner in the U.S., or elsewhere, to conduct early-stage trials of its reactor technology.
TerraPower’s chief financial officer, Marcia Burkey said in a statement to the news media that October’s announcement of the new export restrictions caught the company “by complete surprise.”
The decision to end the work in China follows a new set of U.S. government rules on export of nuclear technology to China. The rules were issued in October 2018 in response to repeated instances by China of stealing intellectual property related to nuclear energy from U.S. firms.
TerraPower formally set up an agreement with state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) in 2013 to build its first of a kind half size version of its Traveling Wave reactor. The design is unique in that it is based on the use of depleted uranium to run the reactor.
“We had hoped to build a pilot project in China, but recent policy changes here in the US have made that unlikely,” Gates wrote in a blog post.
He said TerraPower may be able to build it in the US, but qualified that idea with two caveats. The first is that federal funds would be available and the second is changes are made in the way the NRC conducts safety evaluation design reviews of advanced reactors.
“We’re regrouping,” Chief Executive Chris Levesque told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. “Maybe we can find another partner.”
As a practical matter neither of Gates’ preconditions is likely to be resolved anytime soon. DOE has been releasing funds for work on SMRs and advanced reactor technologies, but not on the scale that TerraPower would need, e.g., $ 1 billion or more, to build the first prototype.
New legislation requires the NRC to make changes in the way it reviews advanced nuclear reactor designs, but it will take some time, perhaps several years, for the agency to develop the technical and regulatory basis for implementing these changes.
History of the China Venture
In 2017 TerraPower came to an agreement with CNNC was to form a joint venture company that would complete the design of the travelling wave reactor and commercialize the technology. The firm, Global Innovation Nuclear Energy Technology Company Ltd, was expected to not only build a first of a kind prototype (FOAK), but also to offer the full size design for export.
Unlike traditional nuclear reactors, this technology will be capable of utilizing fuel made from depleted uranium, which is currently a waste byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. Its unique design gradually converts the fuel through a nuclear reaction without removing it from the reactor’s core, eliminating the need for reprocessing, generating heat and producing electricity over a much longer period of continuous operation.
Additionally, eliminating reprocessing reduces proliferation concerns, lowers the overall cost of the nuclear energy process, and helps to protect the environment by making use of a waste byproduct and reducing the production of greenhouse gases.
Gates to Advocate for Nuclear Energy in 2019
While Bill Gates as an investor has had to take a step back in terms of developing an advanced nuclear reactor design, he remains a strong advocate for nuclear energy.
Gates said, “Next year I will speak out more about how the U.S. needs to regain its leading role in nuclear power research. He noted this work will be separate from his foundation activities.
“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.”
“The United States is uniquely suited to create these advances with its world-class scientists, entrepreneurs, and investment capital.”
“Unfortunately, America is no longer the global leader on nuclear energy that it was 50 years ago. To regain this position, it will need to commit new funding, update regulations, and show investors that it’s serious.”
“Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change,” Gates says in his letter, “because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”
He adds that “problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation.”
Gates wrote that nuclear power has to play a significant role in America’s energy use due to concerns about climate change. He pointed out that global emissions of greenhouse gases have resumed their upward trend.
“For me, that just reinforces the fact that the only way to prevent the worst climate-change scenarios is to get some breakthroughs in clean energy.”
Gates said utilities should take advantage of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power “wherever it makes sense.”
“But solar and wind are intermittent, and we are unlikely to have super-cheap batteries anytime soon that would allow us to store sufficient energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. ”
The clear message is that if the nation wants to decarbonize the electricity sector, it needs nuclear energy to keep the grid stable and the lights on.
TerraPower’s Work on a Molten Salt Reactor Design
The end of the work on the Traveling Wave reactor in China is not the end of TerraPower’s work on advanced nuclear reactor technologies. TerraPower is working on a molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR) project
The MCFR project has the potential to be a relatively low-cost reactor that can operate safely in new temperature regimes. This means the technology can do more than generate electricity; it also offers potential in alternative markets, such as process heat and thermal storage.
The MCFR design is a type of molten salt reactor (MSR). MSR experiments were conducted in the 1960s, and modern computing power, materials and engineering developments enable the revival of new research and development of MSR technology.
TerraPower said in a statement on its website that integrating new reactor options into a diversified fleet can bring high-quality, carbon-free energy to heavy industry users, such as water treatment plants, refineries and chemical processors.
TerraPower’s research and development of the MCFR project has already expanded into design and testing activities. In January 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded a five-year, $40 million cost share award for continued research and development into TerraPower’s MCFR project.
This award served as the impetus for a new public-private MCFR project development partnership that includes TerraPower, the Southern Company, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Electric Power Research Institute and Vanderbilt University.
Japan Council Approves Plans To Continue
Fast Reactor Development
(NucNet): A government council has approved plans for Japan to continue with the development of fast reactors, although they are not likely to be fully commercialized and in use until the second half of the century, industry group the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (Jaif) said.
The plans were approved by the council on fast reactor development, part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The plans, initially drawn up by the council’s working group, say Japan could use the experimental fast reactor Joyo, and various facilities overseas, to acquire the technical knowledge that would have been obtained from the prototype Monju fast breeder reactor, which suffered a number of safety setbacks and has been designated for decommissioning.
Joyo, a sodium-cooled fast reactor operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), is in Ibaraki Prefecture, eastern Japan.
According to an outline schedule, starting in 2024, the national government, the JAEA and Japan’s power utilities, in cooperation with manufacturers, will narrow down the fast breeder technologies that can be used.
The government will be responsible for ascertaining their political feasibility, JAEA will accumulate the necessary technical expertise, and utilities will determine the prospects for commercialization.
Fast breeder reactors, which are being explored or constructed in Japan, France, India, Russia and China, allow a significant increase in the amount of energy obtained from natural, depleted and recycled uranium. The technology also enables plutonium to be used and recycled several times, and minor actinides to be recycled.
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