Skip to main content

Finding a Taker for TerraPower

cutaway_capt Bill Gates has shown an interest in nuclear energy for a few years now, investing a considerable amount of money into a startup called TerraPower. NEI’s newsletter Insight described TerraPower (and Gates’ interest in it) about a year ago:

TerraPower is busy designing a bold nuclear reactor concept called a “traveling wave reactor,” which could create its own nuclear fuel from otherwise unusable depleted uranium—U-238—and possibly even burn used nuclear fuel. The concept was first studied in the late 1950s—and then languished for decades.

The reactor would operate somewhat like a slow-burning cigar, with the “wave” creating and burning its own plutonium fuel as it goes. According to the literature, one load of fuel could operate the reactor for “well over 50 to 100 years without refueling.”

So, that’s TerraPower. Now, the Wall Street Journal has found out about it and weighed in:

The 30-person company [TerraPower] 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.

Browsing through countries to find one to host your highly experimental reactor might be considered an unattractive approach to the marketplace. The reason the company is doing this?

Current U.S. rules don't even cover the type of technology TerraPower hopes to use.

And why would they, since the idea has been abandoned for some years?

To be honest, the Journal seems to be making a point about American rulemaking around nuclear energy that TerraPower itself doesn’t fully share. And the company’s attempts to find a country that will host the reactor (without that validation?) have been fruitless so far.

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.

Myrhvold is Nathan Myrhvold, a former Microsoft executive and head of Intellectual Ventures, a patent and invention firm that is the parent company of TerraPower. Presumably, he also interested Gates in it.

"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."

Myrhvold may want to steer around the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to get the design approved and a reactor built; writer Robert Guth asked NEI about that.

"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.

But let’s hope the NRC does get a crack at this – if TerraPower’s reactor works as it should, and scales up to at least small reactor capacity at a reasonable price, the potential is terrific. Bill Gates is all in – let’s see what happens next.


Charlie Sheen just launched a nuclear attack [while] on live radio.

We note this sentence from TMZ because it shows that words that once invoked terror – justifiably – on whole populations have been so trivialized that they can describe an actor grousing about his boss. That’s progress.

The innards of the TerraPower reactor. More at the company’s site.


Anonymous said…
There was a time when the old AEC was willing to allow innovative reactors like Pathfinder and Peach Bottom Unit 1 to be built. While I'm not necessarily pining for the "good old days" (that saw nothing wrong with putting lead in paint and gasoline), it is discouraging that the NRC has a narrow comfort zone that seems to all but limit licensing options to variations on light water designs.
donb said…
In the original posting:
"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.

I would hardly hold up as a "gold standard" a regulatory system that has prevented a new reactor from being built and put in service under its rules for 35+ years. The supposed goal is "safety" for nuclear reactors. The "safety" standards are so near to being unattainable that it has discouraged the building of new nuclear power plants and has led instead to the building of fossil fuel plants that are much more dangerous and decrease public health. The paradox is that these high "safety" standards have decreased public safety and health.

This "gold standard" is really a gold plated standard. As a result, we have regulatory failure, not success. Our system is not a model for the world.
Steve said…
Amen, donb. Amen.
JD Atlanta said…
You nailed it, Don.
gunter said…
Howdy folks,

Well according to the latest NBC News and WSJ poll (Feb. 2011) they should do it without federal subsidies along with the AP1000, ABWR, EPR, or what have you.

Of 1000 polled Question 25 showed that 57% said that it was "mostly" or "totally" acceptable to cut federal subsidies for new nuclear power plants.
gmax137 said…
Hi Gunter -
Can you point me to a list of these government subsidies? How much did the feds pay Westinghouse or Shaw for the AP1000? And how much did they pay GE, Areva, or who have you? What did they get for this payoff?

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot., the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.

From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost th…