Tuesday, March 01, 2011

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?