Apparently, Bill Gates is putting some of his vast fortune behind innovative nuclear reactors that by design lower cost and increase safety. The Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) is a design based on the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), successfully tested at the Argonne National Laboratory more than two decades ago. The beauty of the IFR and the TWR is that after the enriched uranium is consumed in the reactor, any waste plutonium is also consumed in the reactor process. The TWR is designed to run for a decade or more without being refueled, and produce almost zero waste. These new reactors run at a much higher temperature, and use liquid sodium as a coolant, rather than water. These reactors could make a big difference, but they need financial support to mature. Bill Gates is looking for a breakthrough “energy miracle:”
“To have the kind of reliable energy we expect, and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon, we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough. I certainly don’t want the government to only pick a few paths, because our probability of success is much higher if we’re pursuing many, many paths. Think about all the people who are getting up every day and working on solutions that may seem kind of delusional even though the odds against them are higher than they realize. The world needs all these people trying things out and believing in them. In IT, there were tons of dead ends — but there was enough of a success rate to have an unbelievable impact.”
The problem surrounding nuclear energy going forward is that people are afraid of nuclear power, but they don’t really understand it. Bill Gates, like Stewart Brand, is an energy realist. Brand, after reading Gwyneth Cravens‘ seminal work Power to Save the World, became a big supporter of nuclear power as one of the important pieces in our carbon-free energy future. The TWR is a key part of that future, described in depth in Cravens’ work. Gates’ support is a major boost, as opponents of nuclear power refuse to put money behind developing new technology.
Opponents make their assumptions based on old reactor technology and the mistaken Linear Non Threshold (LNT) hypothesis. LNT assumes that radiation effects the body in a linear manner through all levels of radiation; however, only 36% of 1,737 Department of Energy scientists subscribe to this hypothesis (in a recent survey). LNT underlies all regulations on nuclear safety, and is basically safety overkill.
This is exciting news. If you don’t understand nuclear reactors, and get all your information about nuclear power from opponents, take a look at Gwyneth Cravens’ Power to Save the world. Nuclear power can be a big part of our low-carbon energy future, if we give it a chance and continue to invest in new technology.