Gates Goes Nuclear: Billionaire Backs Fledgling Mini-Reactor Technology

By Andrew Moseman | March 24, 2010 3:43 pm

Bill_GatesLet’s give Bill Gates some credit: Retiring from Microsoft with all the free time and money in the world, Gates could have launched  any number of Montgomery Burns-ian schemes for world domination. Instead, the multi-billionaire went the philanthropist route, becoming one of DISCOVER’s 10 most influential people in science through the health work his foundation funds. But a tinkerer is never done tinkering: In the last year Gates has patented an anti-hurricane device, given a few million dollars to fund geoengineering research, and then this week went public with his newest project: small-scale nuclear power.

A Gates-backed start-up company called TerraPower in talks with Toshiba to develop traveling-wave reactors (TWRs), which are designed to use depleted uranium as fuel and thought to hold the promise of running up to 100 years without refueling []. TWRs, which scientists have been playing with on and off for decades, need enriched uranium to get going, but are advantageous because they can use normal or even depleted uranium once the fission reaction is underway (and depleted uranium is something the United States has in great quantity). The technique requires bombarding uranium with a neutron to convert it to an unstable form of the element, which decays into neptunium and then fissile plutonium.

Toshiba’s already been working on mini reactors that run for about 30-40 years, and they believe that about 80% of the technology used in those can be used in the traveling-wave reactors [DVICE]. One of the challenges, though, is that if you’re that efficient at burning fuel, you need materials that can withstand that many years of constant radiation. TerraPower has completed the conceptual designs for both small units that produce electricity in the hundreds of megawatts, and a gigawatt-sized reactors that could power a city. But that’s the drawing board. In  other words, this is very early days. And as with any new energy technology, expectations that energy supplies will be transformed in the near future should … take a rest [Financial Times].

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Image: Archive of the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland

  • Zachary

    Yay! Let us embrace our nuclear future, please, the longer we do the ridiculous wind and solar route the more outdated our power grid becomes.

  • scribbler

    What I find most appealing is that it uses used up reactor fuel. It also give us a great incentive to keep track of said fuel.

    Does anyone know if this is at all viable or is the caveat of “take a rest” indicitive of “pipe dream” status?

  • Avoirdupois


  • Doug

    This is exactly what we need! After days of fading hope listening to government “plans” for increased clean energy (really, air is not the way to go) and corrupted and/or environmentally blind officials crying about coal, gas and car emissions, I take heart in seeing a wealthy (very wealthy) private investor actually taking a legitimate look into nuclear power. Especially this kind of progressive proposal that uses old nuclear fuel to power it. We need more billionaires to maybe put a hold on buying that new football stadium and instead invest into technologies that require a lot of capital to get moving, but eventually could lead to something earth-changing.

  • kdb

    Do want.

  • dan mayberry

    I understand the grid is outdated, as well as the rest of our infrastructure to boot… doh… and this could be a real help for the moment. I still want to see E.M.P. tech to push forward. When you can create completely free energy that cannot be any cleaner, why not ?… doh.. And you don’t go broke paying your money to some monger. You use your savings to get out of this sickening debt we all have created and education for our future.

    Men , rich beyond anyone’s need or means, should always try to help the world and not themselves.

  • Hawkeye

    It figures that Gates would back a dirty nuclear technology. Although it has had a bad rap for a few decades, cold fusion is far from dead, and probably just a viable as this technology.

  • Kapryan Kennedy

    The idea of upgrading our energy sources and technology is a good one. However,…Bill Gates has a long, predatory business history of destroying and or usurping the ideas and endeavors of his competitors (Think Amiga, think Macintosh, think of all the software companies that were trashed by Gates so that we could have Windose), and then offering a substandard and barely functional product. Can we really afford the influence of a man with this track record developing potentially lethal nuclear reactors. It would give new meaning to the “Blue screen of DEATH”. If he gets into this technology, somebody better keep an eye on him.

  • scribbler

    Sour grapes makes for a very bitter whine, KK…


    BSOD was funny, though!

  • Gary Ansorge

    We need all the long term, clean energy solutions we can build. This is just one of them. I just Hope Bill is keeping one eye on the Polywell research. If THAT pans out, he should be hanging around with venture capital in hand.

    Go for it, Bill.(of course, you WILL have competition)

    GAry 7

  • Tim

    Check out Bill’s talk on the stuff. (ted feb 10)

    from 13mins 30s

  • anthony yeager

    could this be used one day in space craft?

  • WebSelling4U

    Yes, its great that it can run on depleted uranium and yes, it’s efficient but the benefits don’t stop there. Most of our current (no pun intended) electricity is used up just pushing itself through miles of lines. With more but smaller power facilities, the need for the super towers with mega voltage crossing the country would eventually be eliminated, just as wireless eliminates the need for running miles of cable through an office building for communications. The savings should be huge and it should be safer (even for air traffic).

    And just imagine, with lots of cheap electricity, would that make it possible to have roads where cars pick up electricity like the old street cars did but just every so often kind of like rolling through a gas station. Drive your car through a shed where it picks up a charge or a charged battery and off you go for another hundred miles or more. Or perhaps, high speed trains with linear induction motors criss-crossing the country with a reactor every so many miles to power them. Of course I want to keep my old pickup but quiet efficient travel also has an appeal.


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