Bill Gates' Mini-Nukes -- Not as Wacky an Energy Vision as You Might Think

Last Updated Mar 26, 2010 8:30 AM EDT

Bill Gates at the TED conference talking about nuclear energyMicrosoft (MSFT) founder Bill Gates and TerraPower, the start-up company he's backing, have a simple solution to our energy woes: Safe, small-scale nuclear reactors that cut the cost of power, burn existing nuclear waste as fuel and avoid carbon dioxide and other nasty emissions. Funny thing is, it's not as far-fetched as you might think.

Gates has already poured millions into a pet project that he is clearly passionate about. At the TED conference in February (video below), Gates said of TerraPower:
If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years, it'd be to invent the thing that halves the cost of energy with no carbon dioxide. This is the one with the greatest impact.
TerraPower got a big boost earlier this week when Toshiba (TOSBF.PK), the Japanese powerhouse, confirmed it's in talks with TerraPower to develop a new generation of smaller reactors. The Japanese company owns Westinghouse Electric, a commercial nuclear energy business, and has been working on its own small 4s model nuclear reactor, which could get U.S. approval this year. That's a big deal and a big partner for TerraPower, a tiny company compared to others in the nuclear energy industry.

True, Gates and TerraPower have been working on this idea for awhile. But the start-up needs a commercial nuclear energy company to push its concept forward. The joint venture, if it materializes, will accelerate TerraPower's plans to build the small-scale reactor. See Technology Review for a detailed description of how the company's traveling-wave reactor works -- or just watch this TerraPower video.

Basically, the reactor uses a small amount of enriched uranium to kick off a chain reaction that moves slowly through a core of depleted uranium -- i.e., waste from today's nuclear plants -- converting that spent fuel into plutonium that then sustains the reaction. In other words, once the reaction begins, it makes and consumes its own fuel -- theoretically for as long as 100 years, although no one's likely to keep one on for that long.

The concept of a traveling-wave reactor isn't new. But folks interested in it could never create a proper simulation. And that's where Gates comes in. TerraPower has relied on Microsoft's supercomputing talents to design and simulate how the reactor would work. Specifically, TerraPower is using a 1,024 Xeon core processors assembled on 128 blade servers, which is about 1,000 times the computational ability of a desktop computer. Nuclear power plants cost billions of dollars to design and build. Not to mention the years it takes for a reactor to meet regulatory approval. In these credit-strapped days, a nuclear power project requires someone with a big bank account, leaving the U.S. government and a handful of billionaire-funded venture firms to do the heavy financial lifting. TerraPower is certainly not the only firm out there working on new nuclear innovations. But it does have one of the highest profile, well-heeled backers with the technological background and access to smart people needed to pull this off. A relationship with Toshiba would speed up their plans and help it avoid any regulatory missteps along the way.

Photo of Bill Gates at the TED conference from Flickr user jurvetson, CC 2.0
  • Kirsten Korosec

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