Is a Bill Gates-backed nuclear start-up going to tackle two of nuclear’s biggest challenges: sourcing and disposing of uranium? “Talks” between TerraPower and Toshiba, one of the world’s three big nuclear energy industry leaders, are lending some hope to the idea.
TerraPower is a spin-off of Intellectual Ventures, a start-up founded by a former Microsoft CTO, backed by Gates, and has only a handful of staff. Its reactor designs could represent huge advantages over existing systems, but, the FT reports, it’s early days:
No such reactor has ever been built, however, and Toshiba is focusing on its 4S “nuclear battery”, which is much closer to realisation. 4S stands for “super-safe, small and simple”.
Intellectual Ventures’ TerraPower guide says its travelling wave reactors (TWRs) could “theoretically run forever without needing any additional enriched uranium after its startup period” if it has sufficient uranium supplied. The other advantage is that it can use depleted uranium that is treated as waste in the traditional nuclear power generation process, addressing the difficult problem of disposing of nuclear waste.
A conceptual design effort is currently underway for a small modular unit that generates a few hundred megawatts of electricity which could fit the needs of emerging markets. The conceptual design for a gigawatt-scale reactor, which is big enough to power a city, has already been completed.
In otherwords, this is very early days. And as with any new energy technology, expectations that energy supplies will be transformed in the near future should be take a rest.
Nuclear power has other problems than sourcing and disposing of uranium. Costs, and the time required for planning, regulation and testing represent significant hurdles. And of course there is public opinion, which can be very averse to the idea of nuclear accidents.
But on that last point, changes might be already taking place, at least in the US where energy secretary Steven Chu declared his support for nuclear innovation in a WSJ oped on Tuesday, and the idea of nuclear energy is becoming more popular in the US, according to a new Gallup poll. As Nicole Allan at The Atlantic points out, nuclear loan guarantees are thought to be one element of the climate bill that Senators John Kerry, Lindsay Graham and Joe Leiberman are revising.