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Bill Gates discusses nuclear development deal with China

TerraPower plans new form of low-risk nuclear reactor

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Bill Gates is holding talks with the China National Nuclear Corporation about building the first of a new breed of nuclear reactors that are fueled with what is currently considered radioactive waste.

The system, dubbed a travelling wave reactor, is being developed by Intellectual Ventures, the investment vehicle and sometime patent troll set up by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, and taken to market by TerraPower, which is partially funded by Gates. He introduced the concept last year at TED and is actively trying to find the billions needed to set up the first working reactor.

Gates told the Chinese Ministry of Science & Technology that "very good discussions" were being had and that up to $1 billion could be invested, the Associated Press reports. "The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste," he said.

TerraPower’s reactor design is very different from the current pressurized water or pebble systems, since it requires no refueling during its lifetime and can use depleted uranium for the bulk of its reaction mass. The reactor is essentially a large cylinder built a few hundred feet into the ground and filled with depleted uranium. It is capped with about 10 per cent enriched uranium, which initiates the reaction, and then slowly burns down the cylinder over the course of 40 to 60 years, cooled by liquid sodium.

TerraPower reactor

Bill's nuclear candle

The idea was first proposed in the 1950s, but with the advent of supercomputer simulations TerraPower reckons it’s done its sums and the system will work on a 300MWe and 1,000MWe scale. The company has some of the biggest names in nuclear research on its books. Materials testing in Russia has been positive, but it will need a few billion to get a working system in place. There are also serious legal and insurance challenges ahead, to say the least.

Papers published by the company claim that the system is 40 times as efficient as current light water reactors and that there is enough available fuel to provide 10 billion people with US per-capita energy usage levels for million-year timescales. As an additional bonus, depleted uranium is plentiful, cheap, and is of limited use in atomic weaponry.

“TerraPower has been engaged in a series of meetings in the US and abroad with energy experts to listen, learn and discuss options,” the company said in a statement to The Register. “We have explored interest in TerraPower in China, India, Russia and other countries with active nuclear programs. The recent meetings in China are part of that effort, as we continue to work to accelerate the scientific findings needed to achieve secure, affordable and emissions-free energy production.” ®

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