by Jason Hopkins
The Trump administration’s hardening stance with China is affecting Bill Gates’s ambitions to develop a cheaper, safer nuclear reactor that could prove to be a game changer for the U.S. energy industry.
Gates — the founder of Microsoft who has since embarked on a number of philanthropic endeavors — has taken on the cause of reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is currently directing efforts at adapting the world to climate change, and the business magnate has joined a coalition of other billionaires who are actively investing in green energy technologies.
Unlike other environmental advocates, Gates recognizes the limitations of wind and solar technology. In a year-end blog post on Saturday, he openly doubted that more affordable renewable energy would lead to breakthroughs in reducing carbon emissions, noting that they are “intermittent sources of energy” that only work when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
Instead, the 63-year-old businessman has heavily invested in nuclear energy innovation.
“Next year I will speak out more about how the U.S. needs to regain its leading role in nuclear power research,” Gates wrote Saturday. “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”
Gates is a founder and chairman of TerraPower, a nuclear reactor design company. Headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, and boasting 180 employees, TerraPower has for several years worked on a project that aims to make nuclear reactors smaller, more affordable and safer — characteristics that could revolutionize a U.S. nuclear fleet currently plagued with burdensome safety regulations and extravagant costs. Such a design the company is working on includes a traveling-wave reactor that would use depleted uranium as fuel.
TerraPower entered into a deal with China National Nuclear Corp. in 2015 and agreed to build a demonstration reactor in 2017. The pilot project was to be tested in Cangzhou, a city approximately 130 miles south of Beijing. However, recent U.S. policy changes has made Gates’s hopes of building the demonstration reactor in China untenable.
“We had hoped to build a pilot project in China, but recent policy changes here in the U.S. have made that unlikely,” Gates continued in his blog post.
The Department of Energy, citing national security concerns, announced new rules in October regarding nuclear deals with China, mandating an extremely high guarantee that nuclear technology wouldn’t be used for military purposes. The new policy was part of the Trump administration’s overall effort to prevent China from stealing critical U.S. technology.
It’s not immediately clear where TerraPower can relocate work on its demonstration reactor. Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been floated as possible options. Gates has even mentioned the U.S., but said regulatory changes at the federal level would need to be made in order for that to happen.
“To regain this position [as a global leader in nuclear energy], it will need to commit new funding, update regulations, and show investors that it’s serious,” Gates said Saturday of the U.S. “We may be able to build [the pilot project] in the United States if the funding and regulatory changes that I mentioned earlier happen.”
If TerraPower can see its design reach fruition, it could be a game changer for the U.S. nuclear fleet. While not a renewable source of energy, nuclear is able to produce large quantities of power at a constant rate — something solar and wind cannot do — without producing carbon emissions. However, heavy regulatory burdens, high costs of construction, and a power market that has favored natural gas and renewables, have made nuclear plants largely unaffordable to operate.
Gates hopes his company can make nuclear reactors safer and more affordable, putting them at a more competitive advantage.
– – –