Bill Gates on Nuclear Energy

Today Bill Gates talked about our nuclear reactor project, TerraPower, at TED 2010. As an investor in several promising energy projects, Gates said it is our responsibility to pursue technologies that achieve cheap energy with “zero carbon” emissions.

TerraPower determined a new type of traveling-wave reactor would be the best approach to meeting the world’s energy demand. Our team decided to pursue nuclear energy after investigating many different technologies and solutions. With advances in computing power in just the past few years, we are able to make radical contributions to science that weren’t possible a few years ago. We believe the traveling-wave reactor concept provides the kind of innovation that society needs.

This video explains the traveling-wave reactor and how it works.

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  1. moustapha
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    I can’t wait to see this technogy. Cominfg from a very poor county, the nuclear power may be a goog way to get a cheap energy for poor counties. Thank

  2. Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    Nuclear energy is not “zero-carbon”. The uranium does not appear in the factory by magic, it has to be mined or otherwise obtained, and this costs quite some (fossil) energy.

    Direct and indirect CO2-emissions per kilowatt hour (grammes/-kWh).
    natural gas 448
    coal 924
    coal: clean-coal-technology 800
    co-generation of heat & power (gas) 300
    uranium 62-230

    Figures: TNO 1992. Via WISE Amsterdam.

  3. Posted February 28, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Nuclear energy can be safer, cleaner and cheaper, if using aneutronic reactor, because it can generate electricity directly exceeding 95% of efficiency without neutron hazards. Few millions instead billions, a proof-of-concept could be built at a price of $40 millions, and a full-scale at a price of $500 millions.

  4. A. J. S.
    Posted March 1, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    @Chris H There is plenty of U-238 currently sitting in storage in the US and other countries which have developed atom bombs by separating out the fissile U-235. Most of this material is “good to go” right now. In addition, once reprocessing is begun, there are literally tons of “waste” that will suddenly be worth much more than their weight in gold if a safe, reliable breeder design becomes a reality. Thorium may also be used in any of these designs and is not really useful for much else. The cost/danger of mining thorium is much less than coal. There is enough thorium in Idaho to power the whole US for 1000 years– lights on 24/7.

  5. Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    @A.J.S. That’s absolutely true :). I’m excited to see changes in power generation in my lifetime.

    I’m hopeful at least. More people just need to know about the viability of this sort of technology.

  6. David K.
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I can’t figure out how this core could remain critical with the “burning cigarette” model they show in the video. The thin wafer burn region would lose about 50% of it’s fast neutrons (used for breeding) into the burnt fuel region. These are essentially lost. So you start out with 2.5 neutrons; the average number produced from a fission of U235 or P239. If you lose 50% to fast leakage you have 1.25. We’ll say 1 is absorbed by U238 to make P239 and maintain our fuel inventory. You then have .25 neutrons for the next generation.

    I know the video is oversimplified for its own sake and I would love to see more information about the design.

  7. Richard Houghton
    Posted March 26, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I wish that Mr. Gates had first seen the research already done and already tested for 5 years at Oakridge, namely liquid fluorine thorium reactors. This nuclear reactor uses liquid salts with dissolved thorium which is converted to a fissile material (u233) and burned. No cooling system required, no bomb material is possible, can be shut down and restarted in same day, uses nuclear waste material as fuel, needs no massive containment structure, operates at atmospheric pressure, needs no water to cool or create steam. And it has been proven by our own nuclear program and run for 5 years. They would run it during the week and turn it off for the weekend and restart it on Monday. Will cost half of what a conventional nuke plant costs. Is scalable for large plants and for industrial business use.
    Check out for more information.

  8. Bruce Kline
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Chris H. – looking at the energy it takes to do anything including moving closer to carbon-free generation is going to use carbon, so counting that energy which is are a drop in the bucket to total energy use is dishonest and sheer anti-nuclear propaganda of the most transparent kind


    So these cylinders just “burn” like a cigarette … a cigarette that will not go out ? The cigarette analogy is ominous but may be prescient.

    If these powerplants are of normal size, generating significant heat – did we not learn what happens to nuclear power plants that need continuous cooling and energy inputs in emergencies for them to “shut down” in Japan/Fukushima. In different words – all nuclear plants seem to have been designed so they really cannot be shut down at all.

    Is there an answer to this or are these plants just a different tune of don’t worry, be happy – until something goes wrong we did not sufficiently design for? No wonder no one wants to underwrite these things. This is a project for the government or NASA, where the lowest bigger, and profits are not a major consideration. People need to be told the plain facts. But even so – if you cannot flip a switch manually or automatically when a problem is sensed and shut down the reactor so that no inputs are needed – no water, no power and no people then you are just “blowing smoke” as the saying goes – in other peoples faces – carcinogenic smoke.

    I am pro-nuclear power, but I am not for whatever shortsighted idiots have been making the design parameters that have got us to the point that the whole world is terrified of nuclear power. Pro-nuclear people want to condescend to people and say it is because the first view of nuclear to the world was a bomb, but that is not true, the important view is the arrogance and incompetence used to make design judgements when money is at stake.

  9. Bruce Kline
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    >> liquid fluorine thorium reactors.

    LOL, this is great. This may be a brilliant idea on the drawing board, but having liquid fluorine be the major liquid in a nuclear reactor is just asking for trouble. I was looking at the website and could not find the block diagram or descriptions of how this works.

    If liquid fluorine is released into the plant wouldn’t human beings have a major problem being in the plant to fix it. Fluorine is a highly reactive element, and fluorine poisoning make radiation poisoning look relatively good by comparison. Yes, a plant may have run for however long, but what would happen if a bomb went off in it, or the plant was crashed into by a jet airliner or there was deliberate sabotage?

  10. Geoff Graham
    Posted June 25, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    A key problem with breeder reactors, including this one, is that they work under two constraints: (a) Produce heat now, and (b) produce exactly enough fuel to keep going. If they produce too little fuel, the reaction stops; if they produce too much, the reaction may run away. Also, I wonder about uneven burning of the fuel.

    Everyone has an uninformed opinion, so I will add mine. If you included a substance that did not absorb neutrons at low flux, but did absorb them at high flux, you might be able to put a ceiling on the burn rate. Zirconium is one possibility.

    Anyhow, GOOD LUCK!! It’s hard to think of anyone anywhere who is doing more important work.

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