Can Bill Gates bring nuclear power back to the US?

Usually, discussions of decarbonizing energy production involve solar, wind, tidal and geothermal. But nuclear power generation doesn’t generate greenhouse gas (though the large amount of concrete in conventional nuclear power plants does). Nuclear power generation has a bad name after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. While there is debate about whether the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents really endangered many lives, there’s no doubt that solid fuel light water nuclear power reactors have an image problem.

Bill Gates is hoping to overcome that image problem by co-funding a nuclear power reactor. Gates’ company, TerraPower, has announced the siting of a 345 MW demonstration plant in Kemmerer WY, an old coal town. This plant is a 4th generation design (for reference, Fukishima No. 1 was a Mark I model designed in the 1960s first went online in 1971). It will be a Natrium plant design that uses a sodium-cooled fast reactor as the heat source. Sodium as a reactor coolant has excellent heat transfer properties, remains liquid at far higher temperatures and lower pressures than light water reactors, and sodium is transparent to neutrons. On the downside, sodium reacts violently with air or water, so care must be taken to prevent coolant leakage and air or water intrusion.

The cooling system design is failsafe, not requiring any power from an outside source to safely shutdown during an emergency.

The cost of solar and wind power is declining. If the TerraPower pilot in Wyoming is successful, it should reduce the cost of nuclear power generation, and also address the intermittency issues of solar and wind. It is expected to complement, not displace solar and wind power generation.

Much to my disappointment, however, the TerraPower reactor still relies on solid uranium as fuel. In the long term, molten salt reactors represent a safer, scalable and sustainable nuclear power solution with more efficient fuel consumption and less radioactive waste and risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. The US used to be a world leader in nuclear power. It would be good to see it back in that role again.

“Bill Gates’ TerraPower aims to build its first advanced nuclear reactor in a coal town in Wyoming,” CNBC, Catherine Clifford