Bill Gates Nukes the Environment

Bill Gates was in the news a few weeks back taking climate change deniers to task.

I must admit I lean to the skeptical side myself. I’m for off-grid power for reasons such as the probable coming oil famine and hyperinflation. But I don’t have the expertise and inclination to go on a crusade on either side of global warming, except to say that if we’re concerned about the poor, let’s make sure the transition to carbonless power doesn’t add excessive trauma to the already stressed global economy.

Even if there is warming, it seems that other problems, such as non-CO2 pollution, soil erosion, new dust bowls, and over-fished oceans are more urgent. Global warming has a number of quick fix engineering schemes.

Given Gates’ history founding and running Microsoft, I was puzzled about all the *ahem* “energy” he put into his recent remarks. Now the mystery is solved. He’s backing an energy initiative with another Microsoft founder, Nathan Myhrvold (hear Nathan talk about “Reinventing Invention” in a Harvard Business podcast).

The new venture is reported in Business Week as “Bill Gates Goes Nuclear.”

The new company is called TerraPower. Gates describes the funding plan and principles of operation in the just released TED Talk, “Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!.”

Given his stated goal of zero emissions, he highlighted the advantage nuclear has over renewables because of nuclear’s energy density. He also mentioned a “liquid nuclear” system in passing that I think means the LFTR (Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor) I’ve mentioned in a previous post. (It has safety advantages compared to conventional U-235 plants, much less waste, little terrorist bomb potential and plentiful domestic thorium fuel for thousands of years. Also, thorium is detectable from space and is found on the Moon and Mars. Recently, uranium was found on the Moon.)

The TerraPower system is called a “traveling-wave” reactor, able to slowly consume a cylinder of waste U-238 for up to 60 years.

“A traveling-wave reactor can sustain fission in a nonfissile fuel such as depleted uranium because it sets up a slow-moving wave in which neutrons produced by fission reactions in one small part of the core convert adjacent fuel pellets from fertile isotopes (such as U238) into fissile isotopes (such as Pu239).”

And when the waste U-238 is used up, it’s much more plentiful in nature than our current U-235 fuel isotope facing “peak uranium.” By then, other technologies will probably be online.

There are hippie holdouts having flashbacks about the Cold War who are still anti-nuke. The current generation doesn’t worry about The Day After anymore. They worry about The Day After Tomorrow. (Another pro-nuke advocate is Whole Earth Catalog pioneer, Stewart Brand.)

I’ll give you something to protest, “American Meat Institute is pushing irradiation as the solution to E. coli.”

My worry is that big nuke plants perpetuate the grid, but already there are hotel and neighborhood scale reactors on the market now. We’re bound to get local sized versions of the new designs.

Even a climate skeptic should watch Bill Gates at TED describing the new TerraPower system in his talk, “Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!.”

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