Say you were to give Bill Gates a really great present — like the ability to cure crippling diseases or to pick all U.S. presidents for the next 50 years.
Gates would like those gifts, sure.
But you wouldn’t have granted his one, true wish.
The Microsoft-founder-turned-philanthropist said at a recent speech in California that, more than new vaccines for AIDS or malaria or presidential selection power, what he really wants is clean energy at half its current cost.
To do that, he said, we’ll need new technology.
Gates — a father of the personal computer and quite the tech powerhouse — said one of the brightest hopes for clean, cheap power is a new form of nuclear power plant that reuses waste uranium from existing nuclear reactors.
It’s kind of like radioactive recycling, and, on its face, can sound like a miracle.
Gates actually described energy innovation in those terms: To prevent famine, poverty and the hardship that will come with global climate change we need “energy miracles,” he said at the TED Conference in Long Beach.
Some nuclear scientists and critics say the nuclear technology Gates highlighted is misguided, naive and expensive.
Others, like Craig Smith, a nuclear engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said Gates is helping put the world on the verge of a “nuclear Renaissance” that could provide cheap power for everyone in the world — forever.
“There’s a new enthusiasm not only in the United States but, I think, worldwide for the use of nuclear energy,” Smith said.
Smith’s argument is bolstered by the fact that President Obama on Tuesday announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for a new nuclear power plant.
The proposed project, to be located in Burke County, Georgia, would be the first nuclear power plant built in the United States in three decades.
How it works
Most nuclear power plants today use radioactive elements like uranium to create nuclear fission and then produce electricity.
One problem: That reaction leaves behind uranium waste. To make matters worse, the United States hasn’t identified a safe place to store the waste from the country’s 104 nuclear reactors in the long term.
That’s where the technology promoted by Gates comes in.
Gates has invested tens of millions of dollars in a Bellevue, Washington, company called TerraPower, according to TerraPower CEO John Gilleland.
TerraPower is working to create nuclear reactors that generate hyper-fast nuclear reactions able to eat away at the dangerous nuclear waste.
This has a number of potential benefits, Gilleland said. Among them:
• The Uranium isotope that’s food for the new nuclear reactors doesn’t have to be enriched, which means it’s less likely to be used in atomic weapons.
• The fission reaction in the new process burns through the nuclear waste slowly, which makes the process safer. One supply of spent uranium could burn for 60 years.
• The process creates a large amount of energy from relatively small amounts of uranium, which is important as global supplies run short.
• The process generates uranium that can be burned again to create “effectively an infinite fuel supply.”
… Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an environmental and public-safety group, said the timeline is too slow.
The technology could be ready for testing in 20 years and ready for commercial use 20 years after that, Gates said in California.
Forty years is a long time to wait. Why will it take so long? More info here.