Since the 11 March disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear power complex, when an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale was followed by a tsunami that destroyed the facility, the nuclear industry worldwide has been fighting back, arguing that new, improved reactor designs mean that nuclear power is still a valid option.
Surging economic incipient superpowers India and China remain committed to generating electricity with the atom as one of their best options to provide power to their populations’ surging demand.
And now Bill Gates is getting into the act in China, promoting a newer and reportedly safer reactor design, telling an audience at China's Ministry of Science and Technology about a project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste. All these new designs are going to be incredibly safe,” Gates insisted, adding that “they require no human action to remain safe at all times.” In a bow to his hosts Gates added, "China has a lot to contribute because it's solved many of the problems of poverty, not all of them but a lot of them, itself, and many Asian, south Asian and African countries are well behind, whether it's agriculture or health."
So, what’s Microsoft’s aging wonder boy promoting?
A “traveling wave reactor” (TWR) developed by Terrapower, a company he founded.
TerraPower says that its TWR reactor design could run for decades on depleted uranium and produce significantly smaller amounts of nuclear waste than conventional reactors.
Beijing is on board. State-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) official Sun Qin was quoted in the Chinese media last week saying Gates was working with it on the reactor development, with Gates noting, "TerraPower is having very good discussions with CNNC and various people in the Chinese government."
TWRs are still in the design stage and yet to become actual products, but the designs’ appeal is their low-maintenance nature. TWR nuclear boosters aver that once started they would be powered by self-sustaining nuclear reactions and according to TWR proponents, the facilities could operate for four to six decades without requiring any refueling or removal of spent fuel rods.
And Gates is putting his billions where his vision is, committing over a projected one billion dollars in the next five years to develop the fourth-generation reactor.
Fukushima? No problem, according to Gates, as TWR designs would also be built to withstand damage caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
And while Terrapower’s discussions with CNNC are, according to Gates, still at an "early stage," the company has also talked to other nuclear nations such as India and Russia about its research.
Is it worth it?
Consider the recent investment moves of Bill Gates’ billionaire buddy, Warren Buffet.
The “sage of Omaha” billionaire investor Warren Buffett just agreed to buy a Californian solar power farm worth $2 billion, with Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holdings acquiring Topaz Solar Farm. When up and running in 2015, Topaz Solar Farm, situated midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is expected to produce enough power to run 160,000 homes when it comes online. Topaz Solar Farm is the world's second-largest photovoltaic plant currently under construction, and is expected to generate 550-megawatts of electricity when online, or about half the power of a nuclear reactor.
The Nigerian proverb states, “When elephants fight the grass suffers.” Concepts of future energy production are getting trampled in this divergence of views of two of the world’s most affluent individuals. While personal friends, united by their generous philanthropic efforts, the differing approach of Gates and Buffet to 21st century issues could not be more stark.
Place your bets.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com