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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Microsoft Eyes Nuclear Energy To Power Its Massive AI Ambitions

  • Gates partners with Warren Buffet to launch TerraPower, a venture aiming for safer and more sustainable nuclear energy.
  • Microsoft seeks to harness nuclear power, especially Small Modular Reactors, for its energy-intensive AI endeavors.
  • Public support for nuclear energy in the U.S. is growing, fueled by Gates' advocacy and the tech industry's rising energy demands.
AI

Bill Gates has been one of nuclear energy’s staunchest and most vocal advocates for years now.

"Nuclear energy, if we do it right, will help us solve our climate goals," Gates told ABC News earlier this year. "That is, get rid of the greenhouse gas emissions without making the electricity system far more expensive or less reliable." And Gates is not just a mouthpiece for nuclear – he’s been busy putting his words to action over the last few years.

First, Gates teamed with fellow billionaire Warren Buffet -- the two men have estimated net worths of $140 billion and $103 billion – to initiate a nuclear venture called TerraPower in 2021. The nuclear power company is determined to kickstart a new wave of safer, more sustainable nuclear energy production. TerraPower plants will be cooled with liquid sodium instead of water, making the model much safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective than a traditional nuclear plant. What’s more, they are also planning to recycle their own spent nuclear fuel within their very own ‘molten salt’ cooling systems. Crucially, this would cut down on the total output of radioactive waste, which represents one of the biggest – and most expensive – pitfalls associated with nuclear energy production. 

And now, Gates is planning to revolutionize his own company, Microsoft, by adopting nuclear in order to provide a green source of energy for its current operations as well as its substantial AI ambitions (AI was the predominant conversation topic at Microsoft’s Surface event last week). The insights into Microsoft’s nuclear ambitions come from a corporate job posting, which seeks someone to “lead project initiatives for all aspects of nuclear energy infrastructure for global growth.”

Reporting from the Verge signals that Microsoft is looking to invest in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), an emerging technology that would allow nuclear reactor designs to be standardized, therefore significantly cutting back on overhead costs as well as safety concerns. While nascent, the small technology is set to be the next big thing in nuclear, with the first SMR design approved and certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just this year.

Data centers, which allow tech companies to do what they do, are energy guzzlers of massive proportions. Data centers and data transmission networks are solely responsible for nearly 1% of all energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. While 1% may not sound all that impressive, that amounts to a truly staggering amount of emissions from just one node of just one value chain in just one sector.

This energy problem extends to the burgeoning Artificial Intelligence industry. The problem with AI is that it’s a particularly energy-hungry industry, as machine learning requires incredible amounts of computing power over extended timelines. In some of the more intensive cases, the energy footprints of singular AI training models have been equivalent to the lifetime carbon footprint of five cars, or 125 New York-Beijing round-trip flights. 

Together, the carbon-intensive nature of data storage and AI could seriously compromise the tech sector’s emissions pledges. This is true for the sector as a whole, but is especially so for Bill Gates. As one of the most vocal members of the tech community on issues of global warming, finding a way to curb these emissions is crucial to Gates’ personal mission and public pledges.  

Nuclear could change all of that by providing a reliable, virtually inexhaustible source of carbon-free baseload power for the tech industry. "Nuclear has some incredible pluses," Gates told ABC News. "It's not weather dependent, you can build a plant, but the amount of energy coming out of a very small plant is gigantic."

The forward-thinking billionaire’s open acceptance of the controversial form of energy production has been at the forefront of a changing tide in public opinion for the nuclear option. Currently, support for nuclear power in the United States is at a 10-year high, marking a rather drastic turnaround from a longstanding distrust of the much-maligned method of energy production. 

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By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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