Gates-backed TerraPower pitches new nuclear tech

To leap to the next generation of nuclear power technology, Bill Gates-backed start-up TerraPower is approaching countries rather than individual utilities or financiers.

Gates last week disclosed that he brought up TerraPower’s fourth-generation nuclear power technology with government officials at the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology during a visit to China. “TerrPower is having very good discussions with [China National Nuclear Corporation] and various people in the Chinese government,” Gates told the Associated Press.

Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower then said that the company has visited energy experts in the U.S. France, India, Japan, Korea and Russia, but that “there were no deals to at this time.”

The nature of TerraPower’s nuclear power design–and the multi-year pace of nuclear power development in general–means that these discussions are long term in nature. The company is pursuing a traveling wave reactor design where the depleted uranium in spent fuel from today’s nuclear power plants is used to create electricity.

A company executive last month said TerraPower intends to start construction of a plant in 2015 and have its first plant operating in the 2020s. During a talk on nuclear power financing last month, TerraPower project manager Tyler Ellis said the company is seeking to work with individual countries on adopting this technology as part of each nation’s overall energy strategy.

A description of the nuclear fuel cycle of a travelling wave reactor that TerraPower is seeking to design.

(Credit: Intellectual Ventures)

In its statement last week, TerraPower said it is seeing interest from a number of countries. “Demand is high for nuclear energy technology that converts low-level waste into fuel without reprocessing and sustainably meets global electricity needs. So our conversations continue with many countries that have active nuclear programs. All these nations have some form of advanced fast reactor research facilities and programs,” it said.

Today’s nuclear power plants create heat from by splitting an enriched form of uranium in a sustained chain reaction. The heat is then converted to steam to generate electricity. The idea behind TerraPower’s traveling wave reactor is to convert the depleted uranium into a heavier, less stable form that can be used in a chain reaction.

The company envisions a reactor with a cylinder-shaped core of nuclear fuel where, once started, will burn continuously for more than 40 years without the need for refueling.

In addition to Gates, TerraPower has drawn funding from Khosla Ventures and Charles River Ventures.


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