“Nuclear innovation stopped in the 1970s.”
Bill Gates has been making nuclear headlines over the last few days after the told a gathering of international energy executives near Denver that solar and wind technologies won’t cut it as a source of baseload power, and that the U.S. government should fund nuclear research and development.His remarks were reported by Reuters and have been widely picked up – including here on the Weinberg blog.I thought it would make sense to bring you some more detail of his thinking. To do so, I’ve reached back to April 2010, when Gates delivered a convincing pro-nuclear presentation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that conveys the same message as his Colorado remarks (MIT is the same university, incidentally, which is home to President Obama’s pro-nuclear nominee for Energy Secretary, physicist Ernest Moniz).In his MIT speech, presented about a year before the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, Gates advocates not simply for nuclear, but for new, alternative nuclear technologies, such as the breeder reactor under development at the company that the Microsoft billionaire co-founded, called TerraPower. He even gives some lip service to molten salt reactors, even if he doesn’t seem enamored of them.“Nuclear is one of the directions that we should innovate in,” he says, a little less than four minutes into the clip. “Nuclear innovation stopped in the 1970s. We basically have this sub (submarine) designed thing that was put into Shippingport (Shippingport, Pa.) for the first power generator and we basically built 400 of those that are all kind of custom but not in any interesting way. They’re all LWRs (light water reactors) and PWRs (pressurized water reactors) and the industry did not innovate much at all. There’s this third generation passive safety AP 1000, but except for that they didn’t do much.”CUTE SOLARGates points out that the energy per atom from nuclear fuel “is about a million times better than coal or natural gas.” But without the development of new types of nuclear power, the industry will struggle to take advantage of that in an economically competitive fashion, he notes.Reactors like TerraPower’s and like molten salt reactors can burn fuel more efficiently and safely than do conventional reactors, can use nuclear waste as fuel, and leave less waste.I encourage you to watch the entire video – it’s less than eight minutes – to hear Gates’ analysis of solar and wind which he calls “cute up to a point,” of the material science problems associated with the “damn neutrons” in his own reactor, and the even greater materials challenges facing fusion developers.“If you look at the fusion guys, their neutrons are like a thousand times worse than our neutrons,” says Gates. “Those guys have 14 MeV neutrons – good luck to them.”As a popular New York sportscaster used to say, let’s go to the video. It was posted by the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute, which calls it “I Love Nuclear” (words Gates actually uses). Click anywhere on the image of Gates above to start watching.Video from NEINetwork via YouTube.