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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The optimism usually radiating from billionaire Bill Gates when it comes to climate change is starting to fade on one of his biggest technology bets: nuclear power.

Driving the news: The Microsoft co-founder has focused much of his time lately on climate change and energy innovation. In an exclusive interview with Axios, Gates said that setbacks he is facing with TerraPower, a nuclear technology firm he co-founded in 2006, has got him questioning the future of that entire energy source.

The big picture: At 10% of global power supply, nuclear power is the second-largest electricity source (after hydropower) that emits no carbon dioxide. It’s declining in most places around the world, including the U.S., due to aging reactors, cheaper energy alternatives and public unease about radioactive risk — despite its benefits to addressing climate change.

  • The industry’s future is riding on largely unproven technologies like that of TerraPower because they’re smaller and deemed safer than today’s huge reactors.
“Without this next generation of nuclear, nuclear will go to zero,” Gates said during an interview in Washington last month. Germany is shutting 22 nuclear plants, France — a leader in clean-burning nuclear power — has plans to shut down some of its reactors and a similar trend is underway in the U.S. due to economic conditions, said Gates, before adding with a sigh: “So yes, it is daunting.”

Flashback: Gates announced in December that TerraPower was scrapping plans to build a demonstration reactor in China, largely due to the Trump administration deciding that fall to crack down on technological agreements between the two nations.

“There are times like when TerraPower gets told not to work in China, you’re thinking, ‘Boy, is this thing going to come together or not?’ ” Gates said in what are his first public comments on the matter since it happened. “That was a real blow.”

Where it stands: Gates is now trying to build TerraPower’s demonstration reactor in the U.S., calling on the Energy Department and Congress to more aggressively support advanced nuclear power through more funding and new legislation. Such a plant could cost anywhere between $3-$6 billion, say experts and Gates’ energy advisers.

  • Bellevue, WA-based TerraPower is opening a new 65,000-square foot facility in the same region later this year to expand its research and testing, which is currently done in a lab 1/6th that size.
  • Gates, whose net worth is roughly $100 billion, hasn't disclosed how much money he has put toward the company, but experts think it's at least $500 million.
“If at the end of the day we don’t find a country that wants to build an advanced nuclear power plant, then TerraPower will fail. I’m going to keep funding it for a period of years. And working with the U.S. is our strategy right now.”
— Bill Gates

What they’re saying: While Gates believes TerraPower has the most viable technology with the best chance of succeeding right now, numerous companies, led by NuScale, are pursuing other kinds that experts say could succeed where TerraPower isn‘t.

On strategy:

  • TerraPower made a big bet in 2015 working in China and with a government-owned entity. The thinking was that China has two things America doesn’t — growing electricity demand and a long-term strategic energy plan. But…
  • “TerraPower made a specific decision to focus on China for their first product and it hurt them when the current administration drew hard lines on U.S.-China collaboration,” said Todd Allen, a nuclear energy expert at the centrist think tank Third Way. “Companies like NuScale that have a U.S. focus for their first deployment do not have the same issue.”

On technology:

  • TerraPower’s technology, called the traveling wave reactor, would produce far less waste than current ones because it converts depleted uranium already considered a waste into fuel instead of creating new waste like today's tech.
  • Producing less waste is a big plus because big disagreement persists on how best to store radioactive waste.
  • But its technology is more unproven and more complex than its counterparts, experts say, and it’s ran into specific technical challenges, The Washington Post reported earlier this year.
  • By contrast, the Oregon-based NuScale uses technology more rooted in today’s type, which means it doesn’t need to build a demonstration plant, its chief commercial officer, Tom Mundy, said in an interview Friday.

“TerraPower’s traveling wave may prove to be an example of a very ambitious attempt to solve a very challenging problem that has turned out to be too expensive and too difficult,” said Chris Gadomski, head of nuclear research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “There are other simpler, easier ways to introduce advanced technology with less technology risk and financial burden.”

What I’m watching: NuScale, the first company to work with federal regulators in this area, is expecting a key review to be done by year’s end, final design approval by the second half of next year and — if all goes as planned — a reactor operating by 2026.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - World

State Department orders evacuation of U.S. diplomats' families from Ukraine

From left, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Chargés d'Affaires in Ukraine Kristina Kvien during a meeting with Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal in Kyiv. Photo: Yevhen Liubimov/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The State Department will begin evacuating families and non-essential staff from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv this week, according to a travel advisory published Sunday evening.

Why it matters: The move underscores U.S. fears that a Russian invasion could destabilize Ukraine and threaten embassy's ability to assist Americans.

Perfect storm brewing for extreme politicians

Data: Axios research; Table: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Redistricting and a flood of departing incumbents are paving the way for more extreme candidates in this year's midterm elections.

Driving the news: At least 19 House districts in 12 states are primed to attract such candidates — hard partisans running in strongly partisan districts — according to an Axios analysis of districts as measured by the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index (PVI).

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: Fauci: "Confident" Omicron cases will peak in February — FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated".
  2. Vaccines: Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: Beijing Olympic Committee lowers COVID testing threshold ahead of Games — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

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