Jul 15, 2019

Bill Gates faces "daunting" nuclear energy future

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

Inside the next generation of nuclear energy

A top executive of NuScale, the first company to work with federal regulators on a new generation of nuclear power, recently talked with Axios about the technology's future.

Driving the news: Oregon-based NuScale is expecting a key technical review to be complete by year’s end and final design approval from the government by the second half of next year. If all goes as planned, it aims to be operating by 2026 a new kind of reactor that’s far smaller than today’s technology.

Go deeperArrowJul 17, 2019

China says it won't "stand by idly" if U.S. deploys missiles in Asia

Photo: Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images

China said Tuesday it "will not stand by idly" if the U.S. follows through with plans to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the coming months in the Asia-Pacific region, reports AP.

Why it matters: The warning comes after the U.S. formally withdrew last week from the Cold War-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement with Russia — which the U.S. claimed was unfair because other geopolitical rivals, like China, weren't restricted by its limits. Chinese officials also said they have no plans of joining nuclear weapons talks with the U.S. and Russia due to China's smaller arsenal.

Iran nuclear deal crisis talks held amid U.S.-Tehran tension

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi (2nd L) after talks in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Diplomats from Iran, Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the European Union recommitted Sunday to saving Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal after "constructive" talks in Vienna, a senior Iranian official said, according to AP.

Why it matters: The talks come at a time of heightened tension between the West and Iran, after the U.S. withdrew from the deal and hit Tehran with sanctions. Hours before the talks, the U.S. and Israel said they tested a missile defense system in Alaska. The goal is to intercept long-range missiles from Iran, Barak Ravid writes for Axios.

What they're saying: Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi told reporters after that while not every issue was resolved, those present were "determined to save this deal," per AP.

The big picture: The United Nations' nuclear watchdog confirmed this month that Iran has followed through on its threat to enrich uranium beyond the purity limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal.

What's next: There was a general agreement at Sunday's talks to organize a higher-level meeting of foreign ministers soon, though no date had been set, according to AP.

Go deeper:

Keep ReadingArrowJul 29, 2019