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Bill Gates Goes Nuclear

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 15, 2010


Last year, Bill Gates caused a stir by releasing mosquitoes into the audience at the TED conference. His aim: to bring to life the idea of malaria as a scourge of the modern world. This year, he set free some fireflies to highlight a new theme: energy and climate change.

Gates, it turns out, is going nuclear. He discussed a new venture he’s involved in with former Microsoft CTO, Nathan Myhrvold, who now heads up the innovation/invention incubation outfit, Intellectual Ventures.

TerraPower, led by nuclear physicist John Gilleland, is looking to use nuclear power to make electricity. According to company literature, “a wave of fission moving slowly through a fuel core could generate a billion watts of electricity continuously for well over 50 to 100 years without refueling.” In other words, power is generated via reactors that run on natural or depleted uranium.

Nuclear is a controversial issue, but Gates outlined his belief that if you can deal with the radiation and safety issues (and yes, it’s a big if—any design wouldn’t come to market until the “early 2020s”, according to TerraPower), its positive potential in terms of carbon footprint and cost put it “in a class of its own,” said Gates.

With Gates on board, TerraPower could just prove to be a big deal. As he put it, nuclear power development languished after atomic energy fell from favor, which left some “good ideas lying around”. After the advances in technology and supercomputers of the past 20 or so years, some of those ideas can now be virtually prototyped and tested.

In a comment that might have raised eyebrows in those who witnessed the Microsoft Monopolist of yore, Gates called for diversity and competition in the energy industry. “There are fortunately dozens of companies [in the space, but] we need it to be hundreds,” he said. “It’s best if multiple [companies] succeed because then you can use a mix.”

Gates also called for broader U.S. government support, saying that the U.S. should spend $10 billion—or more—on an energy R&D budget. The sum, he added, “is not that dramatic”, but it’s critical to underwrite innovation in this space. “We need energy miracles,” he said. “And in this case we have to drive at full speed and get a miracle within a particular timeline.” Given the immovable deadline and potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction, Gates said his quest of “innovating to zero” carbon emissions will brook no half measures. Every player needs to get serious. And, he said, he has.

Image: (c) TED / James Duncan Davidson

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Reader Comments

Ed Cass

February 15, 2010 07:26 AM

I agree with Mr Gates.

F. Lagnab

February 15, 2010 12:14 PM

I agree with Mr. Gates, too, but have little confidence in his ability to lead anyone toward such imperative goals. Thirty years of cut-rate products forcefed by dishonest marketing have shredded his credibility.

If he'd paid a nickel for every time his company promised innovation without doing so, the distribution of his wealth would have been equalized several times over.

Now he gets headlines advocating for innovation in medicine & nuclear power; that's good; I support that. But he's a figurehead. Let's hope he stays quiet and writes some big honkin' checks.

D. L. Inman

February 15, 2010 12:24 PM

Why can america produce safe efficient multi-megawatts of power from Nuclear power plants now and no one seems to be working on "Mini" Nuclear fuel cells for the auto and truck industry? The huge amount of Nuclear mass required within a power plant is not only a hazard, hard to control and scares the heck out of most people. On the other hand a small renewable fuel-cell designed to run an automobile for five years would be more beneficial to society as a whole. PS, I also agree 110% with Mr. Gates.

Ryan Whos

February 15, 2010 12:45 PM

Is that tape on the side of his face holding the microphone set?

Dave Schock

February 15, 2010 01:19 PM

A huge Energy R and D operation now is the no brainer of all history

Madolyn Freeman

February 15, 2010 01:50 PM

It's about time someone spoke up about the use of nuclear energy! Our country has been negligent and ignorant when it comes to the use of nuclear power. It's 2010, "No Nukes" is and should be history!

Lanette E Africa-Williams

February 15, 2010 09:51 PM

Any energy that can be used for mass destruction can also be harnessed for positive use. I completely agree with Mr. Gates. Apparently Mr. Gates will stand behind R & D of nuclear energy. It is to be hoped that the U.S. government will help finance it. If they don't, someone else will. That would leave America more vulnerable in the long term. Besides, it would create more employment opportunities on a large scale.

Paxus Calta

February 16, 2010 01:30 AM

So the nuclear cheerleaders are at it again. What do the bankers say ? Bad economics. Citibank is the latest to tell the UK government that their plans are dreams. But this brand new report is useful for other countries as well.


February 16, 2010 09:48 AM

Paxus, big giant nukes are dreams, for the most part. But small, local/regional nukes are not. They are within reach. We need new energy sources, and this is one way to achieve that goal. As Gates said in his talk, energy is the world's #1 structural issue. I agree with that.

Riley Robertson

March 10, 2010 11:31 AM

Paxus Calta
February 16, 2010 01:30 AM
So the nuclear cheerleaders are at it again. What do the bankers say ? Bad economics. Citibank is the latest to tell the UK government that their plans are dreams.------------------------------ What does citigroup know about anything? Look what they help create in the financial services "industry". They were central in the global ponzi finance disaster. The point of the reactors Gates described is that they use what is now nuclear waste and they can also use un-refined uranium. This drops the costs way, way below current figures. It also solves the problem of all that waste already sitting there.


March 26, 2010 04:33 AM

nuclear is on alot of peoples minds.
it is sophisicated physics that requires r&d support to take it to the next level so the worlds climate probs can be addressed. Most people that i find opposing it are kind of belligerent about the subject. No guts no glory, and smart research will make nucleur work.

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What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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