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Power Hardware

Bill Gates May Build Small Nuclear Reactor 347

Hugh Pickens writes "TerraPower, an energy start-up backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is in discussions with Toshiba Corp. to develop a small-scale nuclear reactor that would represent a long-term bet to make nuclear power safer and cheaper. Toshiba confirmed it is in preliminary discussions with TerraPower, a unit of Intellectual Ventures, a patent-holding concern partially funded by Gates. Toshiba spokesman Keisuke Ohmori says the two sides are talking about how they could collaborate on nuclear technology, although discussions are still in early stages and that nothing has been decided on investment or development. TerraPower has publicly said its Traveling Wave Reactor could run for decades on depleted uranium without refueling (PDF) or removing spent fuel from the device. The reactor, the company has said, could be safer, cheaper and more socially acceptable than today's reactors. Gates's recent focus on nuclear power has been fueled by an interest in developing new power systems for developing countries where he says that new energy solutions are needed to combat climate change. Terrapower faces a lengthy, multi-year process to get its "traveling wave" reactor concept reviewed by regulators but if TerraPower succeeds in advancing its plans, it could provide an alternative blueprint for the nuclear industry at a time when new reactors may be coming online."
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Bill Gates May Build Small Nuclear Reactor

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  • Not what we need (Score:2, Informative)

    by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @11:09AM (#31583992) Homepage

    We need "Mr. Fusion." All this nuclear fission based energy is so last-century. We need to get back to the future and use nuclear fusion technologies.

  • Re:Not what we need (Score:5, Informative)

    by Wonko the Sane ( 25252 ) * on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @11:15AM (#31584074) Journal

    There's still huge potential [youtube.com] for fission power. It's just that civilian reactor technology is basically stuck in the 1970s.

  • Toshiba makes sense (Score:5, Informative)

    by confused one ( 671304 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @11:29AM (#31584316)
    Notwithstanding Mr. Gates ownership of TerraPower... It makes sense for Toshiba to work with them given (a) Their ownership of the Westinghouse legacy (b) Their experience building large nuclear power reactors (c) Their experience designing small, self contained, fail-safe nuclear reactors in the 100kW to 10MW size range.
  • Re:I Don't Know Man (Score:4, Informative)

    by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @11:33AM (#31584374) Homepage
    Stark vs Bond fistfight? Winner: SHATNER. Always SHATNER.
  • Re:Non story (Score:3, Informative)

    by Idiomatick ( 976696 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @11:36AM (#31584404)
    Just incase someone didn't get it parent is trolling. Bill Gates meant to lower birth-rate by improving quality of life/health. A fairly well understood causation, as quality of life improves and health improves, people have less children. Less children = sustainable populations.
  • by sean.peters ( 568334 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @12:28PM (#31585228) Homepage

    ... the upshot: don't hold your breath. It turns out that achieving (or surpassing) energy break-even, as difficult as it is, is actually the least of your problems. Among the others: such reactors use deuterium/tritium fusion processes, and while deuterium is relatively plentiful on earth, tritium (with a half-life of around 5 days) is not. The reactor would need to breed its own tritium, and would need to do so with nearly 100% efficiency (in other words, virtually all the deuterium supplied to the breeding process would have to be converted to tritium for later fusion). If efficiency falls even slightly too low, the reactor runs out of fuel. We don't have a clue how to produce tritium with that kind of efficiency.

    Also, a fusion reactor would cost huge amounts of money to build, which means that it needs to run as close to 24/7 as possible to recoup the investment. We likewise don't have a clue how to keep feeding fuel into the system and removing the waste products - the laser fusion systems require fuel pellets to be fed into the system at a pretty high rate... and the machinery that does this needs to do it while being exposed to several tiny fusion explosions per second. The tokamak based systems need to pump in D/T at pretty steady rates, and remove He... while the fusion reaction is still going on. These are very, very difficult engineering problems, and work on them has scarcely begun.

    Finally, no one really knows how to extract energy from the reactor in useful form - in a fission reactor, fissioning atoms heat up the bulk material of the reactor, and heat is carried away by some fluid, which then turns a turbine. In a fusion reactor, your energy is produced mainly in the form of neutrons (don't remember if these are slow, fast, or what)... and you get this energy out of the system... how? Again, work on this question has barely begun.

    This is not to say that fusion would NEVER work as a means of energy generation... but it does mean that we're not close. For the foreseeable future, nuclear energy is going to continue to mean fission (for better or worse).

  • by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @12:46PM (#31585560) Homepage Journal

    Well Toshiba bought Westinghouse when the US stopped building nuclear power plants. Rather than letting all that know how go to waste and allowing mindless fear to control their energy policy Japan kept building nuclear power plants.
    GE also builds reactors for the Navy.

  • by confused one ( 671304 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @01:02PM (#31585818)
    Toshiba was working with NASA to produce a 100kW or 200kW reactor for the proposed lunar base. They had gotten far enough along that they've tested the components using non-nuclear heat sources. It's pretty small but it has very little shielding... You wouldn't want this in your vehicle.
  • The issues of renewable energy and energy independence have taken center stage in both media and political conversations lately, but the means of achieving various energy goals have proven to be rather controversial. Proposed options dominating news headlines include clean coal, nuclear energy, and offshore drilling. Is there an energy path that we can all agree upon?

    The answer is yes, and Rocky Mountain Institute [rmi.org] and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins [rmi.org] were featured in a New York Times [rmi.org] blog in response to last years Presidential Debate. Energy efficiency, a solution at the core of RMIs [rmi.org] work, was discussed as a viable and economically profitable resolution to both energy and economy issues. New York Times writer Kate Galbraith points out that RMI [rmi.org] and Amory Lovins [rmi.org] have consistently advocated the benefits of a soft-path approach to energy, with efficiency at its core. You can read the article here [rmi.org].

    When it comes to nuclear power specifically, every dollar invested in new US nuclear electricity will save approximately 2-11 times less carbon, and will do so roughly 20-40 times slower, than investing in the same dollar in energy efficiency and micropower (cogeneration plus renewables minus big hydro dams). Buying new nuclear capacity instead of efficiency causes more carbon to be released than spending the same money on new coal plants!

    These conclusions and the empirical evidence supporting them are summarized in Forget Nuclear [rmi.org], and fully documented in The Nuclear Illusion [rmi.org], available for download here [rmi.org], which is to be published in early 2009 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences journal Ambio.

    Hopefully our vision will help put these widely publicized issues into perspective and move us all toward a better understanding that takes us beyond politically divisive issues to collective and viable solutions.

  • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @02:26PM (#31587246) Journal

    Well Toshiba bought Westinghouse when the US stopped building nuclear power plants. Rather than letting all that know how go to waste and allowing mindless fear to control their energy policy Japan kept building nuclear power plants.

    More importantly, Japan* has the heavy industrial base to handle the enormous steel ingots required to produce single piece containment vessels and they are able to scale that up in just a couple of years. IIRC, Japan Steel Works currently has 80% of the market, with China and Russia covering the last 20%. The USA never had the capacity to do it and AFAIK never planned to try.

    You could use a two-piece containment vessel, but it has to be welded together and those welds must be inspected for life... which sucks. That is why I think these alternative reactor designs are going to get funding, because containment vessels are an enormous bottleneck that just isn't going away.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @03:05PM (#31587836)

    Clearly YOU know very little about the Chernobyl disaster. Safety devices were disabled, but enabling them wouldn't have prevented the explosion. What happened was:

    An experiment was scheduled to test whether the power plant's generators could run from the inertia of the steam turbines in the event of a SCRAM while external power was out. The procedures designed for this experiment were safe.

    On the day of the experiment, an unexpected demand for power made it impossible to run the experiment during the day, under the supervision of the day crew who had been trained for it. It was decided to run the experiment at night, under the supervision of the night crew. Probably still safe, if procedures had been followed.

    The reactor was to be brought to a low power level before running the experiment. During this procedure, an operator accidentally lowered the control rods fully, almost stopping reaction entirely. At this point the experiment should probably have been called off, but it wasn't.

    The experiment was designed to be run at a power level of 700 MW, and the reactor was now at 30 MW. In an attempt to bring the power level back up, the staff employed unsafe techniques, putting the reactor in an unstable configuration. Any power excursion would cause the coolant to boil, reducing its neutron absorption and potentially creating a positive feedback. In addition to this, the experiment was designed to be run at 700 MW minimum, and the staff decided to run the experiment at 200 MW, far outside the safe envelope for the experiment. This was a huge mistake.

    The experiment was then run, and in spite of all the errors committed up to this point, the automatic control system managed the reactor successfully, by continuously inserting and removing control rods.

    The control rods had an incredibly flawed design, having 4.5 metres of graphite at the end for a retarded reason. The effect of this was that when a control rod was inserted, it displaced the neutron absorbing water in its cavity without replacing it with an equal or better absorber, increasing reactivity for those 4.5 metres. At the end of the experiment, the staff initiated a SCRAM, and all the control rods were inserted simultaneously. The first 4.5 metres of all 211 control rods, displacing a great volume of water, caused a massive power surge, which was compounded by the positive feedback loop set up by the staff's actions and the reactor's design. Explosion.

    TL;DR: The reactor was an unsafe design, being operated in an unsafe manner. The safety devices were insufficient to prevent what happened, because the designers didn't foresee a positive feedback loop or account for it.

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