Category Archives: Energy Policy

Hiroshima Syndrome on Arnie Gundersen’s latest fabrications

Leslie Corrice at Hiroshima Syndrome just posted a must-read takedown of Arnie Gundersen's latest psuedoscience video. I used to think Gundersend was just dim-witted. But such obvious propaganda could only be produced by someone who is deliberately crafting lies to be consumed by gullible viewers (and journalists). You must read the whole piece. Leslie closes with this paragraph:

Now, here’s the part that really sets me off. Gundersen ends the video by saying, “It is solid scientific material like this that you will not see or hear via traditional news stories, TEPCO, or the IAEA. Fairewinds has long said that there will be significant increases in cancer in Japan as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and this video describing just one hot particle confirms our worst fears.” (Emphasis added) First, the video as evidence is about as solid as overly-cooked noodles…if that. Second, the reason you don’t find this anywhere else is because it is absolute balderdash. The Press around the world might have a strong antinuclear agenda, but they draw the line at pure nonsense. And, finally, Kaltofen’s folly in no way confirms Gundersen’s worse fears for a major cancer increase in Japan’s future. But, it does confirm that Gundersen will grasp even the most flimsy straw to try and keep his fantastic Fukushima forecasts alive.

Fairewinds has long said” is one of Gundersen's tricks. As though Fairewinds was something real, like a research institute – instead of Arnie's bedroom.

32 planned German power plants are not viable

The German energy industry association, BDEW, says that 43 per cent or 32 of the power plants planned for construction in Germany may never come to fruition, due to lack of economic viability.

The association’s managing director said: “Unless there is clarity very soon about the future structure of the market and a relevant capacity market model, the situation for power stations will result in a serious problem for as an industrial location.”

The association says a combination of a lack of clarity about the future structure of energy markets and the lack of profitability for coal- and gas-fired power stations because of competing energy supplies from subsidised renewable power had severely undermined investor confidence.

BDEW said that a year ago, it had only questioned the economic viability of 22 long-term projects and warned that the situation had regressed to the point that unless action was taken to encourage the construction of more power stations to ensure stable supply, energy security issues were inevitable.

The report from BDEW was issued on the first day of the Hanover Trade Fair, when the body traditionally prescribes its solutions for a more effective German energy policy.

It warned that if current plant closure plans were added up with cancellations of new construction, some 13,600 MW of so-called secure load, that runs 24 hours, would be shut by 2022.


Source Power Engineering 4 April 2014 by Diarmaid Williams.

CSIS: “Restoring U.S. Leadership in Nuclear Energy”


America’s nuclear energy industry is in decline. Low natural gas prices, financing hurdles, failure to find a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste, reactions to the Fukushima accident in Japan, and other factors are hastening the day when existing U.S. reactors become uneconomic. The decline of the U.S. nuclear energy industry could be much more rapid than policy makers and stakeholders anticipate. China, India, Russia, and others plan on adding nuclear technology to their mix, furthering the spread of nuclear materials around the globe. U.S. companies must meet a significant share of this demand for nuclear technology, but U.S. firms are currently at a competitive disadvantage due to restrictive and otherwise unsupportive export policies. Without a strong commercial presence in new markets, America’s ability to influence nonproliferation policies and nuclear safety behaviors worldwide is bound to diminish. The United States cannot afford to become irrelevant in a new nuclear age.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has produced an 86 page policy paper on the present and future of civilian nuclear power in America. I don’t know of another study that so thoroughly captures the 2013 perspective on the real-world state of nuclear electricity in the US. While this is a US-centric report, the necessary global context is covered in sufficient depth that the reader has access to a concentrated short-course on global nuclear deployment up to Gen III+ reactors.

The purpose of this work is to discover why the US nuclear industry is in severe decline, and to arrive at policy prescriptions designed to restore the industry so that it can contribute to global carbon-free  generation, and also influence proliferation and safety practices.

Students of energy policy know that, long-term, nuclear power is the only scalable, affordable alternative that can replace coal and gas to supply carbon-free dispatchable electricity.  So why aren’t US utilities building new nuclear at rates at least as great as China? Major roadblocks include financing which is heavily influenced by regulatory uncertainty. On financing, CSIS assembled eleven experts who contributed to the Financial Structuring Subgroup.

So I recommend this study to readers who want realistic proposals to reverse US decline, and also those who are looking for an authoritative global overview of nuclear electricity through 2030.  

You can buy the paper report from Amazon for $42.75 or you can download the free PDF from CSIS. Lean on your representative to study this report – explain why your vote depends upon their active support.

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to pull together some recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a very current and smart view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe) .

On cities: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that have made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am convinced that the Charter Cities concept will work, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

What can we do before it is too late?

This depressing chart is from Roger Pielke Jr.'s Clean Energy Stagnation.

As I’ve been thinking through “what can we do before it is too late?” the easy out is to leave our fate in the hands of China. If current trends continue China, India and their fast-developing brethren nations, will account for the majority of GHG emissions in the next century. China and India are also among the short-list of nations that are actually doing something about decarbonizing.

If the west continues “fiddling while Rome burns”, China will eventually offer to sell us the nuclear machines that will allow us to escape from our folly. Actually, it would be wonderful to wake up tomorrow to read that China has already covered our collective frivolous bums, having just closed a turn-key contract to supply Indonesia with 100 new 25 to 500 MWe nuclear plants. That would mean that Indonesia's fast-growing industrial economy will soon have affordable electricity all over the archipelago.

But do we really want to just give up, and leave the innovation, engineering, production challenges all to China? Surely the west still has something of value to offer? If we do have useful knowhow, then we would be smart to make the best deals with China that we can before the price of our decaying skills drops any further. If we can create a joint-venture cooperative fast-track with China everybody wins, and westerners can make big piles of money. Maybe even get to create some nuclear jobs and skills back home.

Deploying all of the advanced nuclear designs is the best way I know to select out the best tools to end energy poverty while protecting the planet. Consider such as TerraPower, FHR, IFR, MSR, LFTR, PB-AHTR. Reading that short list of innovations – it is so obvious that America hasn't the social capability to deploy even one of them. In the current political state, the Yanks just cannot do it. Given the political will, the Brits, French and Swedes could work together to make a big contribution. Otherwise the energy future belongs to Asia.

That's fine with me – what is important is to see coal plants being replaced by nuclear everywhere. More posts on nuclear cooperation worth China…


James Hansen: World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature


If you’ve not yet read James Hansen’s latest letter I encourage you to do so. I hesitated to write anything after reading it – I didn’t want to write something inflammatory. Most of this will be familiar to those who have been thinking about climate and energy policy. Still, Dr. Hansen’s words are heavy with the frustration that we all feel. Following is an excerpt regarding the enormous cost of the worst US policy decisions:

Nuclear scientists were ready in 1976 to build a demonstration fast nuclear power plant. However, the project was stopped by President Jimmy Carter in his first State-of-the-Union message. Research continued at a low level until 1993 when President Bill Clinton delivered an intended coup de grace, declaring “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.” Clinton was caving in to a quasi-religious anti-nuke minority in the Democratic Party, whose unrealistic “belief” was that diffuse renewable energies could satisfy all energy needs.

R&D on advanced technologies, including thorium reactors with the potential to ameliorate remaining concerns about nuclear power, was stifled, seemingly because it was too promising. Powerful anti-nuclear forces had their way with the Democratic Party. “Green” organizations had indoctrinated themselves in anti-nuclear fervor, and their intransigence blinded them to the fact that they were nearly eliminating the one option for abundant clean electricity with inexhaustible fuel and a small planetary footprint.

The enormity of anti-nuclear policy decisions would be difficult to exaggerate. It meant China and other developing nations would have no choice but to burn massive coal amounts, if they wished to raise their living standards. It meant our children and grandchildren faced near certainty of large climate change. None of the developing nations and none of our descendants had any voice in the decision.

I cannot blame President Clinton. We scientists should have made clearer that there is a limited “carbon budget” for the world, i.e., a limit on the amount of fossil fuels that could be burned without assuring disastrous future consequences. We should have made clear that diffuse renewables cannot satisfy energy needs of countries such as China and India. It seems we failed to make that clear enough.

The United States, as the leader in nuclear R&D, had an opportunity not only to help find a carbon-free path for itself, but also to aid countries such as China and India. Indeed, such aid was an obligation. The United States had already used its share of the “carbon budget” and was beginning to eat into China’s.

Perhaps our leaders, and certainly the public, did not really understand the implications of decisions made more than two decades ago. But there can no longer be such excuse. If we do not now do what is still possible to minimize climate change and eliminate air pollution, will it not be a crime against future generations and nature? Will it not be a crime of one people against another?


I have been promoting intensifying nuclear power cooperation with China to accelerate China’s substitution of nuclear for coal; to bring forward the date of “China’s last coal plant”. Dr. Hansen is pressing hard for the same goals:

What the United States should do is cooperate with China and assist in its nuclear development. The AP- 1000 is a fine nuclear power plant, incorporating several important safety improvements over existing plants in the United States, which already have an excellent safety record. There has been only one serious accident among 100 reactors, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and it did not kill anyone. However, further advances in nuclear plants beyond AP-1000 are possible and the large demand in China allows rapid progress and building at a scale that can drive down unit cost.

China has initiated nuclear R&D programs, including cooperation with American universities and firms. Cooperation with our universities and the private sector could be expanded rapidly, and areas of relevant excellence persist in some Department of Energy Laboratories despite inadequate levels of support. Training of nuclear engineers and operators in the U.S. could help assure safe operations during a challenging period of rapid expansion. Benefits of cooperation in technology development can eventually circle back to United States industry and utility sectors as cost effective power plants are perfected.

I won’t say enjoy World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature, but please do share.

Per Peterson: various answers to reddit AMA questions to UCBNE faculty


More from the Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

In this AMA the UCBNE faculty offers a volume of valuable information. Following are some fragments that I want to archive for reference.

Regarding waste: Prof. Per Peterson was a member of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. I consider him one of the best-informed sources regarding Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) which the anti-nuclear lobby calls Nuclear Waste. It is not “waste” it is an extremely valuable source of carbon-free energy. 

Q: One of the elephants in the room for nuclear power is the waste….

A: …Finland and Sweden have successfully sited and are building deep geologic repositories in granite, and France is very far along in developing its geologic repository in clay. The U.S. nuclear waste program is currently stopped and is in a state of disarray…

There are a wide range of opinions as water reactors (LWRs) is substantially more expensive than making new fuel from uranium, even if the plutonium is free. This is primarily because the plutonium must be handled as an oxide powder to make LWR fuel, and oxide powder is the most hazardous and difficult form to handle plutonium in. All of the Generation IV reactor technologies can use fuel forms that do not involve handling plutonium and minor actinides in the form of powders and that are much easier to fabricate using recycled material (e.g., metal, molten salt, sol-gel particles in either coated particle or vibropacked fuel forms).

In my personal opinion, the most sensible thing to do in the near term is to prioritize U.S. defense wastes for geologic disposal, and to use a combination of consolidated and on-site interim storage for most or all commercial spent fuel. Implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s major recommendations, which include development of consolidated interim storage that would initially be prioritized to store fuel from shut down reactors, would put the U.S. on this path.

By using geologic disposal primarily for defense wastes first, and using primarily dry cask interim storage for commercial spent fuel, this will give a couple of decades for nuclear reactor technology to evolve further, and by then we will be in a better position to determine whether commercial spent fuel is a waste or a resource.

Nuclear innovation: Prof. Peterson replies

There are a number of factors which make innovation difficult in improving nuclear reactor technology, in particular the long operating life of nuclear power plants and their very large capital costs, which dissuade innovation. The trend toward designing larger and larger water-cooled reactors has increased these disincentives.

Given their lower capital cost and shorter construction times, innovation is much easier in small reactors. There will remain a role for large reactors, just as dinosaurs existed for millions of years alongside the new mammal species, but currently some of the most important policy issues for nuclear power involve creating an ecosystem where small reactors find customers. Smaller reactors, produced in larger numbers with most of the fabrication occurring in factories, would also use specialized manufacturing and skilled labor more efficiently. Imagine factories as being similar to airplanes, and the ability to keep more seats filled being really important to having low per-seat prices…

FHR (Fluoride Salt Cooled High Temperature Reactor), Where to take technical risk?

I will answer this question first indirectly, and then more directly.

A key question for innovation in developing new nuclear energy technology is where to take technical risk. SpaceX provides a good example of a highly successful risk management strategy. They focused on developing a highly reliable, relatively small rocket engine, that they tested in the Falcon 1, which uses an ancient rather than innovative fuel combination, kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other hand, they chose to use aluminum-lithium alloy with friction stir welding for their fuel tanks, which is at the cutting edge of current technology. They have then used the approach of ganging together large numbers of these engines to create the Falcon 9, which is now successfully delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Currently the most important barrier to deploying nuclear power is not the cost of the fuel, but instead is the capital cost of the plants, the need to assure that they can run with high reliability (which for current large reactor designs creates strong disincentives to innovate), and the relatively low electricity revenues one receives for producing base load power, particularly today in the U.S.

The primary reason that UCB, MIT, and UW, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are working on solid fuel, salt cooled reactor technology is because we have the ability to fabricate these fuels, and the technical difficulty of using molten salts is significantly lower when they do not have the very high activity levels associated with fluid fuels. The experience gained with component design, operation, and maintenance with clean salts makes it much easier to consider the subsequent use of liquid fuels, while gaining several key advantages from the ability to operate reactors at low pressure and deliver heat at higher temperature.

Q: Can I also ask what you think the safest way to transport the waste is?**

A: Per Peterson: There is a long record of safe transportation of nuclear waste, including spent fuel, world wide. The containers used to transport nuclear wastes are substantially more robust than those used to transport hazardous chemicals and fuels, which is why transportation accidents with chemicals generate significantly more risk.

This said, the transportation of nuclear wastes requires effective regulation, controls, and emergency response capabilities to be in place. The transportation system for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has logged over 12 million miles of safe transport, with none of the accidents involving the transportation trucks causing any release of radioactive materials.

One reason it is important to restore WIPP to service (it had an accident involving the release of radioactive material underground in late February, which had minimal surface consequence because the engineered safety systems to filter exhaust air were activated) is because the WIPP transportation system has developed a large base of practical experience and skilled personnel at the state and local levels who are familiar with how to manage nuclear waste transport. This provides a strong foundation for establishing a broader transportation system for commercial spent fuel and defense high level wastes in the future.

A commenter replied to Per’s hecklers, referring to WIPP:

Actually I work for this program and this is an understatement. Not only have there never been any accidents that caused a release of nuclear material, there have never been any accidents with a truck loaded with waste containers, ever. They’ve happened while empty, but never otherwise.

Per Peterson: key requirements for new reactor designs, what about thorium?


More from the Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Aside from “Can I still eat fish from the contaminated Pacific” the dominant questions seemed to be variations of “is thorium the answer?”. I was surprised – I thought obsessing on the LFTR concept was a niche nerdy issue. The slant no doubt illustrates that the reddit crowd doesn’t represent an Anglo cross section.

 I guess I’ll start things off. What type of reactors should we be building? I know a big deal a few years ago was made about liquid flouride thorium reactors. Is that the way of the future, or are there superior alternatives?

Prof. Per Peterson replies (emphasis mine):

I do not think that we have the basis to determine or select the best coolant or fuel type to use in future reactors. But there are some attributes which we do need to make sure are used in future reactors.

The first is to use passive safety systems, which do not require electrical power or external cooling sources to function to remove decay heat after reactors shut down, as is the case with the AP-1000 and ESBWR designs, and with all of the light water reactor SMRs now being developed in the U.S.

The benefits of passive safety go well beyond the significant reduction in the number of systems and components needed in reactors and the reduced maintenance requirements. Passive safety systems also greatly simplify the physical protection of reactors, because passive equipment does not require routine inspections the way pumps and motors do, and thus can be placed in locations that are difficult to gain access to rapidly.

The second is to further increase the use of modular fabrication and construction methods in nuclear plants, in particular to use steel-plate/concrete composite construction methods that are quite similar to those developed for modern ship construction. The AP-1000 is the most advanced design in the use of this type of modularization, and the ability to use computer aided manufacturing in the fabrication of these modules makes the manufacturing infrastructure much more flexible. In the longer term, one should be able to design a new reactor building, transfer the design to a module factory over the internet, and have the modules show up at a construction site, so the buildings are, in essence, 3-D printed.

The final attribute that will be important for new reactors will be to make them smaller, and to develop a regulatory framework and business models that work for multi-module power plants. While there will likely always be a market for large reactors, creating an ecosystem that includes customers for smaller reactors (inland locations served only by rail, installations needing reliable power even if fuel supplies are interrupted, mature electricity markets that need to add new capacity in small increments).

On thorium, a question:

Hello! What do you think is the most important advantage that thorium has over uranium as a “fuel?”

Prof. Per Peterson’s reply

The thorium fuel cycle has clearly attractive features, if it can be developed successfully. I think that most of the skepticism about thorium emerges from questions about the path to develop the necessary reactor and fuel cycle technology, versus open fuel cycles (uranium from seawater) and closed, fast-spectrum uranium cycles.

The most attractive element of the thorium fuel cycle is the ability to operate sustainably using thermal-spectrum neutrons. This allows the design of reactor core structures that use high-temperature ceramic materials like graphite, which have substantial thermal inertia and cannot melt. Because these ceramic materials also provide significant moderation, it is difficult to use them in fast-spectrum reactors and thus the most plausible fast-spectrum reactor designs need to use metallic structural materials in their cores.

So thorium reactors are compatible with higher intrinsic safety (cores which do not suffer structural damage even if greatly overheated) and that can deliver heat at higher temperature, which enables more efficient and flexible power conversion.

Molten fluoride salts are compatible with these high-temperature structural materials, and given their very high boiling temperatures make excellent, low pressure heat transfer fluids. In the near term, the largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel, which is simpler to work with and to obtain regulatory approvals.

But molten salt technologies also have significant challenges. One of the most important is managing the much larger amounts of tritium that these reactors produce, compared to light water cooled reactors (the quantities are closer to what heavy-water reactors, such as the CANDU, produce, but methods to control and recovery of tritium are much different for molten salts than for heavy water, and key elements remain to be demonstrated).

To repeat a critical point “…largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel…”. This summarizes why Prof. Peterson’s lab is focused upon developing the PB-AHTR design, which will also prove out many materials and technologies required subsequently to implement the more challenging Liquid Fuel molten salt reactor concept (such as LFTR).

New nuclear designs have a severe first-mover DIS-advantage


More from the Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Prof. Per Peterson first discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because it competes directly with coal and gas.

Next Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

What do you think of Bill Gates’s TerraPower’s TWR design?


More from Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Here’s the question What do you think of Bill Gates’s TerraPower’s TWR design? Do you think it could be a viable element in a carbon-neutral energy future?

And Prof. Rachel Slaybaugh’s reply:

The TWR is a large sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor. Things about it that make it attractive are that it:

  • gets much more energy out of the mined resources than typical reactors (enhancing sustainability)
  • can establish a fleet of reactors that don’t require fuel enrichment or fuel reprocessing (reducing fuel costs and proliferation concerns). The initial plant requires enriched uranium, but its follow-ons do not.
  • has strong safety characterisitics. The low-pressure liquid metal coolant can naturally circulate and dump heat to atmosphere indefinitely without any power whatsoever.

It also has some drawbacks. Most notably designing materials that will be able to withstand the amount of radiation required. Another challenge is that the plant is large and low-leakage. To get the Traveling Wave going, the plant has to conserve as many neutrons as possible. Large fast reactors have some inherent issues with stability, so TerraPower probably has to do some tricky stuff to keep the plant safe. It’s not impossible, but it’s probably difficult.

For the future? If they can overcome the challenges I think it could certainly be part of a low carbon future.