Will advanced nuclear be developed in Russia, China, India, South Korea?

That seems to be the view of Bill Gates, Nathan Myhrvold at TerraPower. They seem to have concluded that their immediate future lies outside US regulation. Rosatom and TerraPower put out a press release that they are “drafting an agreement” in which Rosatom contributes some 16 billion roubles to the development. The recent 23 June 2011 NYT article on Terrapower’s overseas move is worth a read — the article is ambiguous regarding which country will get privileged access to the new technology.

(…) “We’ve had conversations with the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians, the French,” Reynolds said in an interview. “We have an aggressive schedule where we think it is important to get something built and accumulate data so that we can eventually build them in the U.S. Breaking ground in 2015, with a startup in 2020, is more aggressive than our current [U.S.] regulatory structure can support.”

In addition to its unique fuel cycle, the TerraPower design employs a high-temperature, liquid metal core cooling technology suited to a breeder reactor with “fast” neutron activity, rather than today’s predominant reactors whose water cooling systems slow neutrons. TerraPower wants to partner with countries that are actively pursuing fast, breeder reactor technology. “That isn’t here right now,” he said, referring to the United States.

‘Breed and burn’ process

TerraPower’s design and other once-through reactor designs use a “breed” and “burn” process. The company’s CEO, John Gilleland, originally likened his reactor to a smoldering cigarette or cigar, with a slow-moving fission phase moving wave-like through the fuel core, generating neutrons to maintain a gradually advancing chain reaction while it consumes most of the fuel.

TerraPower’s scheme has changed as the research program has evolved. In the new version, the wave does not move, but remains stationary, and the fuel material is shuffled in and out of the breed and burn zones within the reactor, TerraPower officials say. Under this new approach, the reactor can still be sealed and run without being reopened for 40 to 60 years, Reynolds says.

Reynolds, who was chief technology officer in the United States for France’s nuclear developer Areva, said the greatest engineering challenge is durability of the metal alloy used to encase the fuel. The pilot plant will enable TerraPower to assess the impact of radiation damage on the specialized stainless steel alloy, to document its survival capabilities.

“We believe the material will tolerate [the high radiation impacts], but there is no data to prove it,” Reynolds said. “So one of the missions of the engineering demo is to accumulate that demo.

“And that is THE challenge. Everything else we know how to do.” Reynolds added that TerraPower didn’t start out with the goal of proving that fast breeder reactors could outgrow their troubled past.

“We’re not building a fast reactor just to build it,” Reynolds said. He said the approach was a response to the larger goals set down by Gates and Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, Nathan Myhrvold, whose organization Intellectual Ventures developed the TerraPower concept.

Concept grew out of battle against poverty

“They were asking, what are some of the world’s largest problems” that could be addressed by new technologies. “The problem they settled on was poverty,” Reynolds said.

“You can’t really deal with poverty unless you have a sufficient amount of energy,” Reynolds said. “You can’t grow your family; you can’t build schools or hospitals; you can’t mitigate all the problems that are associated with poverty without energy. So how do you generate a lot of energy without contributing to global warming?” was the question, he said. “They looked at all the alternatives and settled on nuclear power.”

For advanced nuclear in general, including the vitally important development of Small Modular Reactors (SMR) I speculate the innovators will be moving their prototype and piloting efforts to the nuclear-friendly nations. Meanwhile, the US has the technical leadership – or I should say “had the leadership” until in 1994 Bill Clinton cancelled Argonne National Laboratory’s development of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). The leader of the IFR project, Dr. Charles Till, was interviewed for Plentiful Energy, the IFR Story. Currently the best source for information on the IFR is at Barry Brook’s BraveNewClimate.

BTW, Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman Jr. has endorsed the importance of fast-tracking advanced nuclear technology.

While he was still U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman referred to TerraPower’s approach to China with a sense of frustration. “Right now, the regulatory environment here in the U.S. means that it would take decades just to certify the design,” he said at a U.S.-China energy summit last year. “By partnering with the Chinese, they can move ahead and commercialize the technology around the world when it is proven,” Huntsman said.