Bill Gates Backs 4th Generation “Miracle” Nuclear Reactor


Bill Gates. Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. R2) MR. GATES: . . .
The next miracle is nuclear energy. The plants that are out in the world today are basically generation-one and -two plants. There’s a few generation-three plants. The thing I’m investing in is a fourth-generation design.
MR. MURRAY: Can you explain a little bit about how this technology works?
MR. GATES: The part of uranium that’s fissile–when you hit it with a neutron, it splits in two–is about 0.7%. The reactors we have today are burning that 0.7%. There was a concept that you would do a different type of reactor that would make a bunch of another element called plutonium, and then you would pull that out and then you would burn that. That’s called breeding in a fast reactor. But plutonium is nuclear-weapons material, it’s messy, and the processing you have to get through is not only environmentally difficult, it’s extremely expensive.
The concept of the TerraPower reactor is that in the same reactor, you both burn and breed. Instead of making plutonium and then extracting it, we take uranium–the 99.3% that you normally don’t do anything with–we convert that and we burn it. The 99.3% is cheap as heck, and there’s a pile of it sitting in Paducah, Kentucky, that’s enough to power the United States for hundreds and hundreds of years.

For the full interview, see:
Alan Murray, interviewer. “In Search of One Energy Miracle; Bill Gates on the need to think big.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., March 26, 2012): R2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Plant Protein Levels Adapt to Allow “Flourishing” Near Chernobyl

(p. D3) In April 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine exploded and sent radioactive particles flying through the air, infiltrating the surrounding soil. Despite the colossal disaster, some plants in the area seem to have adapted well, flourishing in the contaminated soil.
This ability to adapt has to do with slight alterations in the plants’ protein levels, researchers report in a study that appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
“If you visit the area, you’d never think anything bad had happened there,” said Martin Hajduch, one of the study’s authors and a plant geneticist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Slovakia.

For the full story, see:
SINDYA N. BHANOO. “OBSERVATORY; Plants Near Chernobyl Appear to Grow a Shield.” The New York Times (Tues., September 21, 2010): D3.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 20, 2010.)

Animals Thrive at Chernobyl

WolvesRadioactive2011-11-09.jpg“PBS’s “Radioactive Wolves” returns to a contaminated site.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C6) In the months since the Japanese tsunami, we’ve heard a lot about Chernobyl as a worst-case example: here’s how bad Fukushima could have been. Now PBS’s “Nature” offers another vision: Chernobyl as a best-case demonstration that life abides . . .
. . .
. . . the prognosis, coyly withheld until the end of the hour, is positive. . . . While the rate of slight birth abnormalities is twice as high as normal among the zone’s growing animal population (but still in the single digits), overall health appears to be fine. It wouldn’t be an acceptable situation for humans, but the dormice and eagles and gray wolves don’t appear to be bothered.
. . .
The concrete high-rises of the city of Pripyat sit like islands in a green sea of towering trees; plants force their way up through the floors of empty schoolrooms.
Within this strangely pastoral setting the animals go about their business, sometimes finding uses for what we’ve left behind. The wolves rise up on their hind legs to peer through the windows of houses, looking for routes to the rooftops, which they use as observation posts for hunting. Eagles build nests in fire towers.
And beavers, forced out decades ago when the landscape was engineered for collective agriculture, have already undone much of man’s work and restored one of central Europe’s great marshlands. Just think what they could do if they had the whole planet.

For the full commentary, see:
MIKE HALE. “In Dead Zone of Chernobyl, Animal Kingdom Thrives.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., October 19, 2011): C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date October 18, 2011.)

Nuclear Energy Much Safer than Previously Thought

(p. A14) ROCKVILLE, Md. — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is approaching completion of an ambitious study that concludes that a meltdown at a typical American reactor would lead to far fewer deaths than previously assumed.

The conclusion, to be published in April after six years of work, is based largely on a radical revision of projections of how much and how quickly cesium 137, a radioactive material that is created when uranium is split, could escape from a nuclear plant after a core meltdown. In past studies, researchers estimated that 60 percent of a reactor core’s cesium inventory could escape; the new estimate is only 1 to 2 percent.
. . .
Big releases of radioactive material would not be immediate, and people within a 10-mile radius would have enough time to evacuate, the study found. The chance of a death from acute radiation exposure within 10 miles is therefore near zero, the study projects, although some people would receive doses high enough to cause fatal cancers in decades to come.
One person in every 4,348 living within 10 miles would be expected to develop a ”latent cancer” as a result of radiation exposure, compared with one in 167 in previous estimates.
”Accidents progress more slowly, in some cases much more slowly, than previously assumed,” Charles G. Tinkler, a senior adviser for research on severe accidents and one of the study’s authors, said in an interview at a commission office building here. ”Releases are smaller, and in some cases much smaller, of certain key radioactive materials.”

For the full story, see:
MATTHEW L. WALD. “N.R.C. Lowers Estimate of How Many Would Die in Meltdown.” The New York Times (Sat., July 30, 2011): A14.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 29, 2011.)
(Note: I am not sure the whole article appeared on p. A14—only saw the online version.)

Unclear Regulations Reduce Energy Innovation Investment


“Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. R3) Bill Gates reshaped the computer industry by pumping out new versions of Microsoft Windows software every few years, fixing and fine tuning it as he went along.

He’s now betting that he can reshape the energy industry with a project akin to shipping Windows once and having it work, bug-free, for 50 years.
Thanks to his role funding and guiding a start-up called TerraPower LLC, where he serves as chairman, Mr. Gates has become a player in a field of inventors whose goal is to make nuclear reactors smaller, cheaper and safer than today’s nuclear energy sources. The 30-person company recently completed a basic design for a reactor that theoretically could run untouched for decades on spent nuclear fuel. Now the company is seeking a partner to help build the experimental reactor, and a country willing to host it.
It’s a long-term, risky endeavor for Mr. Gates and his fellow investors. The idea will require years to test, billions of dollars (not all from him) and changes in U.S. nuclear regulations if the reactor is to be built here. Current U.S. rules don’t even cover the type of technology TerraPower hopes to use.
“A cheaper reactor design that can burn waste and doesn’t run into fuel limitations would be a big thing,” Mr. Gates says. He adds that in general “capitalism underinvests in innovation,” particularly in areas with “long time horizons and where government regulations are unclear.”
. . .
The company has made pitches in France and Japan, Mr. Myrhvold says; both have big nuclear-power industries. He’s also made the rounds in Russia, China and India, he says. So far, there have been no takers.
One country he is certain won’t be a customer anytime soon is the U.S., which doesn’t yet have a certification process for reactors like TerraPower’s. It would likely be a decade or more before the reactor could be tested on U.S. soil. “I don’t think the U.S. has the willpower or desire to build new kinds of nuclear reactors,” Mr. Myrhvold says. “Right now there’s a long, drawn-out process.”
. . .
Mr. Myrhvold says he hopes the process will speed up and spark innovation to meet the world’s growing energy demand. “Let’s try 20 ideas,” he says. “Maybe five of them work. That’s the only way to invent our way out of the pickle we’re in.”

For the full story, see:
ROBERT A. GUTH. “A Window Into the Nuclear Future; TerraPower–with the backing of Bill Gates–has a radical vision for the reactors of tomorrow.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., FEBRUARY 28, 2011): R3.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Environmentalist Blue Planet Prize Winner Lovelock Endorsed Nuclear Power


“The scientist James E. Lovelock during an interview at the Algonquin Hotel in New York.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D2) Few scientists have elicited such equivalent heaps of praise and criticism as James E. Lovelock, the British chemist, inventor and planetary diagnostician who has long foreseen a clash between humans and their planet.

His work underpins much of modern environmentalism. The electron capture detector he invented in the 1950’s produced initial measurements of dispersed traces of pesticides and ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, providing a foundation for the work of Rachel Carson and for studies revealing risks to the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.
His conception in 1972 of the planet’s chemistry, climate and veneer of life as a self-sustaining entity, soon given the name Gaia, was embraced by the Earth Day generation and was ridiculed, but eventually accepted (with big qualifications), by many biologists.
Dr. Lovelock, honored in 1997 with the Blue Planet Prize, which is widely considered the environmental equivalent of a Nobel award, has now come under attack from some environmentalists for his support of nuclear power as a way to avoid runaway “global heating” — his preferred alternative to “global warming.”
In his latest book, “The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back — and How We Can Still Save Humanity” (Perseus, 2006), Dr. Lovelock says that any risks posed by nuclear power are small when compared with the “fever” of heat-trapping carbon dioxide produced by burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels.

For the full interview, see:
ANDREW C. REVKIN. “A Conversation With James E. Lovelock; Updating Prescriptions for Avoiding Worldwide Catastrophe.” The New York Times, Science Times Section (Tues., September 12, 2006): D2.

Finland Approves Two New Nuclear Power Plants

(p. B5) The Finnish Parliament approved the construction of two nuclear power plants on Thursday, the latest victory for proponents of atomic energy in Europe.

Just two weeks ago, the Swedish Parliament narrowly voted to allow the reactors at 10 nuclear power plants to be replaced when the old ones are shut down — a reversal from a 1980 referendum that called for them to be phased out entirely.
Nuclear power fell out of favor in much of Europe after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine.
But in an era of concern about dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels and increases in atmospheric carbon, there is renewed interest in electricity generated by nuclear fission.
“Over all, opinions are firming and more positive,” Ian Hore-Lacy, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, said of the European mood. “People are less concerned about waste because they’ve seen it’s not a drama, and it’s been well managed.”

For the full story, see:
AVID JOLLY. “Why Is the Gulf Cleanup So Slow? There are obvious actions to speed things up, but the government oddly resists taking them..” The New York Times (Fri., July 2, 2010): B5.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 1, 2010.)

Swedish Town Wants Nuclear Waste Dump

OsthammarSwedenNuclearWasteSite2010-05-20.jpg“Osthammar is competing for the right to host a storage site for radioactive waste.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

After reading Petr Beckmann’s The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear, a few decades ago, I became convinced that nuclear power was being rejected in the United States due to irrational fears based on a failure to make reasonable estimates of the costs and the benefits.
Isn’t it ironic that the irrational fear of nuclear power is at long last being overcome mainly by the irrational fear of global warming?

(p. A10) . . . , in Osthammar, . . . as many as 80 percent of the 21,000 inhabitants are in favor of the nuclear waste dump. The town is now one of two finalists among the communities in Sweden that vied for the right to host the dump.

Sweden, which swore off nuclear power after less than 20 percent of Swedes approved of it in a referendum in the 1980s, would seem an unlikely place for such a competition. But it has reversed course recently and plans to begin building new nuclear reactors, adding to the 10 it already operates.
But legislation requires that before any new plants can be built, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company, better known by the initials SKB, must first create permanent storage space for the radioactive waste the reactors produce.
In most countries, of course, people would sooner allow a factory hog farm or garbage incinerator in their backyards than a nuclear waste dump. But in Sweden, SKB found 18 of 20 possible towns near proposed sites intrigued by their proposition. Then it had to whittle the list down to two, Osthammar and Oskarshamn, both already the site of nuclear plants.
SKB recently said it would ask the Swedish government later this year for permission to build the storage depot in Osthammar. If the government gives the green light to Osthammar over Oskarshamn, construction could begin some time after 2015, officials said.
Claes Thegerstrom, a nuclear physicist who is the chief executive of SKB, attributed the new attitude of Swedes toward nuclear energy to fears of global warming. “In the 1980s nobody was mentioning CO2,” or carbon dioxide, considered the major cause of global warming, he said. “Now, it’s on the top of the list of environmental issues.” Since they burn no fossil fuels, nuclear power plants do not produce carbon dioxide.

For the full story, see:
JOHN TAGLIABUE. “Osthammar Journal; A Town Says ‘Yes, in Our Backyard’ to Nuclear Site.” The New York Times (Tues., April 6, 2010): A10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 5, 2010.)

Beckmann’s wonderful book was:
Beckmann, Petr. The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear. Golem Press, 1976.

Walter Scott Endorses Nuclear as Only Economically Viable Green Energy Source


“MidAmerican shareholders. David Sokol, Walter Scott, Greg Abel and Warren Buffett.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below. (Note: bold added.)

(p. 1D) Despite recent steps to encourage wind-generated electricity in Nebraska, Omaha businessman and philanthropist Walter Scott said Thursday that nuclear power is the only economically viable way to generate electricity without carbon-dioxide emissions.

“To me, that is the ultimate answer if you want to reduce carbon dioxide,” Scott told about 150 people at a breakfast session of the Omaha chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth, held at Happy Hollow Club.
Solar and wind-generated electricity require government subsidies, Scott said. And because the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., shut down nuclear energy construction in the United States, this country will have to buy its new nuclear-generating equipment from France and Japan, which dominate that industry, he said.
“Isn’t that a wonderful thing?” asked Scott, who also said electric vehicles eventually will capture a significant market.
The Three Mile Island accident “shook people up” even though no one was killed and the containment vessel worked as designed by engineers to prevent radioactive material from spreading, said Scott, chairman-emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc. and a director of several corporations, including Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Kiewit has been involved in the energy industry for decades, he noted, and Berkshire’s energy division, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., has substantial wind farms in Iowa and several other states. But those wind farms are viable only because they operate under government rules that guarantee a return on investment, even with their higher costs, Scott said.

For the full story, see:
Steve Jordon. To Cut Carbon, Go Nuclear; It’s the Ultimate Answer for Reducing Emissions, the Kiewit Official Suggests in a Speech.” Omaha World-Herald (Friday, May 14, 2010): 1D-2D.
(Note: the online version of the article had the title “Scott: To go green, go nuclear.”)

Smaller, Compact Design Makes Nuclear Reactor Cheaper, Safer and Quicker to Build and Expand

NuclearReactorSmall2010-04-03.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) A new type of nuclear reactor–smaller than a rail car and one tenth the cost of a big plant–is emerging as a contender to reshape the nation’s resurgent nuclear power industry.

Three big utilities, Tennessee Valley Authority, First Energy Corp. and Oglethorpe Power Corp., on Wednesday signed an agreement with McDermott International Inc.’s Babcock & Wilcox subsidiary, committing to get the new reactor approved for commercial use in the U.S.
. . .
The smaller Babcock & Wilcox reactor can generate only 125 to 140 megawatts of power, about a tenth as much as a big one. But the utilities are betting that these smaller, simpler reactors can be manufactured quickly and installed at potentially dozens of existing nuclear sites or replace coal-fired plants that may become obsolete with looming emissions restrictions.
“We see significant benefits from the new, modular technology,” said Donald Moul, vice president of nuclear support for First Energy, an Ohio-based utility company.
He said First Energy, which operates four reactors at three sites in Ohio and Pennsylvania, has made no decision to build any new reactor and noted there’s “a lot of heavy lifting to do to get this reactor certified” by the NRC for U.S. use.
. . .
(p. A16) One of the biggest attractions, however, is that utilities could start with a few reactors and add more as needed. By contrast, with big reactors, utilities have what is called “single-shaft risk,” where billions of dollars are tied up in a single plant.
Another advantage: mPower reactors will store all of their waste on each site for the estimated 60-year life of each reactor.
. . .
. . . , some experts believe that if the industry embraces small reactors, nuclear power in the U.S. could become pervasive because more utilities would be able to afford them.
“There’s a higher likelihood that there are more sites that could support designs for small reactors than large ones,” said David Matthews, head of new reactor licensing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
. . .
Experts believe small reactors should be as safe, or safer, than large ones. One reason is that they are simpler and have fewer moving parts that can fail. Small reactors also contain a smaller nuclear reaction and generate less heat. That means that it’s easier to shut them down, if there is a malfunction.
“With a large reactor, the response to a malfunction tends to be quick, whereas in smaller ones, they respond more slowly” which means they’re somewhat easier to control, said Michael Mayfield, director of the advanced reactor program at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Once on site, each reactor would be housed in a two-story containment structure that would be buried beneath the ground for added security. They would run round the clock, stopping to refuel every five years instead of 18 to 24 months, like existing reactors.
Jack Baker, Energy Northwest’s head of business development, says he was initially skeptical about small reactors because of the “lack of economies of scale.” But he says he now thinks small reactors “could have a cost advantage” because their simpler design means faster construction and “you don’t need as much concrete, steel, pumps and valves.”
“They have made a convert of me,” he says.
Babcock & Wilcox’s roots go back to 1867 and it has been making equipment for utilities since the advent of electrification, even furnishing boilers to Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street generating stations that brought street lighting to New York City in 1882.
Based in Lynchburg, Va., the company has been building small reactors for ships since the 1950s. In addition to reactors for U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers, it built a reactor for the USS NS Savannah, a commercial vessel which is now a floating museum in Baltimore harbor. It also built eight big reactors, in the past construction cycle, including one for the ill-fated Three Mile Island plant.
When a U.S. nuclear revival looked imminent, the company debated what role it could play.
“Instead of asking, ‘How big a reactor could we make?,’ this time, we asked, ‘What’s the largest thing we could build at our existing plants and ship by rail?’ ” said Christofer Mowry, president of Modular Nuclear Energy LLC, Babcock’s recently created small-reactor division. “That’s what drove the design.”

For the full story, see:
REBECCA SMITH. “Small Reactors Generate Big Hopes .” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Feb. 18, 2010): A1 & A16.
(Note: ellipses added.)


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

Small Nuclear Reactor Will Run on Spent Fuel From Big Reactors

GeneralAtomicsEM2reactor2010-03--01.jpg “An artist’s modeling of the proposed EM2 reactor, which would be small enough to be transported by truck.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) Nuclear and defense supplier General Atomics announced Sunday it will launch a 12-year program to develop a new kind of small, commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. that could run on spent fuel from big reactors.

In starting its campaign to build the helium-cooled reactor, General Atomics is joining a growing list of companies willing to place a long-shot bet on reactors so small they could be built in factories and hauled on trucks or trains.
The General Atomics program, if successful, could provide a partial solution to one of the biggest problems associated with nuclear energy: figuring out what to do with highly radioactive waste. With no agreement on where to locate a federal storage site, that waste is now stored in pools or casks on utilities’ property.
The General Atomics reactor, which is dubbed EM2 for Energy Multiplier Module, would be about one-quarter the size of a conventional reactor and have unusual features, including the ability to burn used fuel, which still contains more than 90% of its original energy. Such reuse would reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste that remained. General Atomics calculates there is so much U.S. nuclear waste that it could fuel 3,000 of the proposed reactors, far more than it anticipates building.
The decision to proceed with its 12-year program indicates that General Atomics believes the time is right to both make a nuclear push and to try to gain approval for an unconventional design proposal despite the likely difficulty of getting it certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The EM2 would operate at temperatures as high as 850 degrees Centigrade, which is about twice as hot as a conventional (p. B2) water-cooled reactor. The very high temperatures would make the reactor especially well suited to industrial uses that go beyond electricity production, such as extracting oil from tar sands, desalinating water and refining petroleum to make fuel and chemicals.

For the full story, see:
REBECCA SMITH. “General Atomics Proposes a Plant That Runs on Nuclear Waste.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., February 22, 2010): B1 & B2.