After releasing fireflies onto his audience at this year's TED conference, Bill Gates announced his plans to fund a viable, next-generation nuclear technology called traveling-wave reactor (TWR). And now Gates has announced an exploration between TerraPower, a TWR nuclear company he largely funds, and Toshiba Corporation, a leader in the commercial nuclear power business.
TWR has been theorized for decades as a cheaper and safer alternative to typical fission reactors, but until now the supercomputers required to make such technology possible were simply not affordable. It is thus no coincidence that Gates has found the perfect match for both his humanitarian and technological aims.
The TWR prototype developed by TerraPower will rely upon Microsoft's supercomputing prowess and a whole lot of computer hardware — 1,024 Xeon core processors assembled on 128 blade servers offering “over 1000 times the computational ability as a desktop computer.”
This may be one of the first times I'm actually excited about nuclear energy. In one of my original posts called The 6 Myths of Nuclear Energy, I clearly lay out all the reasons why today's version of nuclear technology is simply not viable — too expensive, too dangerous, too water-consuming, too politically destabilizing, and on and on. There are so many reasons NOT to fund current nuclear reactor technologies even with the advancements that have been made over the last decade.
But TWR is a real game-changer. Instead of requiring enriched uranium, TWR can burn depleted uranium and other low-grade radioactive fuel stocks. It can also burn them for a long, long time. In TWR, a long-term reaction is created in which the waste from breeding the fuel is recombined to create more fuel inside the reactor. Theoretically, a nuclear reactor could operate for 100 years without changing the fuel rods, and the resultant waste would be much less radioactive than the waste of our modern-day reactors.
Here's TerraPower CEO John Gilleland explaining how it works:
It's too early to get too exited. Even if Gates' billions combined with Toshiba's know-how does result in a full-scale industrial version of the traveling-wave reactor, it will be 10 years before one is constructed and the construction process itself will take five years. But Gates appears to be paving the way for what may be the predominant power source of the future.
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