Bill Gates in talks with China National Nuclear Corporation for Terrapower nuclear reactor

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates confirmed Wednesday he is in discussions with China to jointly develop a new and safer kind of nuclear reactor.

UPDATE – MIT Technology Review – Terrapower says that it is just having discussions with China. It’s also talking to other countries, as well as with two research centers in India. “We are sharing information on the [traveling wave reactor] with a variety of research, supply and manufacturing organizations, but there are no deals to speak to at this time,” John Gilleland, TerraPower’s C.E.O. said in a statement today.

The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste,” said the billionaire during a talk at China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Gates has largely funded a Washington state-based company, TerraPower, that is developing a Generation IV nuclear reactor that can run on depleted uranium.

The general manager of state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation, Sun Qin, was quoted in Chinese media last week saying Gates was working with it to research and develop a reactor.

“TerraPower is having very good discussions with CNNC and various people in the Chinese government,” said Gates, cautioning that they were at an early stage.

Gates says perhaps as much as a billion dollars will be put into research and development over the next five years.

TerraPower’s traveling wave reactor (TWR) will offer a path to zero-emission, proliferation-resistant energy that produces significantly smaller amounts of nuclear waste than conventional nuclear reactors. After an initial start-up with a small amount of low-enriched material, this innovative reactor design can run for decades on depleted uranium – currently a waste byproduct of the enrichment process. An established fleet of TWRs could operate without enrichment or reprocessing for millennia.

Using a TWR, an 8-metric-ton canister of depleted uranium could generate 25 million megawatt-hours of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million U.S. households for one year.

The traveling wave reactor uses the simplest nuclear energy fuel cycle – a once-through cycle. The reactor converts fissile material to its own nuclear fuel where it needs it, when it needs it. Once a wave is started with enriched material, a traveling wave reactor never needs fissile material and will continue producing power as long as depleted uranium is supplied. This means more stable and sustainable nuclear power than exists today.

A TWR can sustain a fission chain reaction given only non-fissile fuel such as depleted uranium because it sets up a slow-moving wave in which neutrons produced by fission reactions in the power-producing region convert adjacent fuel from fertile isotopes (such as U-238) into fissile isotopes (such as Pu-239).

TWRs are capable of a ~40-fold gain in fuel utilization efficiency over conventional light water reactors, offering a nuclear energy resource, deployable in the near-term, which is sustainable at a global scale for the indefinite future.

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