mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Bill Gates Tries Thorium


Bill Gates chairs a company called TerraPower that is keen on taking nuclear power technology into the 21st century. The company primarily focuses on a so-called fast reactor that would produce nuclear waste with relatively low toxicity and a much shorter lifetime. But it’s also making inroads on a type of nuclear power with tremendous potential that we profiled back in January: thorium-fueled reactors. The Weinberg Foundation reports:

TerraPower is also investigating the possibility of deploying thorium, a fuel that Gilleland said could trump uranium by virtue of thorium’s wider availability. There is about four times more thorium than uranium in the world.

Thorium isn’t just more abundant, it’s also much safer, and can’t be used to make weapons-grade radioactive isotopes. TerraPower isn’t putting all its eggs in the thorium basket, however:

“We’re looking at all of them,” said Gilleland. “There’s no one at the top of our list right now.”

He described [the company’s] innovation initiative as a “skunk works” that’s not a formal division but rather is a framework for encouraging lateral thinking. He likened it to innovative information technology companies that facilitate free thinking time for employees.

“It’s like Google and other places – the best ideas sometimes came from the person doing the backstroke in the swimming pool, or at home thinking,” said Gilleland. “So we want to just make sure that people have a certain fraction of their time for free thinking.”

It’s good to know that there are private companies out there working on developing energy sources for the future. Nuclear energy is effectively zero-emissions, and solving the waste issue will be a huge step forward in gaining wider acceptance for the technology. Fukushima was a reminder of the risks nuclear energy entails, but countries like Germany—which is in the process of abandoning nuclear energy entirely—are taking the wrong lessons from the disaster. Investing in the research and development of advanced nuclear technologies like thorium, molten salt, and fast reactors could have tremendous pay-off down the road.

[Bill Gates image courtesy of Wikimedia]

Features Icon
show comments
  • wigwag

    One can only hope that any thorium reactors that Mr. Gates’ company ultimately produces will have fewer bugs and idiosyncrasies than the Windows operating systems that Microsoft markets.

    • Corlyss

      Wag, you are sooooooo baaaaaad . . .

      • Kavanna

        What will the Blue Screen of Death look like, in this case?

        Sold “as is,” with no warranties, implied or otherwise! 🙂

      • Kavanna

        Just don’t get Steve Ballmer involved.

  • Bill_Woods

    “Thorium … can’t be used to make weapons-grade radioactive isotopes.”

    It can, it’s just harder than by the traditional means to make weapons-grade U-235 or Pu-239.

    • Nick Bidler

      And when we say ‘harder,’ we mean ‘you need something like 50-100 times the raw material for U or Pu to get the same amount of fissile material.’

      • Kavanna

        It would be difficult to make a weapon of it, although you could make a large mound of it explode.

  • Corlyss

    It’s great to have someone of Gates’ heft talking positively about nuke energy and how it can be done more safely so we don’t lose that infinite capacity.

  • bpuharic

    While I’m an advocate of nuclear power, let’s clear the table and discuss the fact that, while WRM has been on a tear against the subsidized solar power industry, noted arch right wing economist Veronique de Rugy has pointed out nuclear power is tremendously expensive and might not be practical absent massive subsidies. Let’s not pretend Obama’s got it all wrong in looking at other ways to develop energy.

    • BradMueller

      He certainly is wrong on picking winners.

      Besides. If gates wants to spend his own money on thorium who am I to stop him?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service