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]