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Bill Gates’s Nuclear Ambitions

Bill Gates has dedicated his post-Microsoft life to humanitarian work—the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has directed billions of dollars toward health and development programs around the world. But Gates sees energy reform as the quickest path toward reducing poverty, saying in a 2010 TED speech that “if you could pick just one thing to lower the price of—to reduce poverty—by far you would pick energy.” To that end, he chairs TerraPower, a company looking to bring nuclear power into the 21st century. We profiled his efforts back in July, and now the NYT is taking notice:

TerraPower, led by Mr. Gates and a fellow Microsoft billionaire, Nathan Myhrvold…has raised tens of millions of dollars for the project, but building a prototype reactor could cost $5 billion — a reason Mr. Gates is looking for a home for the demonstration plant in rich and energy-hungry China….

“The hope is that we’ll find a country, with China being the most likely, that would be able to build the demo plant,” Mr. Gates said last year in a conversation with the energy expert Daniel Yergin. “If that happens, then the economics of this are quite a bit better than the plants we have today.”

Gates isn’t the only one looking to develop the next generation of nuclear power technology. China is already working to develop thorium nuclear reactors, and technologies like molten salt and fast reactors are edging closer to reality. The potential here is huge. Nuclear energy, as greens often need to be reminded, is effectively zero-emissions. Some of these next generation reactors can use former nuclear waste as fuel. The reactor TerraPower is working on doesn’t require the kinds of enriched uranium that can double as a nuclear weapons component, which would prevent countries like Iran from potentially hiding weapons programs behind power programs.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, Germany rashly decided to get rid of nuclear energy entirely, and it’s now paying for its mistake in higher electricity prices. If we site nuclear plants in smart places (far away from fault lines) and these potential technologies become realities, nuclear could play a much bigger role in the global energy mix than it currently does. We’ll be watching.

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  • Loader2000

    “if you could pick just one thing to lower the price of—to reduce poverty—by far you would pick energy.”

    Kudos to Bill Gates for making a smart decision. He is absolutely right. Once energy is cheap, the sky is the limit as far as what we can do. Once energy is very cheap, unlimited fresh water through desalinization becomes an economically feasible reality. Once energy is cheap and both robotics and nanotechnology are sufficiently advanced, huge hundred story hydroponic farms are economically feasible, freeing up millions of acres of land for national parts, wild-life refuges and living. Once energy is super cheap, there will never be a need to cut down another tree for cooking fuel. Once energy is super cheap, sequestering carbon emission could be standard on every fossil burning energy plant in the country. Somehow, for some reason, most greens fail to understand that super cheap energy (and technology) not expensive energy will make their goals become a reality.

  • Corlyss

    What makes rich tech geeks think they’re experts on public policy just because they have enough money to influence policy? Well, at least he didn’t jump on the crappy green strategies bandwagon. At least he has that much sense.

    • Flatley

      He left Microsoft in 2008, presumably he’s had a bit of time to read since then. It’s great to hear he’s throwing some of those funds behind nuclear power, the industry badly needs competent advocates at this point in time.

      • Corlyss

        Until he takes some of that do-gooder money and applies to build a nuclear power station, he’s just another rich spectator trying to tell the rest of us what to do. Now that would be a “commitment” to nuclear power. It might look green to Gates, but greens will never permit another nuclear power plant to be build in the US. As long as the anti-American criminal enterprise known as the Democratic party is the political arm of the greens, the greens will have outsized influence on everything the US does, from export policy to defense to energy policy to environmental policy.

    • It’s not a public policy play when he’s putting his money where his mouth is. He’s a major investor in TerraPower.

  • Pete

    Billy is right about the need for nuclear power and the ability of cheap energy — really electricity — to reduce poverty.

  • Boritz

    Their real goal is a reduced standard of living. Cheap, abundant, clear energy is actually their worst nightmare. If you one day pay one cent per megawatt hour see if you still have an affordable regulatory state approved air conditioner to go with it.

  • Mark Sizer

    The obvious question: Why not in America? Why demo new technology in a foreign country? Oh. Right. America doesn’t innovate any longer; too many regulations and lawyers.

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