Nuclear energy: Is Bill Gates onto something?

While radiation risks provoke popular resistance to the idea, nuclear advocates argue it’s the only realistic path to carbon neutrality.  (Photo: AP)
While radiation risks provoke popular resistance to the idea, nuclear advocates argue it’s the only realistic path to carbon neutrality. (Photo: AP)

Summary

  • The Microsoft founder’s clean-tech startup TerraPower claims safety and cost leaps made by an innovative reactor design. As it could plausibly revive a climate-friendly sector left in limbo by Fukushima, India must stay clued in to such developments.

Is Bill Gates set for a global legacy beyond Windows placed by Microsoft on millions of computer screens? Could his startup TerraPower revive nuclear energy as a clean option in our quest to save the planet from the ravages of climate change? Last week, images surfaced of the billionaire with a shovel at a ground-breaking ceremony in Wyoming, US, the site of TerraPower’s proposed new-tech reactor that has the world watching. 

It’s a $4 billion bet—half of it funded by the US Energy Department, a quarter by Gates’ money and the rest by other investors—on a 345-megawatt plant at one level, but also on what’s being pitched as a cheap and safe new way to generate electricity without carbon exhaust. 

On safety grounds alone, nuclear energy has looked like a lost cause ever since the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan, which prompted Germany to phase out its nuclear plants, with France opting to reduce its reliance on this source of power and other countries tightening rules. India’s nuclear capacity, at just 1.6% of its 418-gigawatt total, has barely risen since. 

Also read: Bill Gates on nuclear energy, ‘investing billions’, high project costs, associated risks & more

While radiation risks provoke popular resistance to the idea, nuclear advocates argue it’s the only realistic path to carbon neutrality, and the sooner we conquer our safety qualms, the better. Should Gates’ new venture come good, it could stare down sceptics and herald a reactor renaissance across the world.

The odds of TerraPower reviving the nuclear industry depend on how innovative its upgrade really is. It claims a reactor redesigned from scratch that’s not just cheaper, but also safer than the usual kind. Its differentiator? Like some older models, it uses liquid sodium instead of water as its heat conductor and fuel coolant. 

The typical nuclear plant’s turbines are driven by steam from water heated in a large chamber whose core is stuffed with fuel-rods undergoing fission. As an analogy, think of a large ‘pressure cooker’ that can explode if control is lost—except that if fissile matter gets exposed, the fallout could be deadly. 

Sodium is expected to let its plant run on lower pressure, be easier to cool, and offer dramatic advantages by keeping its core reactor apart from its steam turbines, separated by a ‘heat battery’ of molten salt designed to act as a knob to raise or reduce supply quickly, granting it special flexibility. America’s nuclear regulator is yet to approve the plan, though, and the edge granted by this spiffy new design is still to be tested. 

Also read: How safe is nuclear energy?

Although this metal conducts heat well, it is also reactive with air and water, needs careful handling, and may be vulnerable to overheating (as seen in other sodium plants); also, its opacity might make the fuel harder to keep under check. It’ll be years before we know if the claims hold up.

India has fallen for a false dawn on nuclear energy before, with the high of a big-ticket India-US deal ending in a whimper for this sector. But that’s exactly why we must track its evolution abroad. Observers suspect it was our 2010 indemnity law more than Fukushima that deflated foreign plans to sell us reactors; it lets reactor suppliers be held liable for accidents. 

However, if risks are dropping, as TerraPower’s spiel suggests, then a shift in sectoral dynamics should spell renewed interest in such new-tech projects here too. But first, a haze over reactor safety needs to lift. Indian regulators must put all proposals to close scrutiny, even as we insist on full transparency. Every project’s calculus, for example, must include the costly task of storing spent fuel safely for centuries. In all things nuclear, each critical detail counts.

Also read: The hidden cost of renewable energy

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