Bill Gates Goes Nuclear... Literally

Bill Gates popped up in the news again recently, but it wasn’t because of his charitable activities or his previous work in the computer industry. Back in 2006, Gates founded a company named TerraPower that began working on designing a new generation of nuclear reactors. Known as traveling wave reactors, they use liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water. He arrived in Wyoming to break ground on a new reactor site after his construction permit was approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a few months ago. This is one of five plants that Gates plans to construct across the West and it will replace a commercial coal-fired plant that is being decommissioned in two years. (Associated Press)

Bill Gates and his energy company are starting construction at their Wyoming site for a next-generation nuclear power plant he believes will “revolutionize” how power is generated.

Gates was in the tiny community of Kemmerer Monday to break ground on the project. The co-founder of Microsoft is chairman of TerraPower. The company applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March for a construction permit for an advanced nuclear reactor that uses sodium, not water, for cooling. If approved, it would operate as a commercial nuclear power plant.

The site is adjacent to PacifiCorp’s Naughton Power Plant, which will stop burning coal in 2026 and natural gas a decade later, the utility said. Nuclear reactors operate without emitting planet-warming greenhouse gases. PacifiCorp plans to get carbon-free power from the reactor and says it is weighing how much nuclear to include in its long-range planning.

As most regular readers probably know, when it comes to energy I’m an “all of the above” kind of guy. I am happy to support fossil fuels, solar, wind, and pretty much anything that puts energy on the grid. That includes nuclear, and I’ve been wishing for many years that the United States would ease up on some of the regulatory hurdles that exist and make the construction of new nuclear plants less prohibitively expensive. The fairly recent advancements in the development of small module reactors (SMRs) have been exciting.

With all of that said, I do have some questions about these reactors that are cooled using liquid sodium. Technically, Gates’ reactor in Wyoming will use Natrium, but it’s the same thing. This technology has been around for a while and there have reportedly been significant advancements in terms of safety and stability, but sodium fast reactors still make me nervous. If pure sodium is exposed to the air, it catches fire. If it’s exposed to water, it explodes. That’s what happened to Japan’s Monju reactor, which was a liquid sodium plant. The resulting toxic mess took ages to clean up and it was finally decommissioned in 2022.

Similar problems were encountered at the Superphénix reactor in France which first went online in 1985. Within two years it had developed coolant leaks and had to be taken offline repeatedly. It hasn’t produced a single watt of energy since 1990. Contrary to some of the comments I noticed in response to this announcement, Chernobyl was not a sodium-cooled reactor. It used a water-cooling system. It failed because of human error and poor choices by its operators who allowed the reaction in the core to spiral out of control, resulting in a massive, contaminating explosion.

I’m not here to throw stones at Bill Gates or completely write off his efforts to bring these reactors online. We clearly need all of the power we can get and liberals are fighting us every step of the way. (They are already protesting Gates’ reactor in Wyoming.) I’m just saying that this is one area where we need to proceed with caution. I’m never a fan of extensive government regulation, but the construction of these fast-wave reactors will need to be monitored closely to address any potential safety concerns that might arise. We don’t need a repeat of the Monju disaster on our hands. The bad press alone would set the nuclear energy industry back for decades yet again.

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