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India's Reliance invests in Bill Gates-backed nuclear startup

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TerraPower, the nuclear startup backed by billionaire Bill Gates, has snagged the interest and investment of Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries.

TerraPower, the nuclear startup backed by Bill Gates, has snagged the interest and investment of another billionaire. Reliance Industries, the Indian conglomerate run by Mukesh Ambani, has take a minority stake in TerraPowerBusinessWeek reported.  Reliance, which operates the world's biggest oil refinery complex and owns various other energy, telecom and retail businesses, did not disclose the amount of the investment.

Execs from TerraPower, which is developing a traveling wave nuclear reactor, have racked up the travel miles in recent months, visiting with potential partners, investors and energy experts in the United States, China, France, India, Japan, Korea and Russia.  The visits, which focused on countries with some form of advanced fast reactor research facilities and programs, have been couched by TerraPower as part of an ongoing effort to accelerate its scientific findings. TerraPower also said earlier this month, that it continues to work with domestic and international companies to develop fuel and materials.

Some of these meetings have attracted more attention than perhaps is warranted. Gates' talk at China's Ministry of Science and Technology earlier this month launched a media frenzy that would lead most to think TerraPower and China National Nuclear Corp. had come to some sort of agreement to develop the nuclear reactor. But as SmartPlanet's Mark Halper noted recently, don't believe the sensational reports saying it's a done deal. Not convinced? Check out Halper's Kachan & Co. report on nuclear’s future where he speaks to CEO John Gilleland, who makes it clear that a deal with China was not fait accompli.

A deal with China may eventually come, but TerraPower is clearly -- as the Reliance investment indicates -- talking to others. And it has been for some time. Way back in March 2010, Japan's Toshiba confirmed it was in talks with TerraPower to develop a new generation of smaller reactors. Again, a deal has yet to materialize. In fact, at this point there are no deals to speak of and TerraPower is still developing its traveling wave reactor.

More on TerraPower's technology

TerraPower has developed a so-called traveling wave reactor. The reactor uses a small amount of enriched uranium to kick off a chain reaction that moves slowly through a core of depleted uranium -- such as the waste byproduct from today's fuel processing plants. It converts the depleted uranium into plutonium that then sustains the reaction. Once the reaction begins, it makes and consumes its own fuel for up to 60 years without refueling.

As I've written before, the concept of a traveling-wave reactor isn't new. However, TerraPower has been able to push the concept forward using supercomputing power to design and simulate how the reactor would work. The company has developed traveling wave reactor designs for low-to-medium power (equivalent of 500 megawatts) and large power (1,000 MW equivalent) applications.

Photo: Bill Gates at the TED conference from Flickr user jurvetson, CC 2.0; graphic from Terrapower

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure