By Mark Halper
Posting in Design
Bill Gates knows them. They run a huge nuclear group in China, the country that will lead the world in nuclear by embracing unconventional designs. Gates isn't alone trying to sell them a reactor.
[caption id="attachment_11126" align="alignnone" width="478" caption="The eight top execs at China National Nuclear Corp. Bill Gates met CNNC's president, Mr. Sun Qin, as early as last June. China will lead the world in nuclear."]
Bill Gates knows some of the guys above. They run China National Nuclear Corp., China's huge state-owned nuclear company. Besides chairing Microsoft, Gates is chairman of nuclear startup TerraPower, and he'd like to sell CNNC a reactor. He's hardly the only one knocking on their door.
You see, China will lead the world in nuclear power. It's a growth market, perhaps even a boom one.
While other countries equivocate on nuclear policy in a post-Fukushima era - Germany has famously decided to abandon nuclear - China is going for it. It is currently building 27 nuclear reactors and it could install 100 or more by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association. That's nearly a quarter of the 432 reactors that the WNA says operate in the world today.
It's all part of a plan - goodness knows China can plan - to move away from the fossil fuels that are wreaking havoc on air quality and health and also spewing greenhouse gases in a country that derives 80 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants. While China's energy engine is also making steady solar and wind advances, make no mistake: It will rely on nuclear.
So it was really no surprise, in fact, not even news this week when the media went atomic with reports that Gates is talking to China National Nuclear Corp. about possibly developing a reactor with them. We’ve known that since last June, when CNNC posted a brief statement on its website confirming that its boss and and second-in-charge had met with Gates and his Terra CEO, John Gilleland.
“On June 9th, CNNC general manager Mr. Sun Qin, (and) vice-general manager Mr. Yu Jianfeng met with American Terra Power company chairman Mr. Bill Gates and CEO Mr. John Gilleland, they conducted a discussion about the cooperation between CNNC and Terra Power company," the CNNC statement said. (That's Sun Qin in the mug shots above, where CNNC calls him "president.")
After the meeting last summer, I spoke with CEO Gilleland for my Kachan & Co. report on nuclear's future. Gilleland was encouraged, but he made it clear that a deal with China was not fait accompli. It's still not. Terra is offering its wares in other countries as well, including India and Russia.
Gates merely reaffirmed all that this week, noting in a talk at China's Ministry of Science and Technology that Terra is in the "early stages" of discussions with CNNC. Don't believe the more sensational reports saying it's a done deal. While that might eventually come true, Terra and China are still talking.
What makes an eventual China deal plausible is that Terra's reactor fits a design known as "fast neutron reactor," or FNR. China plans -- there's that planning again -- to shift heavily towards FNRs by 2050, according to the WNA.
Unlike today's conventional reactors, FNRs do not slow down, or "moderate", the neutrons that split out of atoms and serve as the heat source that eventually drives a turbine to make electricity. FNRs can be more efficient and cost-effective. Depending on the design, they can burn both the depleted and spent uranium left over from the conventional nuclear fuel cycle. And FNRs tend to use as fuel the weapons-grade plutonium left over after burning uranium, rather than leaving the plutonium as hazardous waste as happens in today's reactors. Terra uses an FNR design called a "traveling wave."
Almost all of the world's 432 operating commercial reactors are conventional water-cooled, uranium-fueled models. They produce weapons-grade waste, and if not managed properly they can dangerously melt down. That's extremely rare, but it's what happened at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant in March.
China is currently building conventional reactors, but it is intently developing a variety of other nuclear technologies that are potentially safer and less weapons-prone.
Besides FNRs, these include reactors that run on thorium fuel, as well as unconventional designs such as "pebble bed reactors," "molten salt reactors" and, of course, fusion reactors - the Holy Grail concept that will nicely put atoms together rather than hazardously rip them asunder. Most of these concepts date back to the 1950s and 1960s, but lost out commercially for various reasons (in the case of fusion, no one has yet figured it out; stay tuned).
China would prefer to develop these alternatives through homegrown initiatives but it is demonstrating a possible willingness to work with foreign entities such as Terra.
China will, I repeat, will, develop these unconventional reactors. CNNC, the huge state-owned group talking to Gates and Gilleland, is just one of over a hundred nuclear organizations in China, many of which are also looking into alternative nuclear technologies. CNNC alone has declared it will invest $120 billion in nuclear through 2020. Thus, they represent the industry's future.
This will pressure the rest of the world to do adopt alternative nuclear technologies, in order to compete economically. Plenty of companies are working on alternative nuclear around the globe. San Diego-based General Atomics is developing an FNR that could well challenge Terra's. Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy is developing a thorium based molten salt reactor. Norway's Thor Energy is making thorium fuel advances. South Africa's Q-Power has an impressive pebble bed reactor on the drawing board. That's just to name a few.
In the United States, President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future is contemplating changing nuclear regulations in order to facilitate the development of these alternatives, which threaten the entrenched "nuclear as usual" crowd.
Meanwhile, if you have a good nuclear idea, you might want to get in touch with Mr. Sun Qin in Beijing.
Photo: screen grab from China National Nuclear Corp.
More atoms and CO2 on SmartPlanet:
- Smog grounds Beijing flights
- How nuclear will make oil greener
- Brits double down on fusion
- Japan: Nuclear no, renewables yes. China?
- The new face of safe nuclear
- UK forges ahead on nuclear power
Dec 8, 2011
Almost all nuclear power generation technology is hopelessly primitive. Every reactor design in use depends on heating water into steam, which in turn drives a turbine generator to produce electricity. In essence, they are all just gigantic steam engines with HUGE energy losses in each step of the process of producing electricity. Rather than burning coal or oil, they simply 'burn' fissionable materials. Instead of incremental 'baby steps' to improve a [i]2 century old technology[/i], we should be seeking to develop an SSNR...a solid state reactor with no moving parts. The science to do so exists...is it perhaps the will we are lacking?
In case you missed it, and I thank "arxterin" for posting it, make sure to see this and listen to what the two MIT students have to say.... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAFWeIp8JT0 Is it perfect? No it's not. When you can do better...post your idea. Until, then, this video shows what fresh thinking can do to bring a sea-change for an industry, a country, a planet.
Gates has gone to China, I presume, because of the near impossibility of enlightening the NRC to the fact that reprocessing nuclear spent fuel is essential to the disposal of long-lived waste. We generate less than 100 tons of waste a year, isotopes with half-lives shorter than 30 years, and promiscuously leave those still with about 50 tons of plutonium, and 3000 tons of unused uranium. Then people like Amory Lovins talk about stuff that lasts billions of years, and its descendant decay products include deadly stuff like radium, polonium, and radon. He doesn't mention, perhaps doesn't know, that it takes tens of thousands of years before the quantity radium, etc, is enough that its radioactivity equals the quite low level of the tons of parent uranium. Be that as it may, the crowning stupidity of most of my fellow-environmentalists is that they imagine the 18th century energy sources --biomass (think whale oil and slaves), wind (think of the steam tug towing the Temeraire to be broken up), and solar (think Ireland, Finland, or the Hebrides) can become resurgent against the technologies that ousted them. The stupidity of the prevailing anti-socialist sentiment, the Right Wing Nuts et al., is that private enterprise is the only way to do it. The development of hydropower, aircraft, and the fundamentals of nuclear power, were all done using government money, directly, not by idiotic subsidies.
There is a new startup coming out of MIT called Transatomic Power (http://transatomicpower.com). They are developing a molten salt reactor that is modified to run on nuclear waste. Checkout their TEDx presentation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAFWeIp8JT0 These kids are the future of nuclear power!
"... conventional water-cooled, uranium-fueled models. They produce weapons-grade waste, ..." Power reactors don't really produce 'weapons-grade' material. That's made in reactors dedicated to the purpose, in which U-238 is exposed to neutrons long enough to turn a little of it into Pu-239, but then pulling it out before a more than a small fraction of that absorbs a second neutron to become Pu-240. It takes several weeks to refuel a light-water reactor -- open it up, swap fuel elements, close, and restart it -- so they're run as long as practical between refuelings.
How does FNR respond to catastrophe as meltdown, of Japanese earthquake? The current light water reactors seem to be disasters in waiting.
Not sure what's really in it for Bill Gates? Maybe in return for helping China undermine its national security, he will get the Chinese to use their cloning methodologies to create spare parts for him and his family, since its illegal in the U.S. and he doesn't want to end up like Steve Jobs. Otherwise, we in the West know how China feels about Democracy, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press. Perhaps China doesn't realize that the nuclear reactors make perfect targets for their enemies.
Big advantage of these "steam engines" is they can be built now. And we really need more nuclear power right now. Or preferably 40 years ago.
The Fukushima plant was over 40 years old. It should have been replaced by a more modern 1000x safer one, but in this anti-nuclear climate very hard to build a new one, so they are used as long as possible. Earthquake is not a problem, but flooding does not work well with electricity. And electricity is needed to operate the cooling pumps. But this is only problem for these large reactors, smaller ones can be cooled passively. And if operated on atmospheric pressure (cooled by gas, molten metal, etc.), leak are much smaller problem.
I agree that safety still could be an issue. Does this mean the new reactors still have waste? Nuclear power still be a problem if it does'nt resolve these issues.
Gates is a businessman. The answer is obvious, although I forget the source at the moment - "one dollar more". Although, in Gates case, it's not to have, but to give away. China isn't really concerned about anyone attacking them, certainly not to the point where they're going to forego projects that (physically & economically) benefit the population out of concern about creating a vulnerability. Just like it is here in the USA, concerns about a "big war" primarily exist as pretext to justify buying munitions.
We are one planet, and the problems with China's air quality is a problem for the entire world. Nuclear development in the US, specifically non-conventional nuclear will have loobist from all sides to fight. Whereas in China once the right people are on board, it will happen and we will all be the better for it. You can't fight for free speach and civil liberties if you can't breath!