Intelligent Energy

Meet the future of nuclear power: 8 guys in China

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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."]
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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.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure