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TerraPower: A Nuclear Reactor That Burns Its Own Waste?

Shawn McCarthy, The Globe and Mail

Bill Gates has invested some of his considerable fortune in a nuclear reactor developer that is promising to deliver cheaper power while operating more safely and dramatically reducing radioactive waste.

The Microsoft founder is looking for an “energy miracle” – or several – that can power a 21st-century economy without emitting greenhouse gases that contribute to catastrophic (sic) climate change.

And nuclear energy is high on his list of solutions. Especially if the next generation of reactor technology can reduce electricity costs while addressing the risks from radioactivity that leave many people deeply concerned about any growing dependence on nuclear.

Mr. Gates is chairman of TerraPower LLC, a Seattle-area company that is developing a travelling-wave, liquid-sodium reactor (TWR) that, the company says, provides an answer to those problems by essentially burning its own waste.

TerraPower is just one of a number of nuclear reactor developers that are aiming high and making bold claims – a long-standing tendency that has left the industry with a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering. If all goes perfectly, Mr. Gates suggests, TerraPower could be ready to build commercial reactors within 15 years – though rarely do things go perfectly in reactor development.

In the meantime, nuclear companies from around the world – including SNC-Lavalin Group’s Candu Energy – are forging ahead with innovations that aim to reduce costs by increasing efficiencies and using modular designs, improve safety by greatly reducing the potential for human error, and enhance the ability to recycle waste as fuel.

Companies like Babcock & Wilcox Co. and General Electric Co.’s joint venture with Hitachi are aiming for smaller modular designs that could broaden the market for reactors while reducing the enormous capital requirements to build one.

Candu Energy – the recently-privatized, commercial division of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. – is placing its bet on advances in fuel-cycle management and its “flex fuel” capability. With efforts under way in China and Britain, the Mississauga-based company is touting its heavy-water design as ideal for recycling spent fuel from competing light-water reactors, which have become favored in the global marketplace, and for weapons-grade plutonium left over from weapons stockpiles.


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