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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bill Gates Goes Nuclear

Business Week

Last year, Bill Gates caused a stir by releasing mosquitoes into the audience at the TED conference. His aim: to bring to life the idea of malaria as a scourge of the modern world. This year, he set free some fireflies to highlight a new theme: energy and climate change.

Gates, it turns out, is going nuclear. He discussed a new venture he’s involved in with former Microsoft CTO, Nathan Myhrvold, who now heads up the innovation/invention incubation outfit, Intellectual Ventures.

TerraPower, led by nuclear physicist John Gilleland, is looking to use nuclear power to make electricity. According to company literature, “a wave of fission moving slowly through a fuel core could generate a billion watts of electricity continuously for well over 50 to 100 years without refueling.” In other words, power is generated via reactors that run on natural or depleted uranium.

Nuclear is a controversial issue, but Gates outlined his belief that if you can deal with the radiation and safety issues (and yes, it’s a big if—any design wouldn’t come to market until the “early 2020s”, according to TerraPower), its positive potential in terms of carbon footprint and cost put it “in a class of its own,” said Gates.

With Gates on board, TerraPower could just prove to be a big deal. As he put it, nuclear power development languished after atomic energy fell from favor, which left some “good ideas lying around”. After the advances in technology and supercomputers of the past 20 or so years, some of those ideas can now be virtually prototyped and tested.

In a comment that might have raised eyebrows in those who witnessed the Microsoft Monopolist of yore, Gates called for diversity and competition in the energy industry. “There are fortunately dozens of companies [in the space, but] we need it to be hundreds,” he said. “It’s best if multiple [companies] succeed because then you can use a mix.”

Gates also called for broader U.S. government support, saying that the U.S. should spend $10 billion—or more—on an energy R&D budget. The sum, he added, “is not that dramatic”, but it’s critical to underwrite innovation in this space. “We need energy miracles,” he said. “And in this case we have to drive at full speed and get a miracle within a particular timeline.” Given the immovable deadline and potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction, Gates said his quest of “innovating to zero” carbon emissions will brook no half measures. Every player needs to get serious. And, he said, he has.