Editor’s note: The excerpts below, edited for space, are reprinted from the article by M.V. Ramana and Cassandra Jeffery in the Sept/Oct 2022 issue of Against the Current. To read the full article with footnotes visit https://againstthecurrent.org/atc220/bill-gates-and-techno-fix-delusions/.
Bill Gates and TerraPower[Bill Gates’ firm] TerraPower was founded in 2006, and Gates continues to serve as Chairman of the Board. The company has funded the development of three different nuclear reactor designs through a mix of venture capitalist investments from fellow billionaires, engineering and manufacturing corporations in the energy and military sector, and government grants. The company has research and development partnerships with the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex, both of which design and test nuclear weapons. In 2010, the company received $35 million from venture capital firms to develop the first of its “Traveling Wave” reactor[s] (TWR). In 2016, the firm received a $40 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE), followed by another $80 million in 2020, and $8.5 million in 2022. In 2021, [DOE’s] Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations … set aside $2.5 billion for nuclear projects and some of this funding will subsidize the TerraPower nuclear project. [Though TerraPower’s financial records are not available], government support [seems to] add up to nearly as much as private investment and almost certainly more than Gates has personally invested.
TerraPower has three different reactor designs: the Natrium reactor; the molten chloride fast reactor; and the TWR. All of them are based on old reactor designs vexed with major problems. As its name suggests, the [molten chloride fast] reactor uses nuclear materials dissolved in molten chemical salts … so the inside of the reactor will be a chemically corrosive and highly radioactive environment. The last one to be built [in Oakridge, Tennessee] … operated intermittently from 1965 to 1969, and [was] interrupted [by] 225 [shutdowns] in those four years, only 58 [of which] were planned. Both the TWR and the Natrium use molten sodium … to transport the intense heat produced by the nuclear fission … such reactors have had numerous accidents: on November 29, 1955, the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho had a partial core meltdown; in October 1966, the Fermi-1 fast reactor in Michigan suffered a partial core meltdown; in Japan, the [abandoned] Monju reactor suffered a series of accidents, produced almost no electricity [and was abandoned] after an expenditure of at least $8.5 billion.
The use of molten sodium makes reactors susceptible to serious fires, because the material burns if exposed to air. Almost all sodium-cooled reactors constructed around the world have experienced sodium leaks, likely because of chemical interactions between sodium and the stainless steel used in various components. Having to deal with all these volatile properties and safety concerns naturally drives up the construction costs of fast reactors, rendering them substantially more expensive than common thermal reactors. Sodium-cooled reactors … operat[e] at dismally low rates compared to standard reactors, the [fuel] load factor … for the Prototype Fast Reactor in the United Kingdom was 27%; France’s Superphenix reactor managed a mere 7.9%. The typical US reactor operates with a load factor of more than 90%.
Systemic Problems and Corruption
The [industrial lobby group] Nuclear Energy Institute [pushed] the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act [of 2019]. Publicly endorsed by Gates, the law makes it easier for “next-generation advanced reactors” of the sort that TerraPower promotes, to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the case of TerraPower, tens of millions of federal tax dollars have been donated to TerraPower without taxpayers ever being given an opportunity to provide or deny their informed consent.
The public — especially near sites [of] new reactor[s], areas where uranium will be mined and processed, and wherever the radioactive waste will go — will be subject to environmental contamination, paying far more than just a financial cost. Further, this obsession with nuclear power … diverts attention from the larger systemic drivers of the climate crisis: unabated capitalism and its need for never-ending economic growth. Pushing the nuclear agenda furthers the falsehood that … climate change can be solved using one more technology from the same toolbox. “Those most responsible for creating the problem [of climate change] will see to it that they profit from the solution,” wrote Arundhati Roy. People like Gates exemplify that observation.