Bill Gates’ nuclear dreams
Nuclear dreams are as old as nuclear power itself. In 1954, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, predicted that electricity produced from nuclear power would, for the as yet undetermined future, be too cheap to even count.
In the 1970s, the nuclear industry promoted its technology as an inexhaustible and clean source of energy. It was his response to the Club of Rome and the oil crises. At the turn of the century, the climate debate gave new life to the nuclear dream.
Now that climate change is becoming more tangible, US billionaire Bill Gates sees the time to put in place an ambitious plan that again includes nuclear power. According to Mr. Gates, the company Terrapower, which he founded, has developed a fully automated and safe reactor project. It could also work in part with uranium from nuclear fuel reprocessing and depleted uranium, which would reduce the waste problem. For now, this innovative concept only exists in the form of a theoretical model in a supercomputer. Over the next several years, Terrapower will work in the United States with Hitachi to build a demonstration underground power plant. After that, the project would be ready to generate electricity.
Given the urgency of the climate crisis, there is of course nothing wrong with having a strong ambition and also injecting funds into innovative technologies. But this should not come at the expense of realism and independent critical appraisal. With Bill Gates, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between business interests and philanthropy. A confrontation with reality is essential. How much of the climate problem can nuclear energy possibly solve, and what would be the consequences?
Today, 414 nuclear reactors in operation around the world produce 10.3% of electricity. In 2002, we reached the historic peak of 438 units. Most of the plants were built in the 1970s and 1980s and are nearing end of life. We cannot postpone this deadline indefinitely. The existing fleet of reactors has also benefited from unprecedented public support through research and development programs, direct public investment or cheap loans through accelerated depreciation, limited liability of operators in the event of serious accident, etc.
It would already be a great achievement to keep nuclear production at roughly the same level worldwide by 2050. As is known, the nuclear industry in Europe faces high costs and significant delays in the process. construction of new power plants – just think of the examples of Finland, France and the UK. Even China, which has built the largest number (37) of nuclear power plants in the past decade and is exploring all nuclear scenarios, plans to produce only a maximum of 15% of its electricity from nuclear power. ‘by 2050.
First conclusion: Despite the excessive attention nuclear energy receives in the public debate these days, it is by no means the panacea for the climate crisis.
Besides: is the game worth the candle? In other words, doesn’t Bill Gates’ reactor cause more problems than it solves? Let’s lift the hood of this technology. The Terrapower concept is essentially a small 350 MWe sodium-cooled breeder. The reactor is to be connected to a molten salt system, which has not yet been developed. This system would then allow thermal energy to be stored, which will be used to produce flexible electricity. A breeder reactor is a reactor which produces more fissile material than it consumes, by converting into plutonium 239, in particular depleted uranium or uranium 238 from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. This theoretically allows it to use uranium much more efficiently than current reactors.
Numerous operational incidents, waste issues and escalating costs have ended these projects in the past, except in Russia. Breeders have historically been very controversial. Kalkar in Germany, and the Phénix and Superphénix projects in France for example, are all closed for good. This complicated technical process is more sensitive to risks, in part due to the high power density and the specific precautions required for highly reactive sodium.
Liquid sodium is often used as a coolant in breeder reactors because it does little to slow down the fast neutrons required for the breeder’s reaction. Unlike water, for example, used as a coolant and as a reaction moderator in PWR nuclear power plants. The economics, regulation and authorization of this type of reactor are still very uncertain.
In addition to reactors, there is also a need for a complex nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling industry. This greatly increases the technical and economic uncertainty of the entire company. The problem of highly radioactive and long-lived nuclear waste can only be partially solved by shifting the load to larger amounts of short-lived waste, which is still not achieved.
Second conclusion: even if the breeder industry was already able to meet all these challenges, we can expect commercial applications at best twenty to thirty years later. By the way, Bill Gates’ project may also offer a prospect for the reuse of plutonium from the dismantling of nuclear weapons.
Belgium is not a pioneer
The Belgian government is supporting the concept of the Myrrha experimental reactor and accelerator to the tune of 700 million euros. In addition to medical applications, it offers a possible outlet in this complex and futuristic nuclear fuel and recycling industry by 2050, which for the moment remains the black box of these fast neutron reactor concepts. The ambition is to shorten the lifespan of heavy and long-lived nuclear waste through what is called “transmutation”. Contrary to what is sometimes reported in the media, Myrrha does not offer a solution for existing civilian nuclear waste. These have already been partially vitrified for storage in the deep geological layers.
Third conclusion: we must subject Myrrha to an independent technological assessment. Despite the importance of government support and the absence of foreign or industrial financial partners, this has not yet happened.
Apart from Myrrha, Belgian industry no longer plays a leading role in the development of nuclear energy technology. All the more reason, therefore, to devote all our efforts above all to the deployment and innovation of proven renewable energy technologies. Nuclear developments, which are also part of the military-industrial agenda of nuclear-weapon states, must be viewed with the necessary independence and critical thinking.
List of signatories
Erik Laes, Engineer and technical philosopher (TU Eindhoven)
Gilbert Eggermont, Nuclear physicist, (VUB and expert on the Superior Council of Sante)
Pieter Leroy, Emeritus Professor in Environmental Policy (Radboud Universiteit)
Ignaas Verpoest, Emeritus Professor of Sciences of materials (KU Leuven)
Gunter Bombaerts, Physicist and expert in ethics and technology (TUEindhoven)
Peter Cauwels, Nuclear physicist, expert in risk analysis (ETH Zürich)
Marc Sapir, Dr Chimie, ex-member and Chairman ai of the FANC-AFCN Board of Directors
Jean Claude Zerbib, Emeritus radiation protection engineer from CEA
Bernard Laponche, Doctor of Nuclear Physics
Joannes Laveyne, Lab Researcher. Energies Electriques, U Gent.
Marc Molitor, journalist