The Next Wave


Traveling Wave ReactorBill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold, two leaders in the local tech community, are
putting millions of their money behind a technology that could solve our energy
problems while offering a solution to the nagging issue of how to handle
nuclear waste.

The technology is being developed by TerraPower, a spinoff
of Myhrvold’s Bellevue-based invention company Intellectual Ventures. The
company is teaming up with Toshiba for initial development work.

TerraPower has invented a new kind of nuclear power plant
called a traveling-wave reactor. Currently, nuclear reactors use enriched
uranium (U-235), an isotope that accounts for roughly 1 percent of naturally
occurring uranium, to generate electricity. After the U-235 is separated out
for fuel in the enrichment process, the leftover material is U-238, or depleted
uranium, which typically gets sealed in waste containers near enrichment

Unlike the conventional nuclear reactor, a traveling-wave
reactor uses only a small amount of enriched uranium, and most of its core is
comprised of depleted uranium.

“If you look globally at how much uranium is readily
accessible,” TerraPower CEO John Gilleland says, “you can supply everybody on
the planet with a U.S. standard of living for many hundreds of years, and some
estimate thousands.”

The development comes at a time of renewed interest in
nuclear energy in the U.S. In February the Obama administration approved an $8
billion loan guarantee for new nuclear reactors. Since nuclear energy does not
produce carbon dioxide, it is considered a way of cutting greenhouse gases.
However, there are still concerns about weapons proliferation, possible
accidents and the perennial issue of safely disposing of waste, including the
leftovers from World War II on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which Gilleland
calls “nuclear junk,” useless even as fuel for a traveling-wave reactor.

 TerraPower is
currently researching materials for core construction. Gilleland says he hopes
to see the first traveling-wave reactor built by 2020, and to see commercial
reactors built later that decade.

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