Joe Romm, that predictable purveyor of climate crisis talk made illogical by his strong dislike or disregard for atomic tools, has written a piece for Salon.com titled The heat is on Bill Gates (registration required). The basis premise of the article is that Bill Gates, who is operating a foundation that spends about $3 billion per year addressing the needs of the world’s 4 billion poorest people, should be taking more of an interest in helping to solve climate change.
Notwithstanding the fact that all foundations have to limit the scope of their efforts, Romm apparently is unaware of the fact that Bill Gates is interested in addressing the power supply needs for poor areas at the same time as he addresses solutions for climate change. You might not have read the stories or interpreted them the same way as I have, but there is a good possibility that Gates is going to be a major contributor in the fight against CO2 emissions.
He has gone about his involvement in the challenge in his typical fashion – by making a careful survey of the technical landscape and picking technologies that have proven themselves to be good solutions that are not yet fully implemented by others. That is the way that he built Microsoft from a couple of guys in a dorm room into a behemoth that dominates several software markets.
My educated guess is that Gates has decided that the best available solution for reliable, clean energy is atomic power. He is apparently focusing on atomic solutions through a company called Intellectual Ventures run by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive. IV is interested in traveling wave reactors, an old Edward Teller idea. Traveling Wave reactors are breeder/high conversion ratio reactors designed to convert fertile material into fissile material inside a sealed core, making refueling a once in machine lifetime event. Here is an excerpt from a New Yorker article about Myrvold and Intellectual Ventures that mentions the concept:
One of the sessions that Gates participated in was on the possibility of resuscitating nuclear energy. “Teller had this idea way back when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor,” Myhrvold explained. “No moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple. Every serious nuclear accident involves operator error, so you want to eliminate the operator altogether. Lowell and Rod and others wrote a paper on it once. So we did several sessions on it.”
The plant, as they conceived it, would produce something like one to three gigawatts of power, which is enough to serve a medium-sized city. The reactor core would be no more than several metres wide and about ten metres long. It would be enclosed in a sealed, armored box. The box would work for thirty years, without need for refuelling. Wood’s idea was that the box would run on thorium, which is a very common, mildly radioactive metal. (The world has roughly a hundred-thousand-year supply, he figures.) Myhrvold’s idea was that it should run on spent fuel from existing power plants. “Waste has negative cost,” Myhrvold said. “This is how we make this idea politically and regulatorily attractive. Lowell and I had a monthlong no-holds-barred nuclear-physics battle. He didn’t believe waste would work. It turns out it does.” Myhrvold grinned. “He concedes it now.”
It was a long-shot idea, easily fifteen years from reality, if it became a reality at all. It was just a tantalizing idea at this point, but who wasn’t interested in seeing where it would lead? “We have thirty guys working on it,” he went on. “I have more people doing cutting-edge nuclear work than General Electric. We’re looking for someone to partner with us, because this is a huge undertaking. We took out an ad in Nuclear News, which is the big trade journal. It looks like something from The Onion: ‘Intellectual Ventures interested in nuclear-core designer and fission specialist.’ And, no, the F.B.I. hasn’t come knocking.” He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Lowell is known to them.”
One of the people I talked to at last week’s high temperature gas reactor event – Beyond Electricity – introduced himself as a lobbyist for Intellectual Ventures. Unfortunately, I goofed and did not collect a business card from him. I expect I will see him again around town and at nuclear focused gatherings.