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The Two Billionaires Reimagining Nuclear Energy

·3 min read

Two of the richest men in the world are teaming up to save the world from global warming. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the fourth and tenth richest people in the world, respectively -- with estimated net worths of $140 billion and $103 billion -- are working together on a cutting-edge clean energy project that they believe has the potential to make a serious dent in global greenhouse gas emissions if scaled up successfully. It’s not solar, it’s not wind, it’s not green hydrogen -- it’s nuclear. 

Bill Gates’ nuclear venture is called TerraPower, and it has (rather symbolically) picked a remote coal town in western Wyoming as the site of its first innovative nuclear power plant. The plant will be cooled with liquid sodium instead of water, making it safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective than a traditional nuclear plant. They also have the potential to recycle their own spent fuel within these ‘molten salt’ cooling systems, thereby mitigating the total output of radioactive waste which represents one of nuclear critics’ strongest sticking points. 

While TerraPower promises that their reactors will eventually be some of the cheapest out there, however, the first plant to be built in Kemmerer, Wyoming is projected to be extremely over budget, at a price tag of approximately $4 billion instead of the targeted $1 billion. "One important thing to realize is the first plant always costs more," TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque was quoted by CNBC after a video call with media representatives last week.

TerraPower is 15 years old, and is now finally ramping up to make its dream a reality. “The advanced nuclear power plant in Kemmerer would be able to produce a baseload of 345 megawatts, but would also have the capacity to supply 500 megawatts of power, which is enough energy to power around 400,000 homes,” Insider recently reported. The plant is expected to generate power for 60 years. Furthermore, it will employ 2,000 workers in its construction, which is expected to replace lost coal jobs in Kemmerer. 

This initial plant will be the first "demonstration project" for the Natrium reactor, which Gates’ TerraPower is building in conjunction with Buffet’s PacifiCorp. Natrium is expected to go online in 2028. The United States government seems to agree that the project holds great promise for sustainable, zero-carbon energy and is funneling $1.9 billion into the project -- $1.5 of which is provisioned in the brand new Infrastructure Bill, while TerraPower is contributing another $2 billion.

The provisioning of this kind of money to nuclear power is currently the subject of hot debate, not just in the United States but on the global stage. Whether nuclear energy should count as a green energy source is hotly contested, with critics pointing to hazardous waste with a radioactive half-life of thousands of years, and advocates pointing out how paltry the amount of nuclear waste is in comparison to the existential threat of climate change. 

The timeline for curbing emissions in time to meet with the goals set by the Paris climate accord, and thus avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, is terrifyingly short and growing shorter. This year the United Nations announced a “code red for humanity,” emphasizing the enormity of the challenge ahead of the global community and the urgency of the imperative for sweeping change in our consumption and production patterns. 

Despite the severity of the growing threat of climate change, the global agreement which culminated from this month’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow does not go far enough to put the world on track to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees celsius over pre-industrial averages -- the necessary benchmark for avoiding the extreme effects of climate change. Nuclear proponents, such as Gates and Buffet, argue that a quick ramp-up of nuclear -- a proven and emissions-free energy technology -- would go a long way toward closing this gap. In fact, it may be our only chance.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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