Steven Mufson is one of the best energy journalists around but his recent story on Bill Gates’ ambitions concerning nuclear power was incomplete at best. At worst, it perpetuates a number of incorrect myths about nuclear power that need to be refuted.
In the past year, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder has frequently appeared in Washington, D.C. to promote nuclear technology as a way to combat climate change. In meetings on Capitol Hill, Gates says he’s willing to spend $1 billion of his own money and raise another $1 billion in private capital if Congress can better support companies that are building next-generation reactors.
Gates’ own advanced nuclear company, TerraPower, employs over 100 people in the Seattle suburbs and promises to build a reactor that could be much smaller, cheaper and safer to operate than the current pressurized water reactors that have been around since the 1970s. If successful, Gates’ plan would create an emission-free electricity source that uses nuclear waste as its main fuel, essentially killing two birds—global warming and nuclear waste—with one stone.
But Mufson’s focus—the supposed problems with TerraPower’s chosen technology—does the broader movement toward next-generation nuclear reactors a disservice. There are at least a half-dozen different reactor technologies being proposed by roughly 40 companies and universities in North America, making the potential for success larger than the risk of betting on a single technology. A breakthrough for any of these technologies—molten salt, liquid metal or high-pressure gas, for example—could dramatically improve the chances of protecting the U.S. economy from future global warming.
As for his efforts on Capitol Hill, Gates is simply trying to escape the nasty Catch-22 that has developed in the past 20 years for the U.S. nuclear industry. Since the U.S. closed down its two best nuclear test reactors in the late 1990s for budgetary reasons, any U.S. nuclear company wanting to do advanced nuclear research has been forced to go to Europe or Russia and wait in line for years for access to a test reactor.
The lack of available testing infrastructure in the U.S. suppresses entrepreneurial behavior by nuclear start-ups, which in turn undermines the demand signal to Congress to build new nuclear infrastructure, hence, the nasty Catch-22.
Further, Mufson makes a false statement when he argues that all nuclear designs, “new and old,” suffer from “the colossal expense of nuclear construction.” The whole point of advanced nuclear reactor (ANR) and small modular reactor (SMR) technologies is that the reactors are much smaller, which makes them much faster and cheaper to build. Mufson’s example of the outrageously over-budget Vogtle plant in Georgia ignores the fact that Vogtle’s reactor technology is old.
Moreover, his assumption that trends and patterns we observed in the recent past will continue in the future is a form of recency bias. In recent years, the energy field has been turned on its head, as it has finally realized that bigger isn’t better for nuclear plants. Unlike other energy industries, nuclear reactors don’t really work on economies of scale. The bigger a plant gets, the more moving parts it has and therefore the safety features and policies it has to install and implement become more expensive.
Luckily, Congress is listening. Nuclear power seems to be one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Washington right now, and Congress’s 2019 budget approved $221 million to help companies develop next-generation nuclear tech. In the coming years, there is a good chance that funding for a new versatile irradiation test reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory will come through. Even President Trump is on board, signing a law on Jan. 14 that directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to establish a better and faster licensing structure for advanced nuclear reactor prototypes.
Now that so much has changed in the industry, it’s time to do away with these aging myths about nuclear power. Don’t just take Bill Gates’ word for it; look around.