Bill Gates’ nuclear energy firm TerraPower and power company PacifiCorp — owned by Warren Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway — teamed up in September 2020 to launch the Natrium project. It’s about a small modular reactor they say will be commercially viable by 2030. Many countries are weighing smaller, so-called modular, nuclear reactors as a way backing up low emission energy production during the transition from fossil fuel dependence to one based on renewable energy sources.
The reactor, to be built by Bechtel, will be in Wyoming, the US’ top coal-producing state, Gates said. “We think Natrium will be a game-changer for the energy industry,” he said. The US Department of Energy has awarded TerraPower $80 mn to develop its ideas. TerraPower says the plant will cost $1 billion, including engineering, procurement and construction costs, and is expected to take seven years to build. In the US, the cost of building a conventional nuclear power plant is around $25 bn and can take far longer to build.
“Smaller, advanced reactors like those being developed under the funding from Bill Gates and others offer novel applications, approaches, and opportunities for one of the world’s largest sources of non-carbon emitting energy, nuclear energy,” Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at non-profit Clean Air Task Force, told DW.
“They aren’t that small, this is 345 MW,” Antony Froggatt, a research fellow at Chatham House, told DW. “While much smaller than existing reactors (1,000 MW), they are still large and may not be as modular as intended and this undermines the argument that they can be built in factories and then shipped out, which is how they are supposed to be cheaper,” he warned. But “the next generation of advanced reactors will make more efficient use of materials, be easier to site, and offer a great balance to increased reliance on renewables in the form of always available clean energy,” Rampal insisted.
“The Natrium concept also incorporates a thermal salt storage system which allows for the power plant to operate more flexibly and boost power output for portions of each day without having to make significant adjustments in the actual operation of the reactor,” Rampal said.
“Bill Gates has continually downplayed the role of proven, safe renewable energy technology in decarbonising our economy, playing up instead more dangerous and risky technology like geoengineering and nuclear,” Michael E. Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, told DW. Mann, a signatory to a recent declaration calling for decarbonisation through 100% renewable energy, says he finds it troubling that Gates is trying to profit now from what he calls “misdirection.” “It’s misguided and dangerous, because it leads us down the wrong path. The obstacles to meaningful climate action aren’t technological at this point. They’re political,” Mann argued. Others agree. “Nuclear energy is a diversion from urgent climate action,” Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace told DW.
“The recent attention on nuclear energy is fully driven by the declining industry’s desperation for capital and its related lobby depicting it as a solution for climate change,” he added.
“New nuclear power, be it large reactors evolved from the existing fleet, or new small designs, can deliver only a marginal part of greenhouse gas emission reduction,” Haverkamp said, adding that a doubling of current capacity would yield less than 4% reduction compared with business as usual. “It also does so too late and at a far too high cost. To make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions, we would need hundreds of new reactors, spreading the risk of proliferation,” he said. “Today, wind and solar energy are far cheaper, far faster to deploy, and far safer than traditional nuclear plants,” Robert Howarth, professor at Cornell University, told DW.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle