This Bystander’s eye was caught by a report in the South China Morning Post that China’s state-owned nuclear power company, CNNC, has been in discussions for the past couple of years with TerraPower, a company that U.S. social entrepreneur and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates chairs and that is developing what it claims to be a dramatically different type of nuclear reactor. The report says Gates, who visited CNNC in June, will hold further meetings with CNNC officials shortly to discuss potential joint research.
Expansion of China’s own ambitious nuclear program was put on hold after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in May. While it is developing its own experimental 4th generation fast reactors as a domestic follow-up to those it already has using American and European technologies, safety has taken a new priority since Fukushima, especially as so many of China’s nuclear power generation plants, existing and planned, are located near large population centers on the eastern and southern coasts. Last month, state media made a point of the safety record of the Qinshan nuclear plant near Shanghai, China’s first nuclear power plant, on the 20th anniversary of its operations.
TerraPower is developing what is known as a traveling-wave reactor (TWR), which holds the promise of of clean-energy nuclear power. TWRs are smaller and cleaner reactors than the latest generation of conventional large nuclear power reactors being built. Small reactors also have the advantage of lower capital and operating costs. It is believed that they would run for years, perhaps decades, without refueling and will create less nuclear waste as they can use most of their own waste for fuel.
TWRs are designed to burn slowly from one end of a core to the other, this ‘wave’ breeding the fuel as it goes. The wave travels through the core at only one centimetre per year and the reaction requires a small amount of enriched uranium to get started so could run for decades without refueling. “An established fleet of TWRs could operate without enrichment or reprocessing for millennia,” TerraPower claims.
This is still all on the drawing board. It is a theoretical concept, albeit one that dates back to the 1950s. No TWR has been tested, let alone built yet. Yet they would fit into Beijing’s national push to develop green technologies and a low-carbon economy, and simultaneously meet the country’s voracious demands for ever more energy to fuel it economic development. TerraPower would also welcome the chance to prove its technology. China’s energy demands and desire to switch from brown coal to green power leave it with little option but to resume its ambitious program of nuclear-power expansion once its post-Fukushima safety review is completed. TWRs would offer it a new option, if, and it is a big if, the theory can be turned into practice.
This video, produced by TerraPower explains how TWRs work:
This video is a talk Gates gave at TED about zero-emission energy and why he’s backing TWR :