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Can We Use Spent Nuclear Fuel To Create Safer Nuclear Energy Reactors?

December 8th, 2011

Today’s nuclear power plants create heat from by splitting an enriched form of uranium in a sustained chain reaction. The heat is then converted to steam to generate electricity.

A Bellevue, WA-based company, backed by Bill Gates, is attempting to make the leap to the next generation of nuclear power technology. TerraPower has created a traveling wave reactor that will convert the depleted uranium into a heavier, less stable form that can be used in a chain reaction to create electricity.

The company envisions a reactor with a cylinder-shaped core of nuclear fuel where, once started, will burn continuously for more than 40 years without the need for refueling.

A company executive said TerraPower intends to start construction of a plant in 2015 and have its first plant operating in the 2020s. During a talk on nuclear power financing last month, TerraPower project manager Tyler Ellis said the company is seeking to work with individual countries on adopting this technology as part of each nation’s overall energy strategy.

Gates recently disclosed that he brought up TerraPower’s fourth-generation nuclear power technology with government officials at the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology during a visit to China.

TerraPower then announced that the company has visited energy experts in the U.S., France, India, Japan, Korea and Russia, but that “there were no deals to at this time” though they are seeing interest from a number of countries.

“Demand is high for nuclear energy technology that converts low-level waste into fuel without reprocessing and sustainably meets global electricity needs. So our conversations continue with many countries that have active nuclear programs. All these nations have some form of advanced fast reactor research facilities and programs.

The nature of TerraPower’s nuclear power design–and the multi-year pace of nuclear power development in general–means that these discussions are long term in nature.

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