Bill Gates casts an enthusiastic vote for bill to accelerate nuclear energy research

Bill Gates casts an enthusiastic vote for bill to accelerate nuclear energy research

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A technician places a full-size test fuel pin bundle in TerraPower’s pin duct interaction test apparatus. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working on traveling-wave reactor technology. (TerraPower Photo)

If dollars were votes, newly reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting nuclear energy innovation and advanced reactors would be a winner, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ strong endorsement today.

The world’s second-richest person is the founder of Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, a startup that’s working on next-generation nuclear fission reactors. Back in December, Gates listed nuclear energy research as one of his top policy priorities, and he reportedly followed up by promising lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money and line up another $1 billion in private capital if federal funds were approved for a TerraPower pilot project in the United States.

TerraPower had planned a pilot in China, but trade tensions upset the plan.

During the waning days of the previous congressional session, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a measure called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which would promote next-generation nuclear power by boosting research and setting up long-term agreements for federal power purchases from newly licensed reactors.

The bill would require the Department of Energy to demonstrate two advanced reactor concepts by 2025, followed by another two to five concepts by 2035.

That would brighten the outlook for TerraPower as well as other next-gen nuclear power companies such as Oregon-based NuScale Power, which is planning to build a small-scale modular reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2026.

There wasn’t enough time to move the bill out of committee last year — but on Wednesday, the legislation was reintroduced by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

That came as music to Gates’ ears, and today he let the world know on Twitter:

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of leaders in the U.S. Senate introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which establishes an ambitious plan to accelerate the development of advanced nuclear reactor technologies. I can’t overstate how important this is. https://t.co/tRovGTm2sg

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) March 28, 2019

To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to reach near-zero emissions on all the things that drive it—agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, transportation, and buildings—by investing in innovation across all sectors while deploying low cost renewables.

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) March 28, 2019

Nuclear energy is one of these critical technologies. It’s ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) March 28, 2019

I’m thrilled that senators from both sides of the aisle have come together to support advanced nuclear. This is exactly the kind of leadership our country needs to both solve the climate challenge and reassert our leadership in this important industry.

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) March 28, 2019

Some experts — such as Gregory Jaczko, former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — take issue with Gates’ claim that nuclear is the answer to the climate crisis and argue that funding should go instead toward developing renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, and boosting battery technologies.

Even if Gates’ view is true, some analysts question whether the advanced nuclear projects that are currently in the works could hit the 2025 demonstration timetable specified in the legislation. The promise of further federal support would certainly motivate companies like TerraPower and NuScale to try, however.

Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the California-based Breakthrough Institute, said the measure would provide a “shot in the arm for entrepreneurs working on advanced nuclear technologies.”

“With luck, it will be become law,” she wrote in an analysis of the bill. “But while the bill is a big step toward commercializing advanced reactors, it’s not enough. More legislation will likely be needed to stimulate the market demand necessary to deploy significant nuclear to replace fossil fuels.”

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