TerraPower In Talks With Toshiba for Mini Nuclear

Having the world’s most famous billionaire tech tycoon in your corner can really open a lot of doors. Nuclear startup TerraPower, which counts Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates as a principal owner and advocate, is reportedly in talks with Japanese giant Toshiba to jointly develop a small nuclear reactor.

First reported by Japan’s Nikkei business daily, the partnership could focus on nuclear traveling wave reactor technology, which is a relatively new type of small nuclear reactor design that can use the waste byproduct of the enrichment process, or waste uranium, for fuel. Traveling wave nuclear reactors have been under development since the 1990’s, but TerraPower is one of the first companies to develop a practical design for the technology. (See 6 Nuclear Power Startups To Watch and Nuclear Power By the Numbers.

TerraPower is a nuclear spinoff project from incubator Intellectual Ventures, which is run by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold. The startup uses a small amount of enriched uranium at the beginning of the process (see slides below), but then the nuclear reactor runs on waste product and can make and consume its own fuel.

The benefits of the design are that the reactor doesn’t have to be refueled or have its waste removed until the end of life of the reactor, which is theoretically a couple hundred years. Using waste uranium reduces the amount of waste in the overall nuclear life cycle, and extends the available supply of the world’s uranium for nuclear by many times. According to this presentation by TerraPower CEO John Gilleland, “operation of a traveling wave reactor can be demonstrated in less than ten years, and commercial deployment can begin in less than fifteen years.”

Not surprisingly, with its Microsoft connection, TerraPower has leaned heavily on supercomputing to design and model the reactor and the lifecycle of the fuel. The TerraPower team is using “1,024 Xeon core processors assembled on 128 blade servers,” which is a cluster that is “over 1000 times the computational ability as a desktop computer.”

Bill Gate’s talk, which mentioned TerraPower, at the TED conference:

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