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Bill Gates-Backed Nuclear Startup TerraPower Piles on Investors

TerraPower, the nuclear power startup backed by Microsoft (s msft) Chairman Bill Gates, has brought on another couple of high-profile investors for its second round of funding. According to the company this afternoon, TerraPower has raised another $35 million from Khosla Ventures — Vinod Khosla’s venture fund — and Charles River Ventures, in addition to being supported by Gates and the investors at Intellectual Ventures, which was founded by former Microsoft chief technology officer, Nathan Myhrvold.

TerraPower has developed a “traveling wave nuclear reactor design” — technology that’s been researched since the 1990?s. But TerraPower has been one of the first companies to develop a practical design that it plans to commercialize. The company says its reactor can provide an almost infinite amount of power by utilizing a small amount of enriched uranium at the beginning of the process (see slides at the bottom of the post); the nuclear reactor can then run on its own waste product, making and consuming 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 its life (theoretically a couple hundred years). Using waste uranium also 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.

How close to reality is this technology? 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.” TerraPower has also reportedly been in talks with Japanese giant Toshiba to jointly develop a small nuclear reactor.

Not surprisingly, with its Microsoft connection, TerraPower has leaned heavily on supercomputing to design and model the reactor and the life cycle 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.”

Gates has been touting the innovation behind TerraPower over the past couple of months, and has recently been calling for the federal government to invest some $16 billion per year into sparking energy innovations like that of the company’s. Gates is also a limited partner in Khosla Venture’s fund (I spotted him briefly at the Khosla Ventures annual partners meeting last month in Sausalito, Calif.)

For more research on cleantech financing check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Cleantech Financing Trends 2010 and Beyond

Images courtesy of TerraPower.

17 Responses to “Bill Gates-Backed Nuclear Startup TerraPower Piles on Investors”

  1. Bill,

    Good thinking for considering and supporting nuclear. I know people have been afraid of nuclear for over 30 years since Chernobyl. But Chernobyl was a very different reactor design from our reactors today, i.e. it had positive feedback once it deviated from the target operating conditions. Three Mile Island resulted from a misfuctioning valve and bad interpretation by the operator. But it was settled without any injuries and only a small amount of radioactivity leakage. And we learned from this accident, so that reactors are even safer now. So I think the safety issue is well in control now. Another way to look at it, we started commercial air travel about the same time we started building nuclear reactors. So we should compare the number and severity of nuclear accidents with the number and severity of commerical air craft accidents. We are still making more planes and flying more routes inspite of the many accidents.

    Sodium loops do need to be handled safely against contact with air and water. But the Japanese are building a Gigawatt size sodium cooled nuclear reactor. The leakage risk can be reduced with the use of double-piping, as is done with poisonous gases at Intel, with sensors between the pipes. The Japanese have learned from their sodium accident and are moving on. I am sure many new technologies have to go through the learning phase. Even recently we hear of natural gas line leaks and consequent fires. But we have not stopped using natural gas.

    As I understand it, the biggest hinderance to nuclear power now is the high initial capital cost. But I heard there is a design called “Right Size Reactor” which would generate about 100 MW of electricity for an estimated cost of about 300 million dollars (instead of 3 to 5 billion for present day gigawatt reactors). These, like the TerraPower reactors would operate for a long time (30 year time frames) without the need to refuel. So once the utility puts the first one in at a site and generates income, it can put in more as the profits come in.

    Developing countries could operate these right size reactors as closed systems leaseed from the U.S. so when the time comes to refuel, there would be accounting of fissile materials, thus addressing the proliferation issue. It would also burn up the actinides which have the long half-lives.

    The smaller size also is more appropriate for developing countries which do not have the per capital usage that we have. Even the developed countries in Europe only use 1/2 the per capital energy that we in the U.S. do (so I am a strong proponent of reduced energy usage and increase efficiency as well).

    As I understand, we have about 40 years of petroleum and 100 to 200 years of coal at present day usage rates. Natural gas may be somewhere in between. But nuclear using breeder reactors could carry us to several hundred and perhaps even a couple of thousands of years. Because the breeder takes the non-fissile U-238 to make fissile species, it really should be considered to be a renewable fuel.

    I also agree with Bill that CO2 capture or sequestration would be difficult and costly to implement. We are better off to put the money into improving the power cycle such as retrofitting power plants with a closed loop Brayton cycle for nuclear or a combined gas cycle for coal, both of which could increase power cycle efficiency from the present 33% to 50% heat to electricity.

    About wind – we think of wind as being more natural, but we need to consider that per megawatt of power capacity, wind mills take about 10 times the amount of steel and 10 times as much concrete as a 70’s style nuclear power plant. And with the new nuclear designs, those ratios will increase.

    So my top choices for where to put the money for energy security and environmental management are:
    1. Conservation – use less (live in a smaller house that
    shares a wall with a neighbor, drive a small car, use a
    bike, walk)
    2. Efficiency improvements in power production
    3. Right Size Nuclear Breeder reactors

    Thanks again for all your thoughts, efforts, and financial support.

    Wu-Ching Cheng
    Environmental Engineer

  2. Actually Jodie,

    In the early 1970s when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. That’s the conviction that inspired Greenpeace’s first voyage up the spectacular rocky northwest coast to protest the testing of U.S. hydrogen bombs in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Thirty years on, my views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet…

  3. Phil Lusk

    The basic problem with sodium cooled reactors like the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor is the safety problem inherent in the use of sodium as a coolant. Sodium reacts chemically with both air and water, and will burn strongly with either. Hence sodium leaks become a significant issue with sodium cooled reactors. The history of sodium cooled reactors give scant comfort to those who argue that they are safe. The amount of sodium involved, and its radioactivity, potentially makes for a catastrophic accident. After all, we almost lost Detroit…


  4. It’s disappointing to see Bill Gates finally meaningfully speaking up on the issue of climate change, only to throw his money and clout behind nuclear power. When we talk about the IT innovations that companies like Microsoft will need to rapidly deploy in order to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions, we are not referring to nuclear. Greenpeace has always fought – and will continue to fight – vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. We need an energy system that can fight climate change, based on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Nuclear is a distraction from the urgent innovation and policies that Gates, the IT sector, and government need to prioritize if we hope to solve the climate crisis. Gates has called for $16 billion per year for climate innovation R&D, but it will be a grave misstep if that money gets hoovered up by costly nuclear power instead of applied to technologies that power energy efficiency gains and the deployment of renewable energy.

  5. The concept of less waste sounds cool, and also that they used simulation computing to get there is awesome, too bad it’s a couple decades away if at all.

  6. hotrao

    I think that, despite everyone fearing the “nuclear option”, this could be part of our future: A source of power non impacting at environmental level (at least in a reasonable amount of time).

    On the other side, I don’t understand if this will create a problem of waste or at least of maintenance, but if benefits are obvious in the quite immediate timeframe, on the problems side we are moving the problem to future generations and this is nor fair nor smart.

    Another possible problem could arise from those having access to this technology and, more in general to nuclear activities. This could be overrun by limiting the market by regulating it very strictly.

    Overall I’m positive on this solution, while I think a set of measures should be put in place to ensure a sustainable and safe approach is guaranted.

  7. Hmmm – Bill Gates has a fine reputation for real charity work.
    But this pro nuclear fantasy of his could do some damage to that image.
    As the Internet communities become more savvy about Climate Change and the supposed “nuclear solution”, the tide of enlightened, informed, progressive thinkers might well turn against Bill Gates and his products.

  8. Is this really the best Gates can do as far as energy bets goes? This one is still in simulation mode with a best ‘estimate’ they might be able to demonstrate a prototype plant by 2020? Surely there are some more ‘realistic’ energy start-ups Gates could also be ‘pushing’ as well.

    • This is Gates we are talking about! simulation mode and estimate? do you think Gates is a child excited on seeing pacman and thinking its true? cmon man! he is intelligent far more than you! simulations are necessary to eliminate errors and failures in such sensitive plans