More power to us

As soon as anybody mentions the words nuclear power, most of us tuck into a fetal position, pop our thumbs in our mouths, and begin rocking unconsciously, gently glazing off to images of Chernobyl/Three Mile Island. We're horribly stuck in the past. The new reality is that many brilliant and wealthy people are seeking to build nuclear power plants that are to those notorious fuckups what a '52 Buick is to a modern Corvette. And when one of the world's most famous and wealthy men gets actively involved in all this, it's time to at least give it a look.

The wealthy gent I refer to is none other than William Gates, and the company he's backing is called Terra Power. It's a company that's developing a nuke that could be quite radical and quite important over the next 20-30 years. That is, if the damned thing works.

Gates has been involved with Terra for the last three years, and without getting too technical, what TP is pushing is a new kind of nuclear energy generator called a traveling wave reactor. What makes the TWR attractive—very attractive indeed—is its appetite for nuclear waste.

Current nukes take uranium 235, burn it for fuel, and leave plutonium and uranium 238 as waste. The TWR will have to use a little U-235 to get going, yes, but once it's fired up, it would use U-238 as fuel. That's a big deal. In fact, a gigantic breakthrough. Not only would we be making oodles and oodles of energy from nuclear waste, but we would also be getting rid of our—nuclear waste! This would be a good thing. A very good thing.

A reactor that could burn current stockpiles of toxic junk would be very busy indeed. We currently have at least 700,000 metric tons of nuke waste laying around various reactor sites, now that Yucca Mountain has been shelved. It's estimated that 8 tons of this stuff could power 2.5 million homes for a year. So basically, if the TWR works, well, we would instantly have a brand new and very powerful energy source. A lot of it. A baseline energy source that would run your toaster when the sun didn't shine, and the wind didn't blow. An energy source that would emit zero carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That, too, would be a real good thing.

I'm certainly not going to be as pie-in-the-sky as those guys in the '50s with their happy face movies about “the friendly atom.” We've come a long way. Terra Power and its new “green” reactor has to be eyeballed to the max by both the learned and the skeptical. But it's a timely and important proposition. We are becoming more and more desperate to create big energy without adding greenhouse gases to the mix. Because, seriously, what's gonna be worse—the damage from another Three Mile Isle nucleo-blooper or the damage from 50 years of intensifying global warming?