Bill Gates has invested some of his considerable fortune in a nuclear reactor developer that is promising to deliver cheaper power while operating more safely and dramatically reducing radioactive waste.
The Microsoft founder is looking for an “energy miracle” – or several – that can power a 21st-century economy without emitting greenhouse gases that contribute to catastrophic climate change.
And nuclear energy is high on his list of solutions. Especially if the next generation of reactor technology can reduce electricity costs while addressing the risks from radioactivity that leave many people deeply concerned about any growing dependence on nuclear.
Mr. Gates is chairman of TerraPower LLC, a Seattle-area company that is developing a travelling-wave, liquid-sodium reactor (TWR) that, the company says, provides an answer to those problems by essentially burning its own waste.
TerraPower is just one of a number of nuclear reactor developers that are aiming high and making bold claims – a long-standing tendency that has left the industry with a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering. If all goes perfectly, Mr. Gates suggests, TerraPower could be ready to build commercial reactors within 15 years – though rarely do things go perfectly in reactor development.
In the meantime, nuclear companies from around the world – including SNC-Lavalin Group’s Candu Energy – are forging ahead with innovations that aim to reduce costs by increasing efficiencies and using modular designs, improve safety by greatly reducing the potential for human error, and enhance the ability to recycle waste as fuel.
Companies like Babcock & Wilcox Co. and General Electric Co.’s joint venture with Hitachi are aiming for smaller modular designs that could broaden the market for reactors while reducing the enormous capital requirements to build one.
Candu Energy – the recently-privatized, commercial division of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. – is placing its bet on advances in fuel-cycle management and its “flex fuel” capability. With efforts under way in China and Britain, the Mississauga-based company is touting its heavy-water design as ideal for recycling spent fuel from competing light-water reactors, which have become favored in the global marketplace, and for weapons-grade plutonium left over from weapons stockpiles.
In an age of climate change, zero-emission nuclear power should be a clear winner, but it meets skepticism because of its own Pandora’s box of problems, highlighted by the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant after an earthquake and tidal wave knocked out the facility’s emergency power.
Ontario is now considering whether to build two new reactors at its Darlington site to replace the planned retirements in its aging fleet of Candus. This summer, the provincial government is consulting with various industry and citizen groups on its long-term energy plan, including the need for new reactors.
Vying for the sale are Candu Energy, which is offering the EC6, essentially an updated but yet-to-be-built version of its Candu 6 workhorse, and Westinghouse Electric Co., U.S.-based division of Japan’s Toshiba Corp., which is selling its new AP1000, several of which have been sold in the United States and China.
The would-be vendors insist their new reactors represent a major advance on the Candus now in service in Ontario, and certainly over the ill-fated light-water plant at Fukushima.
Among the hurdles for the industry is the high capital cost involved in building nuclear plants, while coal- and gas-fired plants are cheaper to build but more expensive to operate. Westinghouse says the standardized, modular-design for its AP1000 should reduce upfront capital costs while utilities will benefit from economies of scale from the larger reactors. (The AP1000 has a 1,100 megawatt capacity, while Candu’s EC6 being offered is a 700-megawatt reactor.)
Both new reactors also feature “passive safety systems” which don’t require emergency power or human intervention for at least 72 hours to keep the reactors cooled in the event of an emergency.
However, critics such as Mark Winfield, an environmental studies professor at York University in Toronto, said nuclear power remains a high-risk option, both economically and because it deals in highly radioactive materials.
Dr. Winfield said the electricity market is changing rapidly with advances in energy efficiency, renewable power and storage technology. Ontario would be foolish to lock itself into large, centralized nuclear plants when the market appears to be moving toward a renewable, distributed power system.
While Candu is eagerly pursuing the Ontario bid, the company is working in China and Britain on projects that would see Candu employed as a nuclear-industry garburator.
In Britain, Candu has qualified as a competitor in the country’s plan to reduce its stock of weapons-based plutonium waste by using it as fuel, and cleared a key hurdle last week when the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority included it as a credible option to be pursued in a report to the Department of Energy. Unlike light-water reactors, the heavy-water Candu is well suited to run on recycled uranium, or a mixture of uranium and plutonium known as MOX, said Ala Alizadeh, the company’s senior vice-president for business development.
Britain is expected to select a technology in the next year and while there are several competitors, Candu Energy argues it has proven technology in the EC6, though there have been substantial modifications from its older Candu 6.
While the British are motivated by a desire to reduce waste, the Chinese are looking to the Candu to broaden its fueling options beyond the highly enriched natural uranium required by the light-water reactors in its fleet.
The Canadian firm is working with its partners in China, including the utility responsible for the Qinshan nuclear plant, to begin feeding the two Qinshan Candus with recycled fuel. Mr. Alizadeh said one Candu can run on the waste fuel from three light-water reactors, adding that the Chinese view the Canadian technology as an important part of a growing nuclear fleet. That could mean new reactor orders in the future.
But Candu Energy – which is the privatized, commercial arm of Atomic Energy of Canada – has failed to deliver on promised innovation in the past. A few years ago, it was forced to shelve its ACR1000 – which was being designed to compete with Westinghouse’s AP1000 – and pulled the plug on its Maple reactor, meant to replace an aging Chalk River research unit that supplies medical isotopes.
With a dearth of new reactor orders on its books, its ability to quickly turn innovation into commercial success will determine its future viability.
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly described the the Fukushima nuclear power plant as a heavy water reactor. In fact, it is a light water reactor.