Nathan Myhrvold: The Full Xconomy Voices Interview
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various parts of the world to build it. You know, a nuclear reactor is an interesting thing because on top of all of the technical risk you have in any technology company, you also have a political risk. Are people going to want it in their backyard or not? And frankly, if the whole world was like the United States, we might not have ever done this, because [the U.S. has] gotten so risk-averse that we don’t want to try anything new. Which, if the status quo was acceptable, that would be fine. But the status quo is we are putting more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. We’ve not had a single year where CO2 emissions were flat, much less declining. So at present you have to say look, we know we’re going to get into a problem in the long run. We can’t take a risk free approach. We’re risking a lot with what we do now! So that means let’s look at nuclear again. Let’s look at with fresh eyes and come up with something new.
Xconomy: Does that mean that you’re focusing first on international markets rather than the U.S.?
NM: Yes, that’s right. If the president and every member of the Senate and the House all said, “Yes, go, go, go,” a project will still be tied up in courts interminably for God knows how long. A lot of the reason that nuclear costs more is so many people have been burned in building nuclear plants. They built a plant and then they don’t let them turn it on, or various other delays stop them for a long period of time. It’s hard to get people to lend you the money to do it.
Xconomy: What are the most nuclear-friendly markets or countries? Where might you build your first plant?
NM: Our focus is on places that have the most energy demand. So in China they are building more than a gigawatt of new capacity every week. Almost all of that’s coal. There are 14 nuclear power plants under construction right now. More than anybody else in the world. So that’s a place where they really need to make a tradeoff and say, OK do we keep going on this unsustainable coal thing or do we build some increased nuclear?
In the United States, our energy demand is not growing by very much. It’s maybe 3 percent a year… Yeah maybe some of that’s coal. But you know we’ll just ride that one out for a while. We don’t really need to build a lot of plants of any sort.
So China, India, other developing economies around the world—those are the places that are going to have the biggest need and therefore that’s where you’d like to build the plants.
Xconomy: Intellectual Ventures, which is the firm you run and where TerraPower is one of offshoots—you guys don’t make small bets, do you?
NM: No, it turns out there’s plenty of people in the world who make small bets. So if we were making small bets alongside them, we’d be the ten thousandth set of guys doing small bets. Instead we try to pick problems that are big and problems that either other people haven’t had a good idea on or other people are scared away, or both. So that’s kind of what we like to do.
Xconomy: To ask a somewhat cheeky question: you come from a technology background. What makes you think that you know how to make nuclear power work, against all odds? You mentioned the political and regulatory backdrop. This is a really hard problem to solve. What resources, what answers, what kind of mindset can you bring to it that might help break the impasse?
NM: Well, first of all I actually was a physicist before I went into software. So arguably I’m more qualified to work on a physics-intensive project than I ever was to work on software. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is you can’t solve any giant problem alone. I don’t care who you are. We have a great team of people at TerraPower. We have great relationships with lots of other folks in the nuclear business. That includes national laboratories in the United States, universities, places overseas.
So we’ve had a lot of expertise and we have convinced ourselves that we can do it. Now, after the fact you’ll be able to judge whether I was right or wrong. But so far we have created a company and I think most people in the nuclear business would say it’s absolutely one of the most exciting things going.
Xconomy: This is a long-haul kind of venture. It’s not something that will pay off on a time scale of a software startup. You guys know that. How do you design a company around that kind of time scale?
NM: Well, you need to set expectations appropriately. Both with the people in the company—if they think that it’s going to be like WhatsApp and you’ll get bought for billions of dollars next week, it isn’t—and you need to set expectations with investors that this is something that is a long-term investment that we think has enormous positive financial results and enormous positive results for the world. So it’s worth supporting but it isn’t for everybody.
So in our other ventures we’re not quite as extreme as nuclear, but it does, I think, show that if you put your heads to it right, and you can make the right partnerships….I’m vice chairman of TerraPower. Our chairman is Bill Gates, who of course I’ve worked with for a very long time. Well, Bill’s idea of what an investment horizon is, is perhaps different than others’. He doesn’t need to worry about what’s going to put food on the table for his family next week, or maybe for the next century. Instead, the idea of trying to do something really hard that would positively impact the whole world and be a good investment—that appeals to him.
Xconomy: We’re speaking a week and a half, maybe two weeks after President Trump announced that he wanted the U.S. to pull out of the Paris accord. And I’m curious about whether you and Bill Gates and the people you talk with feel that there might be ways for us to still meet, or for the world to still meet, the goals outlined in the Paris accord, even if the federal government isn’t pulling its weight?
NM: I’m a little jaded about the Paris accord. Fundamentally the Paris accord was a group of countries that got together with a bunch of lofty goals and essentially no plan to actually do anything. In fact, for several years, the background of these climate accords is there was a set of countries that said, “We really want to cut CO2, but … Next Page »