Bill Gates’s Nuclear Miracle? John Gilleland Says TerraPower Needs Discipline, Not Divine Intervention

John Gilleland’s first day on the job was a little different from most people’s. The nuclear physicist showed up at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, WA, and sat down at the conference table with his new boss, CEO Nathan Myhrvold, and another, shall we say prominent, techie.

“The guy on my left looked familiar,” Gilleland says. “It was Bill Gates.”

Gilleland had been on the job for all of three minutes when Myhrvold said jokingly, “John, you’re late on your deliverables.”

That was back in December 2006. Gilleland is now CEO of TerraPower, the spinoff from Intellectual Ventures that is focused on creating a fundamentally new kind of nuclear reactor. It’s the invention firm’s biggest research project to date, spinning out as a separate entity in the fall of 2008 with 30-some staff and untold amounts of funding from Gates and other investors. It is a project that Intellectual Ventures likes to cite as a potentially transformative, homegrown invention.

The basic idea is to create a reactor that needs only a small amount of enriched uranium to get started, and then uses depleted uranium (spent fuel) or natural, unenriched uranium to produce the nuclear-fission reactions necessary to generate power for 60 years or more without refueling. The design is called a traveling wave reactor, and the idea dates back to the early 1990s. If it works, the key benefits would be cheaper power, much more plentiful fuel, more efficient nuclear waste disposal, and less risk of nuclear proliferation.

Gates has been gushing about the project as of late. He mentioned TerraPower prominently in his talk at the TED conference in California last month, calling out the proposed reactor design as a possible “miracle” innovation in the effort to provide clean energy to more of the world’s population without increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. (Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S.)

John Gilleland

Gilleland (see photo, left) has been given the keys to Gates and Myhrvold’s nuclear kingdom for good reason. Previously, he co-founded and led Archimedes Technology Group, which developed improved techniques for cleaning up nuclear weapons waste, among other things. Before that, he was chief scientist and vice president of energy programs at Bechtel, and U.S. managing director of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) program for fusion energy, and he spent 16 years at General Atomics doing fusion research.

The traveling wave reactor is certainly an intriguing idea, and one that could be a true breakthrough. But the question, skeptics say, is whether it can be made to really work—and how long that will take. The idea is that the reactor makes its own fuel and uses it as it goes along: the neutrons emitted by a small amount of enriched uranium convert depleted uranium into plutonium, which splits to produce energy and also emits more neutrons that continue to “breed” new fuel. There is no precedent for TerraPower’s particular design, and the project faces some major challenges—technical, business, and regulatory. So far the physics has only been tested in computer simulations, albeit using the most advanced supercomputers available. (It’s worth mentioning that only someone like Gates could afford to fund this and risk having it not work—which is exactly why Myhrvold sees the need for an “invention capital” industry.)

On the plus side, the environment for nuclear power development is more promising … Next Page »

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