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

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than it has been in years. President Obama recently called for a new generation of nuclear plants to be built in the U.S.; they would be the first new ones in 30 years. Companies including General Atomics, General Electric, NuScale Power, and Hyperion Power Generation have burgeoning nuclear efforts in the U.S., as does General Fusion in British Columbia, and Areva, Hitachi, and Toshiba further abroad. (Reports surfaced yesterday that TerraPower and Toshiba are in talks to collaborate on a nuclear reactor, possibly involving elements of Toshiba’s “4S” fast neutron reactor—see more on this type of design below.)

TerraPower will need international partners, and funding on the order of billions of dollars, to succeed. “I am hoping that we could get a reactor built inside of 10 years,” Myhrvold told me in August 2008. “Of course, to have it built in 10 years, we have to start designing it in three years, because it takes a couple years to design it, and then you have to build it. It’s a long process.”

I spoke with Gilleland recently about this process, the milestones his group has achieved, and its realistic prospects for revolutionizing the field of nuclear power. Here are some edited highlights from our conversation:

Xconomy: How did you originally get involved with this nuclear project?

John Gilleland: Eben Frankenberg [executive vice president at Intellectual Ventures] contacted me. They were looking to see whether a startup around nuclear would be viable. I was coming off a job with Archimedes, and had sold that company. I came up [to Bellevue] with the idea of telling them they were off-base and steering them away from the endeavor. But I never left.

X: What was the original thinking at Intellectual Ventures around nuclear power?

JG: They wanted to raise the energy standard around the world. It’s great if you can supply per capita energy levels to allow people to rise above poverty. It helps with disease. They looked around at renewables and all sorts of sources, and determined the best bet would be through nuclear power, along with the other systems. It was a necessary element.

A conclusion I came to independently was that there were areas for tremendous improvement [in nuclear power]. Modern plants are very safe, but things can be improved. We revisited ideas of the previous century with new data and new computing power. Edward Teller and Lowell Wood worked together in the ‘90s on these ideas. What is a superior system? One that has an incredibly abundant fuel supply so it’s accessible to everyone, but is safe against accidents and proliferation—that’s a key problem about nuclear, but it can be overcome. It would be wonderful to have a system that didn’t in the long run require enrichment plants, reprocessing plants. When we talked to proliferation experts at various institutes, [they said] it would be an incredible reduction in the prospect of weapons. That’s one of the constructs that I, and others, hold on to.

X: So if things go really well, you could have a version of this thing built by 2020? That’s still a ways away.

JG: In nuclear terms, that’s speed of light. But for Nathan and Bill, you should have seen them—10 years?! For them [coming from software], six months is normal. Fortunately, they’re very patient men.

X: Bill Gates is a very vocal supporter of TerraPower. How directly is he involved in the company?

JG: I get e-mails and questions from Bill on a monthly basis. Our quarterly updates last between one and 12 hours. We also have intermediate meetings, and take trips around the … Next Page »

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