Nuclear power has stalled in the United States. The country’s 97 commercial reactors provide 20 percent of its power, but only one reactor has gone online since 1998 — in Tennessee in 2016. Two more reactors — behind schedule and way over budget — are due to become operational in the early 2020s in Georgia, but two other reactors under construction in the South died a few years ago when the company behind theem filed for bankruptcy. And nuclear power is struggling financially to compete with cheaper power produced by natural gas, causing several reactors to close in recent years.
Recently, however, there have been murmurs of a new nuclear age. Many environmental groups remain opposed to nuclear energy. But as the realities of climate change — and the fast-growing demand for energy worldwide — become more apparent, a handful of environmental activists and politicians are mentioning nuclear power alongside other carbon-free options.
“Given the urgency and the scale of the challenge, we have to keep all low- and zero-carbon technologies on the table,” Gov. Jay Inslee told New York magazine in a profile of his presidential campaign, which centers on climate change..
This is where TerraPower steps in. Founded 11 years ago by Bill Gates, the Bellevue company has been pursuing more perfect nuclear power, as it works to create a new type of reactor that requires refueling just once every 20 to 60 years.
That means 80% less waste to treat and dispose of. If successful, this approach would cut back on the biggest environmental threat from reactors.
In a Dec. 29, 2018, entry in his blog, Gates wrote that global emissions of greenhouse gases went up in 2018, reinforcing the need for clean energy. While solar and wind power solve part of the carbon-emissions problem, these are also intermittent sources of energy, he noted. “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day,” he wrote. “The problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation.”
Yet Gates’ vision has been stalled itself by unintended consequences of the Trump administration’s trade war with China. Now, the future of nuclear technology is relying on a Plan B.
TerraPower was formally founded in 2008 after two years of discussions about developing a so-called breed-and-burn reactor. “They felt nuclear power was an important area to focus on,” said TerraPower Chief Financial Officer Marcia Burkey.