Bill Gates's Nuclear Startup Finds Investors in India

Billionaire and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, a founder and backer of the fourth-generation nuclear reactor startup TerraPower, moved a step closer to building his first reactor after Reliance Industries, the Indian conglomerate run by Mukesh Ambani, took a minority stake in the new company, BusinessWeek reported. Reliance already owns the world's biggest oil refinery and India's largest natural gas fields, and as an energy player with global ambitions, Reliance has diversified into U.S. shale gas and is now sizing up similar assets in the resource-rich regions of Canada.

"Reliance has been constantly trying to diversify, they want to be in the whole energy chain," U.R. Bhat, of Dalton Capital Advisors in Mumbai, told BusinessWeek. "In the state they are now, they have to invest in businesses with big potential, and nuclear has that potential. Nuclear is seen as the energy of the future and it's going to play a huge part."

The Mumbai-based energy explorer and refiner didn't disclose the size of the investment, but Ambani will join the TerraPower's board alongside Bill Gates and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, both of whose goals are to make nuclear reactors smaller, cheaper and safer than today's nuclear energy sources.

TerraPower met with several potential partners

Before this deal was announced, which took many by surprise, execs from TerraPower had been globe-trotting to visit potential partners in China, France, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia. Earlier this month, Gate's meeting in China with the Ministry of Science and Technology launched a media frenzy of speculation--most articles had a deal in the bag. After he walked away empty-handed, Dan Yurman at ANS Nuclear Cafe commented:

For their part, the Chinese are already swimming in fast reactor R&D projects and may not have the capacity to take on something so novel as the TerraPower "Traveling wave" concept.

Yurman's "novel" was probably a euphemism, since many of China's projects are already in the demonstration phase. Essentially, they're real. TerraPower had recently completed a reactor redesign so that it could theoretically run untouched for decades on depleted uranium, a spent nuclear fuel.

"A cheaper reactor design that can burn waste and doesn't run into fuel limitations would be a big thing," Mr. Gates told the Wall Street Journal. He also said that TerraPower has verified the theory behind its latest version of a slow-burning reactor through supercomputer simulations and now needs to build a pilot version of the reactor, to evaluate how the metal fuel casings in the core will withstand decades of radioactive bombardment.

Reportedly, Ambani's goal has been to fund the development of an ultra-modern nuclear reactor to revolutionize power generation. Since the two billionaires see eye-to-eye on the energy future, Ambani won't flinch at TerraPower's staggering development costs. According to Gates, the innovative reactor, now stuck at the conceptual stage as a set of evolving computer simulations, may require $1 billion for research and development in the next five years. Later, each reactor will require billions to build.

Future obstacles

TerraPower's huge engineering obstacle and main technical challenge is in the less-glamorous area of materials science. As Gates mentioned, the reactor needs a fuel cladding material that can withstand constant reactor immersion, bombarded by radiation for up to six decades.

TerraPower has been using super computers to simulate how various alloys might react in such a harsh environment, but certification should be a challenge, since the cladding doesn't even exist yet.

Can this reactor be commercialized?

Photo: Bill Gates, Steve Jurvetson, Flickr cc
Photo: Mukesh Ambani, World Economic Forum, wikicommons
Graphic: Reactor design, Ash Odedra at TerrPower, via ANS Nuclear Cafe


Robert S's picture

I just returned from that Reliance oil refinery you referred to. They are very interested in energy investment and when they go in - they go all in. They have a very long range approach. For them to get into the nuclear arena, I think this method fits their overall strategy.

kent harrington's picture

Robert-- You really get around. It makes my head spin. Last time you were in Texas. I hope this will quickly give him a demonstration model that he can take to the NRC. Otherwise, this wouldn't see the light of day in the US for 20 years, if ever.

Robert S's picture

Yeah, they really keep me on the move. I hope this jump starts development too. At the Annual Conference I asked some nuclear experts about the prospects for modular (neighborhood-sized) reactors in the market (I would think this also applies to other developing technologies) and his response was a little discouraging. There were no doubts on the technology (already well-developed) but the regulatory process could take 5 years. That kind of pace is not good for innovation. Hopefully, the process for nuclear innovation speeds up.

kent harrington's picture

I think Babcock and Wilcox already have a preliminary deal with the TVA to build out their SMR-- a design built on their successful navy ship-board reactors. But even this development is still captive to a 5 + years development process. I'll follow up on this. There are several other companies that have designs ready to go-- none as utopian as Gates.

Rich Byrnes's picture

Wow, development and construction costs are staggering, yes the benefits of this type of reactor are also "staggering". Commercialization is not impossible, however is a longshot as I see it. Since converting U238 to Pu239 requires fast neutrons, these cores must use liquid sodium as coolant.  Traditional water would act as a moderator, and would thermalize the neutrons.  From an inherently safer design perspective liquid sodium is problematic.  It's hard to tell if this concept will take root in the US given the public’s general discomfort with anything “nuclear”, however one thing is for sure, if  $1 Billion is spend on development, this would push the capabilities to solve very difficult & complex problems using super-computing models to a new frontier, perhaps an outcome that would have its own set of benefits to us and Mr. Gates….. is he selling shares of Intellectual Ventures the parent company of TerraPower?, I say Buy…..  ;-)

Two points need be considered in the cost calculations of build atomic plant: Still, no one knows how to dismantle a plant. The cost of dismantling should also be taken into account, in calculating the cost. This cost is enormous. Cost of disposal of spent fuel, which is highly radioactive, is also very difficult.

harrington.kent's picture

ALL TRUE. But later 4th gen plants generally avoid spent fuel issues. Plus, Gates Terrapower will be much smaller than today's 1.2 Gw plants.