Billionaire’s nuclear ambitions would make climate disaster worse
By Linda Pentz Gunter
In an interview for the Washington PostMagazine during his current book tour, billionaire Bill Gates, whom we are now expected to accept as an authority on climate change, said: “I’ll be happy if TerraPower was a waste of money.” TerraPower is Gates’s nuclear power company pushing so-called “advanced” reactors. His book is called How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
Well, Bill, I have some good news for you. You can start celebrating! Because, yes, TerraPower is indeed a colossal waste of money. It’s also a waste of precious time. And the idea that nuclear power could “lift billions out of poverty” as the TerraPower website boasts, is on a par with any number of outlandish theories, conspiratorial or otherwise, that are making the all too frequent rounds these days.
Here are the prices that the eminent financial house Lazard calculated in 2019 for different ways to generate a megawatt-hour of electricity using new nuclear plants and other energy options, as laid out by Amory Lovins in his landmark Forbes article:
New nuclear power would cost $118–192/MWh (of which $29 is typical operating cost) while utility-scale solar power would cost $32–42/MWh and onshore windpower $28–54/MWh.
As Lovins has consistently pointed out: “To protect the climate, we must save the most carbon at the least cost and in the least time, counting all three variables—carbon and cost and time.”
And, “costly options save less carbon per dollar than cheaper options. Slow options save less carbon per year than faster options. Thus even a low- or no-carbon option that is too costly or too slow will reduce and retard achievable climate protection.”
Gates wants to save lives conquering malaria. But he’s fine with exposing people to radiation and leaving a legacy of toxic waste with no known solution.
Here is a letter I submitted on Gates’ misguided nuclear obsessions:
Innovative investor Bill Gates makes many sensible suggestions in the extensive extracts you carried from his new book “How to avoid a climate disaster” ( London Times March19).
However, Mr Gates is misguided to describe nuclear power as a “clean technology”. This is the case for several reasons.
Firstly, major accidents at nuclear facilities release huge amounts of dangerous radioactive materials into the environment. The Atomic Age has witnessed five such events: at the Kyshtym nuclear a waste processing plant near Chelyabinsk in western Soviet Union, and at Windscale (now Sellafield ) UK, both in autumn of 1957; at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979; at Chernobyl, in Western Soviet Union ( now Ukraine) in 1986; and at Fukushima Japan, ten years ago this month.
Secondly, you can only generate nuclear power if you use uranium as a fuel. This radioactive metal has to be mined, processed at site – called milling – (usually very far away from the site of nuclear power plants), transported thousands of miles, enriched (to make it more energy “potent”) fabricated into fuel, and after irradiation in a reactor, actively stored at the reactor site to let the very hot fuel cool down, then transported to a long-term storage site, conditioned, made into a radioactive waste package, and stored for a very long-time or disposed of in a giant underground series of interconnected caverns, called a repository.
Each of these stages in the uranium fuel lifecycle create a significant carbon footprint.
Thirdly, all current nuclear power plant designs produce very long- lived radioactive waste, for which there is no current final disposal route, although Finland is progressing its repository. No other country is anywhere near having an available repository.
Dr David Lowry
senior international research fellow
Institute for Resource and Security Studies