By Frank von Hippel
One of Bill Gates’ causes is to replace power plants fueled by coal and natural gas with climate-friendly alternatives. That has led the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder to embrace nuclear power, and building nuclear power plants to combat climate change is a prospect worth discussing. But Gates has been persuaded to back a costly reactor design fueled by nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium and shown, through decades of experience, to be expensive, quick to break down, and difficult to repair.
In fact, Gates and his company, Terrapower, are promoting a reactor type that the US and most other countries abandoned four decades ago because of concerns about both nuclear weapons proliferation and cost.
The consortium that is to build the Versatile Test Reactor, at an estimated cost of up to $5.6 billion, includes Bill Gates’ Terrapower.
Gates is obviously not in it for the money. But his reputation for seriousness may have helped recruit Democratic Senators Cory Booker, Dick Durbin, and Sheldon Whitehouse to join the two Republican senators from Idaho in a bipartisan coalition to co-sponsor the Nuclear Energy Innovations Capabilities Act of 2017, which called for the VTR.
I wonder if any of those five Senators knows that the VTR is to be fueled annually by enough plutonium for more than 50 Nagasaki bombs. Or that it is a failed technology. Or that the Idaho National Laboratory is collaborating on plutonium separation technology with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute at a time when about half of South Korea’s population wants nuclear weapons to deter North Korea.