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China Power Science

Bill Gates To Help China Build Traveling Wave Nuclear Reactor 467

First time accepted submitter BabaChazz writes "Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates says he is in discussions with China to jointly develop a new kind of nuclear reactor. During a talk at China's Ministry of Science & Technology Wednesday, the billionaire said: 'The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste.' Gates backs Washington-based TerraPower, which is developing a nuclear reactor that can run on depleted uranium."
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Bill Gates To Help China Build Traveling Wave Nuclear Reactor

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  • by Taco Cowboy ( 5327 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @12:45AM (#38299908) Journal

    Just wait, China !

    Bill Gate will give you Blue Screen of Nuclear Death !!

    • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @06:18AM (#38301264) Homepage

      Joking aside, If Bill can manage to kickstart this it might be the greatest thing anybody ever did for humanity. Future generations will look back on this as The Turning Point.

      (assuming that it works anywhere near as well as it works on paper)

    • Windows 9 comes in several flavors:

      Home Edition
      Professional Edition
      Ultimate Edition
      Nuclear Edition (sold only in China)

  • Too bad (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wmbetts ( 1306001 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @12:51AM (#38299936)

    Too bad he's prohibited from doing something like this in the US. If it weren't for ill-rational fears of nuclear power the R&D would be done in the US.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Too bad he's prohibited from doing something like this in the US. If it weren't for ill-rational fears of nuclear power the R&D would be done in the US.

      Well, the trick is that if another country does it cheaply enough, the rest of the world *has* to follow.

      • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 08, 2011 @01:03AM (#38299990)

        It can be done cheaply enough in the U.S. RIGHT NOW. The problem is NIMBY and anti-nuclear activist groups have literally made it impossible.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          All the more reason I hope Bill can get a couple of these running in China - Show that it can be done and done pretty safely.

        • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Billly Gates ( 198444 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @02:12AM (#38300274) Journal

          Except in the US businessmen are cheap and have more interest in cutting costs than following safety rules. Fukashima had the same attitude of costs and could have avoided the meltdown. I would feel better if governments ran them rather than for profit deregulated corporations who have brainwashed the populace that anything else is evil socialism.

          • Re:Too bad (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Mashiki ( 184564 ) <mashiki@gmail.RASPcom minus berry> on Thursday December 08, 2011 @02:27AM (#38300318) Homepage

            Apparently you've never lived in Japan. If you did, then you'd know the anti-nuke hysteria that goes on when a company tries to build a replacement plant for aging tech.

            • Re:Too bad (Score:4, Insightful)

              by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <{mojo} {at} {world3.net}> on Thursday December 08, 2011 @11:06AM (#38303736) Homepage

              Why you write off as hysteria is actually just people's legitimate concerns. In a country where everything has to be earthquake and tsunami proof and yet occasionally people still get hurt or killed the pragmatic view is that accidents will happen, no matter how hard to try to prevent them. People simply do not believe that you can build a completely safe nuclear power industry where not on the reactor but all the support services like fuel refinement and waste disposal are immune to natural disaster or human error.

              The question then is do we accept that risk and build new nuclear plants anyway? You can accuse people of NIMBYism but having seen what happened to people living around Fukushima I think you have to admit that the potential for having your life ruined is not something people can ignore. Of course it doesn't just affect people living near the plant, it has affected the whole country and if it had been much worse it could have reached other countries too, like Chernobyl did.

              Japan is fortunate in that it has enough natural resources to replace nuclear with renewables now. It won't happen over night but then again neither will developing new metldown-proof thorium reactors. Given the choice people prefer the safe and clean option.

              On top of that there is also some general anti-nuclear sentiment because of the two atomic bombs that the US dropped, but it isn't as simple as you think. North Korea almost certainly has nuclear weapons now, as does China. Japan could probably build one in a few months but doesn't because it would just escalate the situation, but some politicians have been advocating more military build-up so naturally there is opposition.

          • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Insightful)

            by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:08AM (#38300926)

            I would feel better if governments ran them

            You mean like Chernobyl?

            The problem is lack of effective regulations and oversight. Making something government owned doesn't stop that. You need the people who inspect the stuff to be independent from those who profit from it. If the government wasn't full of industry lobbyists then private run - government inspected , would probably do the job pretty well.

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Grave ( 8234 )

              [quote]The problem is lack of effective regulations and oversight. [/quote]

              I'm not sure I can agree with that. The problem appears to be that right now, most nuclear plants are of a very old design, and that there is so much red tape in replacing them that it endangers lives.

              To use a dreaded Slashdot car analogy: Most people wouldn't feel comfortable having a car using 1960's safety technology as their daily driver. Why should people be more comfortable with something as complex as nuclear power generati

              • To use a dreaded Slashdot car analogy: Most people wouldn't feel comfortable having a car using 1960's safety technology as their daily driver. Why should people be more comfortable with something as complex as nuclear power generation using 1960's safety technology and design?

                I should point out that the Navy used a 1950's design (the S5W) well into the 90's without accidents and with very few significant incidents. The A2W plants onboard USS Enterprise are of a similar design vintage and is equally free o

            • by Rhys ( 96510 )

              How about like our navy?

              You're right, its lack of regulations and oversight. Its also a panicky and scientifically illiterate population where reporting the truth to the media sends them (the media, the population, pick one or both) into a tizzy over nothing.

          • You obviously haven't been to China. I will agree that Americans are extremely cheap, but that pales in comparison to their Chinese counterparts. And it's so pervasive that people at every level will be looking to cut corners, usually with the hope that a little extra money ends up in their pockets. Of course, it does depend on who you're working with, because he might come across someone who's so ambitious he's willing to spare no expense.

            But really, the pathetic thing here is that this isn't being done in

        • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

          Then maybe we should do it hella far away from someone's backyard in a lower population density area. The amount of people who might object would be small enough that an eminent domain lawsuit would pass through pretty easily. I'm pretty sure a power plant would be one of those "greater good of the people" situations like roads that a judge wouldn't hold up too long.

        • by makomk ( 752139 )

          Of course, when China's lack of an "irrational" fear of nuclear power causes them to screw it up just like they have with other large infrastructure projects, I expect we'll see +5 Insightful comments in the thread about that nuclear accident pointing out that it could never happen in the US because they have proper regulations.

    • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 08, 2011 @01:41AM (#38300152)

      How is it irrational? Ever heard of Fukushima? Go back and follow the timeline of events. At *every* stage of the disaster experts were reassuring the public that according well accepted nuclear community engineering standards--which the plant adhere too--the next event in the timeline wouldn't happen. It became almost comical after awhile. The news about Fukushima continues to get worse to this day.

      No. It's very rational to fear nuclear power, just like it's rational to fear driving on a highway. Coal plants might spew out more radiation, but they're an extremely simple, stable, and well-known quantity. You can probably predict with a high degree of accuracy exactly how many people will die of cancer from a coal plant. But nuclear plants very clearly have many unknown and unpredictable characteristics. Nuclear engineers earned a giant *FAIL* on Fukushima.

      I'm still very pro-nuclear. But after Fukushima nuclear engineers really should learn some humility, as well as nuclear fan boys.

      • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anthony Mouse ( 1927662 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @03:02AM (#38300452)

        You can probably predict with a high degree of accuracy exactly how many people will die of cancer from a coal plant. But nuclear plants very clearly have many unknown and unpredictable characteristics.

        You're doing it wrong. First of all, you can get a pretty damn good estimate of the likelihood of a major nuclear incident by dividing the world-wide number of operating hours of all nuclear plants by the number of major incidents. It isn't predictability that's the problem, it's the scope of the damage that occurs when something does go wrong.

        But that isn't even a problem either -- it just sounds a lot scarier. People are irrationally afraid of things that are very rare but when they occur are very bad. It's like movie plot terrorist threats: Hardly anybody is killed by terrorists, but we spend trillions of dollars trying to reduce the amount of terrorism with unnecessary wars and security theater.

        Do the math. Something which is fifty times as bad but occurs ten thousand times less often is a Good Thing. (I mean honestly, go visit an abandoned coal mine once. Then tell me the damn Superfund sites they leave behind aren't each individually worse than Chernobyl.)

  • by Ramin_HAL9001 ( 1677134 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @12:55AM (#38299948)
    China is one of the largest CO2 polluters in the world. Traveling wave reactors are known to be incredibly clean and safe. If you give the Chinese abundant safe and clean energy, this is going to really help the global warming problem.

    The reason traveling wave reactors were never used, even though the technology has been know for half a century, is that they produce no waste that is useful to making nuclear weapons. That is only reason why all nuclear power nations wanted the more dangerous reactors that ran on uranium and plutonium fission.

    But modernizing the safer, non-weaponizable form of nuclear power is a great way to go.
    • This analogy breaks down when you consider Japan Canada Sweden Germany and the many other countries that have no nuclear weapons programs but operate a large nuclear reactor fleet. This would've particularly helped Japan when the cooling was cut off at daiichi too.

      • by bluemonq ( 812827 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @01:18AM (#38300062)

        It's because all the expertise was in enriched uranium reactors, and the same reason why American companies used slightly enriched uranium plants for it: it's cheaper to improve on a current process than to throw it out and start from scratch. Sure, there's diminishing returns, but why bother with something new when in the current situation where the public is afraid of anything nuclear? But when you're in a country where public opinion is less of a problem and you have a large budget surplus, you're freer to mess around.

        I'm not sure what analogy there is in GP's comment.

      • by sFurbo ( 1361249 )
        Sweden had a nuclear weapons program (I was extremely surprised when I discovered this. I have it from some WP article, so take it for what it is, but, Sweden officially being neutral, I guess it made sense). I would imagine the other never had one, though. But, as a sibling post pointed out, the expertise was already built up on the kinds of plants that could be used for making bombs, so building them was much easier.
    • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @01:12AM (#38300042) Homepage

      China is one of the largest CO2 polluters in the world. Traveling wave reactors are known to be incredibly clean and safe. If you give the Chinese abundant safe and clean energy, this is going to really help the global warming problem.


      Traveling wave reactors aren't known to be anything. No one has built one.

      Don't count your little Godzillas until they've hatched.

    • by alendit ( 1454311 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @01:16AM (#38300054)

      While I agree with everything else, I am not sure, why everyone has always to mention absolute numbers to China's CO2 production. China ist also the most populous county in the world. And the its CO2 emission per capita for 2008 is on par with Sweden or Israel and less than third of the US one (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions_per_capita).

      Unless one argues that the Chinese people are less valuable than the US citizens (you can't even tell them from one another!), I don't see, how one can critisise China without being a hypocrite. That goes not only to the US, Germany, France and half of the developed world in worse in that regard.

      Of course, if China was to provide an equal living standard to every citizen, the situation would be entirely different. And you can surely use some metric like CO2-emission/GDP, where China would look quite terrible and make a valid argument about their efficiency. But right now, China as a whole is more CO2-free than most of the developed countries.

      • by mug funky ( 910186 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @01:25AM (#38300086)

        wasn't criticism. was a statement that lots of CO2 comes from China, and reducing that is a good thing.

        reducing it anywhere is a good thing. it's not a race or culture statement, just a numbers game.

      • The per-capita stats you link to are physically meaningless (they're politically motivated statistics). What counts in terms of environmental impact is the total output, so you should be linking to this [wikipedia.org] instead.

        For those who don't want to click the link, China, the US, and EU are the top 3 polluters, unsurprisingly.

        • The absolute numbers for a country are much more politically motivated, since countries are purely political entities. People, on the other hand, are physical entities, too.

          • by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @02:04AM (#38300244)
            No, individual people don't have a say in energy policies, countries do. That's why countries are meaningful in this case. To be more exact, regions with common industrial energy policies and closely related plant designs would be what matters, but countries are a good approximation. You'll note I mentioned China, the US and the EU, not the individual countries of Europe. I suppose I should have combined the US and Canada probably due to the close economic dependency between the two countries.
      • Unless one argues that the Chinese people are less valuable than the US citizens (you can't even tell them from one another!), I don't see, how one can critisise China without being a hypocrite.

        The problem is that China doesn't even care about its own citizens, and isn't really using the industrial output it gets from the fossil fuels to improve their situation much. Shanghai is now so polluted the smog can make you not see the sun. They got mercury all over the place, and they are also one of the countries

    • no, that only applies to Magnox in the UK and RBMK (the handy reactors at Pripyat) in Russia.

      all the rest of them are not weaponizable in the least, unless run grossly out-of-spec, and stopped and refuelled every 3 weeks (the downtime for refuelling is significantly longer than 3 weeks).

    • by atomicstrawberry ( 955148 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @01:26AM (#38300092)

      There's another reason they don't get used. The 'standard' reactors require enriched fuels. The same companies that sell the reactors also supply the fuels, or the enrichment services. It's basically vendor lock-in.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Plutonium production for weapons is better done in a special-purpose reactor than in a power plant. Power plants need to keep fuel in place for long periods for economic reasons, which eventually produces plutonium isotopes that are undesirable for bombs.

      In fact, I can't think of a single example of someone building a bomb with plutonium from a power plant.

      • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:39AM (#38300818)

        Partially false. It's true that using a nuclear reactor to create weapons grade plutonium is not the most economic way to do it, but you're ignoring the other niceties such as the power they generate when they are not being used to create it.

        The fact is any type of reactor where the fuel is easily removable can and HAS been used to create weapons grade plutonium. The only difference between weapons grade plutonium and the left over crap when the reactor runs out of fuel is the length the fuel has been in place inside the reactor. Most heavy water reactors and breeder reactors make it trivial to swap out the fuel at any point including the critical period where weapons grade plutonium is being made.

        This is the reason why the world is taking such interest in Tehran's heavy water reactors.

        And there were Specific [wikipedia.org] reactors [wikipedia.org] designed to create weapons grade plutonium by making extra easy to swap out fuel online, the most famous being Sellafield [wikipedia.org]. Some of these designs are still in service [wikipedia.org], though I'm unsure if those specific plants were ever used for production of weapons grade plutonium.

    • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:01AM (#38300644)

      The design appears safe, but the same accounts for the pebble bed reactor. The trial reactor built in Germany left them with very serious radioactive pollution.

      The idea of a TWR is seriously interesting of course, as it uses so much of the fuel, and leaves relatively little waste. And I think it definitely warrants more research. I understand that small-scale experiments have been done with this tech, so it seems time to try to scale it up a bit. If successful it could go a long way in solving our energy problems.

      I am a strong believer in nuclear technology, but the main issue I have with it is the waste, which is so hard to handle and at the moment is basically useless, as in we don't have a way to continue using it.

      Actually about the waste issue: the spent rods are known to produce a lot of heat, and need active cooling. That's at least part of the problem faced in Japan. Can't all that energy be used, one way or another?

  • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @02:42AM (#38300362)

    China will use it to build and charge batteries that will be sold in Wal-Marts in the US, so this is a win-win, right . . . ? An the "traveling nuclear waves" stay in China . . . ? Isn't a traveling nuclear wave called a tsunami, and caused a disaster in Japan . . . ?

    Actually the title sounds like fear mongering (Bill/China/Nukes) or a bad joke:

    "So, Bill Gates walks into a bar in China with a traveling nuclear wave reactor, and the bartender says . . .

    [Insert Your Ask Slashdot Punchline Here]

    Can you surf nuclear waves . . . ? Maybe China wants to take over the surfing travel industry . . . ?!

    This topic always attracts lots of emotion, with very little substance . . . oh, and I guess I'm an offender, too . . .

  • by tp1024 ( 2409684 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @03:55AM (#38300624)
    The ultimate question for all reactors is what they leave behind.

    They can't help leaving behind fission products (that's where they get their energy from), which isn't too much of a problem, as it takes only about 300 years for them to decay to levels of radiotoxicity of natural uranium in equilibrium with its decay products.They will leave behind some Uranium, but this can still be used in other reactors.

    The problem is mainly residual Plutonium, Americium and other elements, with half-lives of several thousand or tens of thousands of years, which require hundreds of thousands of years to decay to such levels. (Because of the very damaging high energy alpha decay, rather than lower energy and much less damaging beta and gamma decays.)

    On the one hand non-fissle transuranic elements capture neutrons and interfere with the chain reaction, on the other hand capturing neutrons either splits them or eventually transmutes them into fissle elements. This turns them into fission products, which we can handle with reasonable confidence. The question now is: does the travelling wave in the travelling wave reactor provide enough neutrons to transmute and split the transuranic elements it breeds, such that the reactor as a whole reaches a stable equilibrium before the end of its operating time? Conventional reactors don't, because the chain reaction is stopped for lack of neutrons long before a stable equilibrium is achieved. Most breeder reactors do, but it depends a lot on how tight the neutron economy of the particular reactor is. And afaik (correct me if you know better or have access to specifications), the neutron economy of the travelling wave reactor is rather tight and might well be possible, that the wave leaves ever more transuranics in its wake as it moves, without ever reaching an equilibrium over the whole of the reactor.

    Why is reaching a stable equilibrium before the end of operation enough? In this case you can add some additional transuranics at the start of operation and still reach the same equilibrium at the end of operation. If the amount you can add at the start (and still reach equilibrium) is larger than the amount left at the end of operation, you effectively reduced the total amount. Given that, you effectively solved the long-term problem of transuranic waste, by limiting its amount and eventually burning it.

    The question is, can the travelling wave reactor do that or not? (There are other options ex post, but it is always best to not let the problem exist in the first place rather than dealing with it later.)
  • by kawabago ( 551139 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:28AM (#38300770)
    Wait till you see the meltdown!
  • by a_hanso ( 1891616 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:34AM (#38300796) Journal
    See technology review article [technologyreview.com]. They are "only discussions". There is no partnership and no plans to build anything. Yet. Plus the type of reactor mentioned is still just a design [technologyreview.com].

    In the new design, the reactions all take place near the reactor's center instead of starting at one end and moving to the other. To start, uranium 235 fuel rods are arranged in the center of the reactor. Surrounding these rods are ones made up of uranium 238. As the nuclear reactions proceed, the uranium 238 rods closest to the core are the first to be converted into plutonium, which is then used up in fission reactions that produce yet more plutonium in nearby fuel rods. As the innermost fuel rods are used up, they're taken out of the center using a remote-controlled mechanical device and moved to the periphery of the reactor. The remaining uranium 238 rods—including those that were close enough to the center that some of the uranium has been converted to plutonium—are then shuffled toward the center to take the place of the spent fuel.

    Currently there is no known material that could be used to encase the fuel rods in -- they need to survive radiation exposure for decades without expanding.

  • by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:51AM (#38301122)

    The travelling wave reactor concept appears to be basically a sodium cooled reactor that has a lot of extra U-238 , allowing it to go very long without refuelling as the enriched portion of the core "travels" along the U-238 ( this image explains the concept: http://evworld.com/press/IV_twr_concept.jpg [evworld.com] ).

    I have to say I am sceptical. The main economic issue with sodium cooled fast breeders is that they are very capital intensive due to the challenges of handling flammable sodium. Thus trading even more capital investment ( in the form of a larger core ) for less frequent refuelling seems like a bad idea. Furthermore, any design that is to see widespread deployment should make use of economics of scale. Fuel fabrication, reprocessing and so on can be centralised, with a few facilities potentially serving many reactors, or even multiple nations. It thus makes little sense to move capital costs towards the power plant and reactor, away from facilities that can be centralised. This is why I doubt all the talk about "Integral" facilities or on-line reprocessing ( as suggested for molten salt reactors ).

    It's not very hard to build a breeder with a 2-3 year core lifetime anyway, and you probably don't want to run it much longer than that without shutting it down for servicing, repairs, inspection and so on.

    Don't get me wrong. It's a cool idea technologically. I just don't think it will be economically competitive with other Gen-IV designs. The focus for breeders today should be on reducing capital up-front investment, improved safety and reliability. No utility is going to invest billions up-front in an experimental design that is unlikely to be economically competitive with other alternatives.

  • by assertation ( 1255714 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @08:49AM (#38302224)

    Bill Gates invests in more nuclear power. Google invests in solar power plants.

  • by schweini ( 607711 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @10:38AM (#38303360)
    Here's Bill Gates' TED presentation on this project from almost 2 years ago:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html [ted.com]

    Even if half of this design works out as advertised, i think this would be awesome! Pity that the 'western world' wasn't interested in investing in it and trying it out....
  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @10:39AM (#38303386)

    And why is it not as good as plutonium or depleted uranium?

Life would be so much easier if we could just look at the source code. -- Dave Olson