The Tech Behind TerraPower

Mar 1, 2024
The Tech Behind TerraPower

Why I Remain Skeptical on Nuclear Fission Projects

I just read your article entitled "The Path Towards Limitless Clean Energy." Is this the same technology that is being developed by TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates? — Mark J.

Hi Mark,

I’m glad you asked about TerraPower. I haven’t written about the company in quite some time.

No, TerraPower is not a nuclear fusion company.

TerraPower is developing what it calls a “Natrium Reactor,” which is just a marketing name for its nuclear fission reactor. TerraPower has been working on a demonstration reactor with the Department of Energy in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

For those that would like to learn more, you can go here

It’s kind of funny, but as we look at TerraPower’s website, we won’t see “nuclear fission” anywhere. This is intentional in an effort to avoid unwanted attention from politically driven environmental groups.

But to be fair, TerraPower is developing what is considered to be the fourth generation of nuclear fission technology.

Its technology is one of the major categories of “Advanced Reactor Systems,” as defined by the Office of Nuclear Energy, which is part of the Department of Energy in the U.S.

TerraPower is based on sodium-cooled fast reactor technology, which is combined with a molten salt-based energy storage technology. A sodium-cooled fast reactor looks like this:

Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor
Source: Idaho National Laboratory, Department of Energy

This kind of reactor uses liquid sodium as a coolant for the fission reactions instead of water. Doing so enables the reactor to run at higher temperatures and lower pressures than the second or third generation of nuclear fission reactor technology.

This results in more efficient production of clean electricity, and more importantly… it is a dramatically safer reactor that previous generations. That’s why this technology is so promising.

And another added benefit is that these sodium-cooled reactors can use fissile material and spent fuel from older generation reactors to produce electricity. Essentially, they can reuse radioactive waste from prior generations of fission reactors.

This is promising technology that has received a lot of interest. Bill Gates has invested directly, as well as through his investment fund Cascade Investment. Steel giant ArcelorMittal, Korean conglomerate SK Group, Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries, and Khosla Ventures have all invested in TerraPower, as well.

This is definitely a private tech company to watch, but I remain skeptical on nuclear fission projects… as they continue to be irrationally polarizing from a political perspective.

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