Bill Gates on nuclear power

Bill Gates has brushed up against climate issues before. First, he apparently considered investing in the oil sands. Later, he invested $4.5 million of his own money in geoengineering research.

Most recently, he gave a talk at the TED conference advocating that developed countries and China cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 (producing an 80% overall reduction), and do so largely on the basis of nuclear power. He thinks fast breeder reactors capable of using U-238 are the way forward, given how much more fuel would be available. His favoured version of breeder reactor is the traveling wave reactor, which is theoretically capable of using little or no enriched uranium.

Emissions equation

Gates argues that the key equation is: (population) X (services) X (energy use for services) X (greenhouse gas intensity of energy). To get down to zero, one of these elements needs to be reduced to that level. He argues that more services are important, especially for the world’s poor. Efficiency, he argues, can be improved quite substantially – perhaps increased three to sixfold, overall. The real work, he argues, needs to be done by cutting the GHG emissions associated with energy production to near zero.

Energy options

Gates argues that the energy systems of the future will need massive scale and high reliability. He singles out five he sees as especially promising, though with significant challenges:

  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS) – hampered by cost, access to suitable sites for injection, and long-term stability of stored gases (the toughest part)
  • Nuclear – with its cost, safety, proliferation, and waste issues
  • Wind
  • Solar photovoltaic
  • Solar thermal – all three limited by land use, cost, transmission requirements, and the need for energy storage to modulate fluctuations in output

Four others he describes as potentially able to make a contribution but decidedly secondary in importance:

  • Tide
  • Geothermal
  • Biomass
  • Fusion

I agree that fusion is a long shot that we cannot count on. I am more optimistic than Gates about the other three. Pumped tidal power could provide some of the energy storage he sees as so important. Enhanced geothermal looks like it has a lot of promise. Finally, combined with CCS, burning biomass offers us a mechanism to actually draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it.

The big picture

Cutting from the world’s current global emissions of about 26 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) of CO2 down to zero will require enormous activity. Quite possibly, nuclear will need to be part of that, despite its many flaws. That said, we need to be hedging all of our bets. One big accident could put people off nuclear, or fast breeder designs could continue to prove impractical. We need to be deploying options like huge concentrating solar farms in deserts and massive wind installations at the same time.

It is also worth noting that Gates’ assumptions about the rate at which emissions must be reduced are more lenient than those like James Hansen who are more concerned about when massive positive feedbacks will be kicked off. If the people who say we need to stabilize at 350 ppm are correct, Gates’ prescription of a 20% cut by 2020 and an 80% cut by 2050 will be inadequate to prevent catastrophic or runaway climate change.

Gates talks about this a bit during the questions. There are two risks: that his assumptions about the speed with which emissions must be cut are too lenient, or that his beliefs about the pace of technological development and deployment are overly optimistic. He thinks geoengineering could “buy us twenty or thirty years to get our act together.” Here’s hoping we never have to test whether that view is accurate.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Bill Gates on nuclear power”

  1. The broader use of nuclear power as Gates, and many others, suggest does not appear to be a question of right or wrong. We have to deal with climate change, an issue of immense importance. Nuclear power, with its drawbacks can be part of a solution.

  2. I do think that making the decision about whether to build more nuclear plants is largely a moral question. Doing so and not doing so both carry risks, most of which are borne by future generations.

    When we choose to build nuclear, we are telling them that we think accidents, waste, and nuclear proliferation are less worrisome than climate change.

    It’s worth noting that future generations would probably prefer if we could choose options that didn’t endanger them at all. As Henry Shue argues, climate change falls within the general moral category of the infliction of harm upon the defenceless. The same is true of filling the world with dangerous radeonucleotides and nuclear weapon states.

  3. Gates apparently thinks we have forty years to really get on top of mitigation: 20 to develop his new reactor (and other new technologies) and 20 to deploy them.

    That clashes considerably with the need for emissions to peak as soon as possible, if we are going to have any shot of avoiding a 2 degree plus temperature increase.

  4. Bill Gates and our innovation addiction: A recipe for climate inaction

    by Michael Hoexter

    Gates is free to support whatever technology he likes, but in his role as a philanthropist he has gained the reputation of being someone who tries to represent the best interests of humanity, not simply the parochial interests of post-software venture capital. Gates seems to believe that the still non-existent TWR technology will 20 years from now meet the “cheap” criteria that will be universally acceptable. He brands renewable energy as necessarily and always “not cheap” or not cheap enough.

    Strangely, he overlooks or strategically omits how most technologies get cheaper in the first place: they enter the cost curve through deployment, they achieve economies of scale, new efficiencies are discovered, and the basis for further innovations is created. How did the internet, the microchip, and the cell phone get cheap? They were deployed either via government procurement or through early commercialization at higher prices to reward and incentivize innovation. In fact, Gates seems to have some kind of awareness of this when he is not hoping for miracles. As Joseph Romm points out in a recent post on this subject, Gates in a speech a couple years ago talked about how his software business benefited from the installed base of ever-faster personal computers.

    Gates and others from the software world or its periphery seem to believe that in the field of clean energy, it will all be different: innovation and cheap will come simultaneously, perhaps through acts of brilliance by their friends or companies in which they hold shares. Maybe selling bits and bytes has given these leading technorati a false impression of how physical products like electric generators are manufactured and made more economical.

  5. DavidC,
    Joe Romm (@ Climate Progress) is completely clueless about nuclear power. His web site censors any contrary views because his acolytes enjoy the religious experience of singing in an echo chamber.

    Bill Gates is inviting people to offer solutions instead of pretending to know everything as Romm does.

  6. Bill Gates May Build Small Nuclear Reactor

    “TerraPower, an energy start-up backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is in discussions with Toshiba Corp. to develop a small-scale nuclear reactor that would represent a long-term bet to make nuclear power safer and cheaper. Toshiba confirmed it is in preliminary discussions with TerraPower, a unit of Intellectual Ventures, a patent-holding concern partially funded by Gates and Toshiba spokesman Keisuke Ohmori says the two sides are talking about how they could collaborate on nuclear technology although discussions are still in early stages and that nothing has been decided on investment or development. TerraPower has publicly said its Traveling Wave Reactor could run for decades on depleted uranium without refueling (PDF) or removing spent fuel from the device. The reactor, the company has said, could be safer, cheaper and more socially acceptable than today’s reactors. Gates’s recent focus on nuclear power has been fueled by an interest in developing new power systems for developing countries where he says that new energy solutions are needed to combat climate change. Terrapower faces a lengthy, multi-year process to get its “traveling wave” reactor concept reviewed by regulators but if TerraPower succeeds in advancing its plans, it could provide an alternative blueprint for the nuclear industry at a time when new reactors may be coming online.”

  7. Dearest Grist Reader,

    What does the world’s biggest philanthropist have to say about the climate crisis and renewable energy? Tune in to Grist tomorrow to find out.

    We’ll be hosting exclusive livestream video of Bill Gates in a fireside chat (san fire) about climate change, clean-energy innovation, and how these issues affect hunger, disease, and poverty. Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will join Climate Solutions Board Co-chair Jabe Blumenthal in a conversation about addressing climate change and increasing innovations in clean energy, and how these issues relate to addressing hunger, disease, and poverty. Tickets to the breakfast sold out faster than flapjacks at a Paul Bunyan convention, but the video feed is open to any and all. Come watch on Tuesday, May 10, 2011, at about 11:15 a.m. ET / 8:15 a.m. PT — or come back anytime afterward to catch the replay.

    After you hear what Gates has to say, join a live-chat discussion about it. Grist’s resident climate expert David Roberts will be talking it over with KC Golden of Climate Solutions, and taking your questions and comments. That’s happening four hours after the Gates conservation, at 3:00 p.m. ET / 12:00 p.m. PT — all on the same webpage, for maximum convenience! Can you beat that?

    Catch you there,

    Hanna Welch
    Grist Events Cruise Director

  8. Bill Gates backs climate scientists lobbying for large-scale geoengineering

    Other wealthy individuals have also funded a series of reports into the future use of technologies to geoengineer the climate

    A small group of leading climate scientists, financially supported by billionaires including Bill Gates, are lobbying governments and international bodies to back experiments into manipulating the climate on a global scale to avoid catastrophic climate change.

    The scientists, who advocate geoengineering methods such as spraying millions of tonnes of reflective particles of sulphur dioxide 30 miles above earth, argue that a “plan B” for climate change will be needed if the UN and politicians cannot agree to making the necessary cuts in greenhouse gases, and say the US government and others should pay for a major programme of international research.

    Solar geoengineering techniques are highly controversial: while some climate scientists believe they may prove a quick and relatively cheap way to slow global warming, others fear that when conducted in the upper atmosphere, they could irrevocably alter rainfall patterns and interfere with the earth’s climate.

    Geoengineering is opposed by many environmentalists, who say the technology could undermine efforts to reduce emissions, and by developing countries who fear it could be used as a weapon or by rich countries to their advantage. In 2010, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity declared a moratorium on experiments in the sea and space, except for small-scale scientific studies.

  9. “Microsoft founder Bill Gates has pledged to develop with Korea a revolutionary nuclear reactor that will leave far less radioactive waste than existing ones. Gates invested US$35 million in a nuclear-power venture company TerraPower in 2010. TerraPower is led by John Gilleland. It was formed from an effort initiated in 2007 by Nathan Myhrvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures. The company includes expert staff and individual consultants who have worked for some of the most prestigious nuclear laboratories and engineering companies in the world.”

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