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Gates Nuclear

Bill Gates’ Nuclear Startup Unveils Mini-Reactor Design Including Molten Salt Energy Storage – Forbes

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Bill Gates helped launch TerraPower in 2006 and serves on its board as chairman.


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Nuclear power is the Immovable Object of generation sources. It can take days just to bring a nuclear plant completely online, rendering it useless as a tool to manage the fluctuations in the supply and demand on a modern energy grid.  

Now a firm launched by Bill Gates in 2006, TerraPower, in partnership with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, believes it has found a way to make the infamously unwieldy energy source a great deal nimbler — and for an affordable price. 

The new design, announced by TerraPower on August 27th, is a combination of a “sodium-cooled fast reactor” — a type of small reactor in which liquid sodium is used as a coolant — and an energy storage system. While the reactor could pump out 345 megawatts of electrical power indefinitely, the attached storage system would retain heat in the form of molten salt and could discharge the heat when needed, increasing the plant’s overall power output to 500 megawatts for more than 5.5 hours. 

“This allows for a nuclear design that follows daily electric load changes and helps customers capitalize on peaking opportunities driven by renewable energy fluctuations,” TerraPower said. 

Dubbed Natrium after the Latin name for sodium (‘natrium’), the new design will be available in the late 2020s, said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO.

TerraPower said it has the support of a handful of top U.S. utilities, including Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiary Pacificorp, Energy Northwest, and Duke Energy. 

The reactor’s molten salt storage add-on would essentially reprise the role currently played by coal- or gas-fired power stations or grid-scale batteries: each is a dispatchable form of power generation that can quickly ratchet up or down in response to changes in grid demand or supply. As the power demands of modern grids become ever more variable with additions of wind and solar power — which only provide energy when the wind is blowing or the sun shining — low-carbon sources of dispatchable power are needed more and more. California’s rolling blackouts are one example of what can happen when not enough power is available to be dispatched to meet peak demand. 

The use of molten salt, which retains heat at extremely high temperatures, as a storage technology is not new. Concentrated solar power plants also collect energy in the form of molten salt, although such plants have largely been abandoned in the U.S. The technology could enjoy new life alongside nuclear plants: TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear are only two of several private firms working to develop reactor designs that incorporate molten salt storage units, including U.K.- and Canada-based developer Moltex Energy.

The Gates-backed venture and its partner touted the “significant cost savings” that would be achieved by building major portions of their Natrium plants through not a custom but an industrial process — a defining feature of the newest generation of advanced reactors is that their parts can be made in factories and assembled on-site — although more details on cost weren’t available. Reuters reported earlier that each plant would cost around $1 billion.

NuScale Power

A day after TerraPower and GE Hitachi’s unveiled their new design, another nuclear firm — Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power — announced that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had completed the final phase of a major safety review of NuScale’s new small modular reactor design.

It was the first small modular reactor design ever to receive design approval from the NRC, NuScale said. 

The approval means customers can now pursue plans to develop its reactor design confident that the NRC has signed off on its safety aspects. NuScale said it has signed agreements with interested parties in the U.S., Canada, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Jordan, and is in the process of negotiating more. 

NuScale previously said that construction on one of its plants could begin in Utah in 2023, with the aim of completing the first Power Module in 2026 and the remaining 11 modules in 2027.

NuScale

An artist’s rendering of NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor plant.


NuScale Power

NuScale’s reactor is smaller than TerraPower’s. Entirely factory-built, each of its Power Modules would generate 60 megawatts of power. The design uses pressurized water reactor technology, with one power plant able to house up to 12 individual Power Modules. 

In a sign of the huge amounts of time and resources it takes to get new nuclear technology to the market’s doorstep, NuScale said it first completed its Design Certification Application in December 2016. NRC officials then spent as many as 115,000 hours reviewing it, NuScale said, in what was only the first of several phases in the review process. 

In January 2019, President Donald Trump signed into law the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), designed to speed the licensing process for advanced nuclear reactors. The law had widespread bipartisan support, underscoring Democrats’ recent tentative embrace of nuclear power.

An industry eager to turn the page

After a boom in the construction of massive nuclear power plants in the 1960s and 70s, the world’s aging fleet of nuclear plants suffers from rising costs and flagging public support. Nuclear advocates have for years heralded so-called small modular reactors or SMRs as the cheaper and more agile successors to the first generation of plants. But so far a breakthrough on cost has proved elusive, and delays in development timelines have been abundant. 

Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested on Twitter that the nuclear designs used by TerraPower and GE Hitachi had fallen short of a major innovation. “Oh brother. The last thing the world needs is a fleet of sodium-cooled fast reactors,” he wrote.  

Still, climate scientists view nuclear energy as a crucial source of zero-carbon energy if the world stands a chance at limiting global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Nearly all mainstream projections of the world’s path to keeping the temperature increase below those levels feature nuclear energy in a prominent role, including those by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency (IEA). 

According to the IEA: “Achieving the clean energy transition with less nuclear power is possible but would require an extraordinary effort.”

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Gates updates

New Updates: Bill Gates Criticizes U.S. Coronavirus Testing – Barron’s


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N95 masks sit stored in a medical supply area at the Austin Convention Center, which is being prepared for use as a field hospital for Covid-19 patients, if Austin hospitals were to become overwhelmed.


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Here’s what you need to know about the impact of Covid-19 to navigate the markets today.

• The state of Covid-19 testing in the U.S. is “mind-blowing,”
Microsoft
founder and philanthropist Bill Gates said Sunday in an interview on CNN.
“You’re paying billions of dollars in this very inequitable way to get the most worthless test results of any country in the world,” Gates said. “No other country has this testing insanity.” He blamed the problems with the American testing regime on early mistakes followed by an unwillingness on the part of the federal government to improve testing “because they just want to say how great everything is.” One particular fix Gates said he suggested to the federal government that went unheeded was to deny reimbursement to any test provider that takes more than 3 days to return results to a patient. Right now, he pointed out, commercial testing companies have an incentive to test as many people as they can with no regard for how quickly they can turn around results, because they are being reimbursed by the government based on how many tests they complete, even if they results aren’t timely and therefore, not useful for people receiving them.

New Zealand has now gone 100 days without a reported case of domestically transmitted Covid-19, it’s Director General of Health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield said Sunday. The island nation’s response to the coronavirus has been one of the most successful in the world, but Dr. Bloomfield warned that the country could not become complacent. “We have seen overseas how quickly the virus can re-emerge and spread in places where it was previously under control, and we need to be prepared to quickly stamp out any future cases in New Zealand,” he said. In Australia, for instance, the country’s second-largest city Melbourne has had to impose a strict lockdown to combat a re-emergence of the virus.

The U.S. passed 5 million reported Covid-19 cases on Sunday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. There are almost 20 million reported cases globally, with the U.S. leading the world, followed by Brazil with just over three million cases. India has more than two million confirmed cases. Health officials estimate that the actual number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. is as much as 10 times higher than the number of reported cases due to infected Americans who don’t show symptoms and the limited number of tests available. The U.S. also has the world’s highest number of Covid-19 fatalities, with a death toll of over 162,000.

TikTok and Twitter have held talks about an acquisition, The Wall Street Journal reports. It is unclear if
Twitter
will go ahead with a deal to buy the popular video-shaping app’s U.S. operations, which President Donald Trump has labeled a national-security risk and threatened to shut down, the WSJ reported. Microsoft said earlier this month that it was in talks to buy TikTok’s operations in the U.S., along with those in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. It’s unclear how Twitter would pay for a potential acquisition, while Microsoft has ample cash to do the deal with no need for financing if it chooses.

Vacant department store spaces in malls could be converted into Amazon fulfillment centers, The Wall Street Journal reported. Mall operator Simon Property Group is in talks to turn closed
J.C. Penney
and
Sears
stores in into distribution centers for the online retailer, the Journal said, citing unnamed sources.
Amazon
already has a foothold in some malls, which have rented their parking lots out for delivery vans. Malls’ prime location near highways and homes make them ideal spots for fulfillment centers. Rents typically range from between $4 and $19 dollars a square foot.

• U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar became the highest-level U.S. government official to visit Taiwan in four decades on Sunday, when he touched down on the island that China claims is rightly its own. The move is a further escalation in U.S.-China relations and the Chinese government said it would retaliate, although it didn’t say precisely what action it might take. China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province and doesn’t recognize it as a sovereign nation. The U.S. hasn’t had official ties with Taiwan since 1979. Secretary Azar’s arrival was broadcast on live on Taiwanese TV and the nominal focus of his trip is on public health cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, which has had less than 500 total Covid-19 infections and just 7 reported deaths from the virus.

• President Donald Trump signed executive orders on jobless benefits and payroll tax deferrals on Saturday. The orders call for expired federal unemployment payments to be paid out at a reduced level after Democrats and Republicans could not reach an agreement on a broad coronavirus relief package. Americans will receive an additional $400 a week in extended benefits, President Trump said, down from the $600 a week in additional payments that Americans had received and that had expired on Aug. 1.

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Write to Ben Walsh at ben.walsh@barrons.com

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