Why Bill Gates Gets it Right on Nuclear

 In Energy
By Landon Stevens

In the recently released Netflix documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates”, creators take an in-depth look at one of our generation’s greatest technologists, businessmen, and philanthropists. The three-part series highlights a trio of philanthropic and technological efforts by Gates to make life better for society.

Episode one focuses on his charity’s efforts to promote sanitation around the globe in an attempt to fight preventable infectious diseases. Episode two documents the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) and eradicate polio from the planet.

Episode three, however, veers from examining Gates’ attempts of addressing existing issues and looks at his proactive efforts for addressing the future concerns of climate change. His vehicle to impact history on climate change? New technologies in nuclear power.

It’s a Problem, But Who Pays?

By now many of us have heard Swedish child activist Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN warning world leaders that, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction,” and claiming, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Everywhere we turn a new version of a costly economic overhaul through a “Green New Deal” is being proposed by a 2020 Presidential Candidate.

While a recent Washington Post poll found that 76 percent of Americans now believe that climate change is either a “crisis” or a “major problem”, the same poll also found that over half of Americans would be unwilling to spend an additional two dollars on electric bills to address the issue. Additionally, 64 percent said they would oppose a ten-cent hike in gas taxes. So what options are out there?

According to Gates, at least a major part of the solution is to embrace nuclear power. “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.” That is why, in 2006, Gates founded TerraPower, a self-described nuclear innovation company whose aim is to develop “technologies that offer energy independence, environmental sustainability, medical advancement, and other cutting-edge opportunities.”

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear generation accounted for 19 percent of electricity in the U.S. in 2018 with nuclear generators proving to be by far the most efficient among their peers. While the capacity factor (overall percentage of time the generator was producing) for nuclear reactors was over 92 percent in 2018, natural gas, coal, wind, and solar averaged 57, 54, 37, and 26 percent, respectively.

History and Anxiety Around Nuclear

Unfortunately for nuclear advocates, three major historical accidents have damaged public perception of the technology. Three-mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have continued to keep the general public tense and have slowed the development of new reactors or next generation technology. Despite the heavy media coverage surrounding these incidents and the resulting fear across the globe, the overall impact on public health as a result of these events was quite limited.

Following the partial meltdown of the reactor at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania, for instance, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated: “The approximately 2 million people around TMI-2 during the accident are estimated to have received an average radiation dose of only 1 millirem above the usual background dose. To put this into context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year…In spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.”

A similar report by the International Atomic Energy Agency following the Fukushima incident in 2011, said: “No harmful health effects were found in 195,345 residents living in the vicinity of the plant who were screened by the end of May 2011…government health checks of some 1,700 residents who were evacuated from three municipalities showed that two-thirds received an external radiation dose within the normal international limit of 1 mSv/year, 98 percent were below 5 mSv/year, and 10 people were exposed to more than 10 mSv…[There] was no major public exposure, let alone deaths from radiation.”

Gates understands the public perception surrounding nuclear and has tried to limit any danger by improving technology, adding that he feels comfortable with today’s reactors. When asked in the documentary if he would be ok having his kids grow up near a nuclear plant he replies, “You bet. I’d rather have them live there than next to a coal plant or natural gas plant,” Gates said. TerraPower’s reactor is designed to learn from these past accidents and avoid the same vulnerabilities. Additionally, the waste generated by Gates’ units would be only 25 percent of that put out by traditional reactors.

The Future of Nuclear

Despite the fear and distrust that surround the expansion of nuclear power, the truth is that it will be nearly impossible to meet any ambitious CO2 reduction targets without it. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear-generated electricity in the U.S. displaces 528 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, the equivalent of 111 million passenger vehicles.

While construction of nuclear reactors across the globe has slowed, new technologies in the space are showing promise in allowing a reimagining of how we use nuclear. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and NuScale are working towards getting the first Small Modular Reactor (SMR) online in the Western U.S. within 7 years. SMR’s offer smaller, more affordable, and more flexible solutions than traditional reactors.

To date over $1 billion dollars has been invested by the Department of Energy and private companies in the U.S. pursuing SMR’s. In the UK, another $250 million has been invested and their Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released a report highlighting a potential global market for 570 SMR units by 2030.

The International Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency said in 2015 that the world would need to double its capacity of nuclear generation by 2050 to meet an international warming target of 2°C. While Gates has described the challenge of tackling climate change and developing new technologies as “daunting,” he has also warned that, “Without this next generation of nuclear, nuclear will go to zero.”

With the global determination rising to tackle climate challenges, it looks like Bill is right. Nuclear power should play a major in future energy policies.