The engineers working for Gates acknowledge the enormous challenges, but say they are convinced they are chasing the solution not only to energy and weapons proliferation, but also to climate change and poverty.
“If you could pick just one thing to lower the price of — to reduce poverty — by far you would pick energy,” Gates said as he introduced the reactor idea in a speech in 2010.
“Energy and climate are extremely important to these people, in fact, more important to them than anyone else on the planet,” he added, referring to killer floods, droughts and crop failures driven by carbon dioxide given off in energy production.
He illustrated his talk with a photograph of schoolchildren doing their homework under street lamps.
TerraPower senior vice president for operations Doug Adkisson said Gates had “a very humanitarian, but very cold assessment” about nuclear power and what it could do.
What drives him to nuclear power, he said, are the questions: “What have you got, and what can you do to raise the living standard of a whole lot of people?”
Despite its difficulties, some outside experts applaud Gates for trying.
“If you’ve got a huge amount of money, for whatever reasons, you are willing to make a long-term bet, which is not typical of what venture capitalists do,” said Burton Richter, a Nobel laureate in physics.
“It’s hard to get a 20-year thing from the standard venture capital world,” he said, adding that financing projects like TerraPower’s was more typical of governments or sovereign wealth funds.
One-hour meetings with Gates about TerraPower sometimes turn into five-hour meetings, associates say.
In Bellevue, TerraPower is a spinoff of Intellectual Ventures, a company cofounded by Myhrvold that focuses on inventing new products and techniques, among them improved seeds for subsistence farmers and methods for keeping vaccines cold for weeks in places where there is no electricity.
However, its critics call it a patent troll because it buys large portfolios of technology patents and uses them, they say, to sue software designers, smartphone makers and others.
TerraPower employees work in a building that also houses Intellectual Ventures, which includes a chamber for raising mosquitoes, a test kitchen for developing new ways to prepare and preserve food, and hand-built, high-
precision instruments for measuring tiny details of prototype nuclear fuel.
Some of its equipment has more than one use: The nuclear effort shares a supercomputer, one of the 500 fastest in the world, with the vaccine and disease vector section, and a tool that cuts steel with a jet of water propelled to three times the speed of sound is used for various programs.
The design is fundamentally different from that of reactors now in commercial use. Enrichment of the uranium-235 used by existing reactors has left behind hundreds of thousands of tonnes of very pure uranium-238 around the world.
One of the biggest challenges TerraPower faces is that neutrons — the particles released when a uranium atom is split in a reactor — damage a reactor’s metal parts. In today’s reactors, the problem is manageable because the fuel stays in place for no more than six years and can stand the bombardment, but the TerraPower fuel is supposed to stay in place for 30 years.