INNOVATION HUB
10:01 am
Thu November 29, 2012

Innovation Hub 12/01/12: New Nuclear

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An aerial view of a nuclear waste container at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Credit Savannah River Site / Flickr Creative Commons

Nathan Myhrvold may be best known for getting recruited to work at a little company named Microsoft in 1986, where he served as Chief Technology Officer under Bill Gates.

But when Myhrvold retired in 1999 at the age of 40, having made a fortune, he still had a few projects he wanted to tackle. One of them was creating the cutting edge cookbook “Modernist Cuisine.” The other had to do with a different appetite: America’s — and increasingly the world’s — demand for energy.

Wind turbines serve as one form of alternative energy — but they may not be able to keep up with worldwide demand.
Credit NNECAPA / Flickr Creative Commons

Defining the Problem

The problem with energy, Myhrvold says, is that there’s not enough of it. “Right now every American uses about 10 kilowatts of energy…that’s very much like you have 10 toasters running [twenty four-seven],” he explains. The world average energy use is currently 2 kilowatts per person — but rapid development in countries like China, Japan, and India mean that number will soon surge. In the next century, Myhrvold predicts, the world will need to increase its energy supply by a factor of five.

In order to achieve such a massive increase, Myhrvold explains we will need a cost-effective energy source that won’t emit harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But, most importantly, the energy source would need to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Many of our alternative energy sources don’t fit the bill — after all, you can only create solar energy while the sun shines, and wind energy when it’s blustery. Dependence on environmental factors leads a plant to produce an average energy output of only 20% of what it would generate at peak productivity, Myhrvold says.   

The TerraPower reactor would use nuclear waste — such as these empty containers at a plant in South Carolina — as fuel.
Credit Savannah River Site / Flickr Creative Commons

A Nuclear Solution

Myhrvold’s solution was to revolutionize how we think about nuclear energy. He was a creator of TerraPower, which aims to build the first carbon-free nuclear power plants using depleted uranium. Why does Myhrvold think we should go nuclear? “Nuclear is about the only carbon [dioxide]-free energy source that operates 7x24,” he explains. In other words, nuclear energy could potentially solve the world energy supply and demand problem.

But traditional nuclear power plants create problems of their own — they can be costly, unsafe and they depend on active uranium, which is a scarce resource. TerraPower has created a nuclear reactor that works around these problems. It’s called the "Traveling Wave Reactor,” and it is powered by nuclear waste rather than active uranium. 

“We could take the nuclear waste that’s already cluttering up America, and we could run 100 percent of America’s energy needs for more than 100 years,” Myhrvold says.

Diminishing nuclear waste while creating clean energy? It sounds like an ideal solution to the world’s impending energy problem. But with no Traveling Wave Reactors currently in use, we’ll just have to wait and see.  

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