The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Bill Gates is selling Washington on the promise of nuclear power

with Paulina Firozi


Bill Gates is no stranger to Washington. His foundation has a big office here. And last March he met with President Trump and talked about preventing disease and spreading vaccines.

Recently Gates visited some key members of Congress. This time he was talking about what he sees as a key part of the answer for combating climate change: a return to nuclear power. And the Microsoft co-founder was trying to persuade Congress to spend billions of dollars over the next decade for pilot projects that would test two or three new designs for nuclear power reactors.

As I wrote in Sunday’s paper, Gates has been thinking about nuclear power for a while. He founded TerraPower in 2006 and during his recent visits to Capitol Hill, he told lawmakers that he personally would invest $1 billion and raise $1 billion more in private capital to go along with federal funds for a pilot of his company’s never-before-used technology, according to congressional staffers.

“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,” Gates said in his year-end public letter. “The problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation.”

Gates’s latest push comes at an important turn in climate politics. Nuclear power has united both unpopular industry executives and a growing number of people — including some prominent Democrats — alarmed about climate change.

“I remain convinced that advancing nuclear … remains in our interest for both climate and national security reasons, and in the end we will not get across the finish line without direct government engagement,” former energy secretary Ernest J. Moniz said in an email. “This is not special to TerraPower — it’s a generic challenge.”

But many nuclear experts say that Gates is the wrong messenger and that his company is pursuing a flawed technology. They say that any new nuclear design is likely to come at a prohibitive economic cost and take decades to perfect, market and construct in any significant numbers.

Lawmakers are listening to him, though. Through the Energy Department, Congress approved $221 million to help companies develop advanced reactors and smaller modular reactors in fiscal 2019, above the budget request. But Gates and TerraPower, which received a $40 million Energy Department research grant in 2016, are looking for more.

With some Democrats reconsidering opposition to nuclear energy dating back to the Three Mile Island accident 40 years ago, Gates met with lawmakers from both parties, including Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), both senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Last month, he had dinner with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and three other senators.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said TerraPower is one of many companies that is raising the public’s hopes for advanced nuclear reactor designs even though they’re still on the drawing boards and will remain unable to combat climate change for many years.

“We think the vendors of advanced nuclear power designs are saying they can commercially deploy them in a few years and all over the world,” Lyman said. “We think that is counterproductive because it is misleading the public on how fast and effective these could be.”

Gates is a believer in tapping innovation on the climate front. He has invested heavily in other nascent technologies — much of it related to energy storage — in search of the sort of breakthrough he hopes will slow global warming. And Gates also gave $1 million to the campaign to approve a ballot initiative for a carbon “fee” in the state of Washington. (The effort failed.) But he has warned that a focus on solar and wind would be “dangerous.”

Gates, who declined interview requests, won’t say how much he has invested in TerraPower, but the Bellevue, Wash.-based company has about 150 employees.

Many nuclear power experts say that the technology Gates is promoting — called a “traveling wave reactor” — does not work as advertised, at least not yet. “These designs . . . require advances in fuel and materials technology to meet performance objectives,” a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report said last year.

In his letter, Gates praised TerraPower’s “traveling wave” technology. He said it “is safe, prevents proliferation, and produces very little waste” — important selling points in Congress, which has not settled on the location of a site for long-term waste storage.

Gates has compared the technology to a candle. He said that uranium-235, which is burned in conventional light-water reactors, would be used to ignite the rest of the candle, burning up depleted uranium-238 that is treated as waste.

And instead of water, it would use liquid sodium to cool the plant, which TerraPower said would be more efficient.

Gates has said the reactor could be placed in a vessel underground and left there for 60 years without refueling. That would reduce chances for human error and defuse concerns about long-term spent fuel storage or the theft of nuclear material during refueling or fuel reprocessing, the company said.

But critics say TerraPower has been stumbling over a handful of obstacles.

First, TerraPower has discovered that the traveling wave didn’t travel so well and that it would not evenly burn the depleted uranium in the “candle.” 

Second, and partly as a result, it needed to change the design to reshuffle the fuel rods — and do that robotically while keeping the reactor running. Third, it has struggled to find a metal strong enough to protect the fuel rods from a bombardment of neutrons more intense than those commonly used in reactors — and for a much longer period of time.

TerraPower’s Marcia Burkey said in an email that the company has been researching new steel alloys. It has sent ingots to a unique Russian test reactor and brought them back for examination. She said the company had made important advances in that and other areas.

In many ways, TerraPower’s design resembles fast-breeder reactors. Fast breeders have faster-moving neutrons, the subatomic particles that trigger fission.

Allison Macfarlane, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said earlier versions of fast-breeder reactors have turned in a “dismal performance.” The United States built two small reactors at a government laboratory in Idaho, Japan built a commercial unit called Monju, and France built two called Phenix and Superphenix — and all of them have been shut down.

TerraPower also suffered a setback in October when the Energy Department effectively killed any chance of building a demonstration reactor in China. The department announced measures to prevent “China’s illegal diversion” of U.S. civilian nuclear technology for military purposes.

Three years earlier, TerraPower had unveiled an agreement to establish a joint venture with China National Nuclear Corp. to build a pilot reactor. But the Energy Department, in a move that seemed aimed directly at TerraPower, said it would deny new license applications or extensions to existing authorizations related to the Chinese state-owned company.

TerraPower has been working on “advanced” nuclear technology for a decade, and it remains far from filing a final proposal for review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In fact, a small modular reactor design by NuScale Power is the application before the NRC. The commission is expected to complete its review by September 2020, NuScale says.

Since 2016, TerraPower has also been working with the Energy Department and Southern Co. on another reactor design. That one would rely on molten salt as both coolant and fuel. TerraPower believes an advanced molten salt reactor could be more efficient and produce less waste than current models.

However, that technology was examined in different countries 60 years ago — and abandoned. Lyman said the molten salt was “highly corrosive, so you need special materials for the reactor. That’s an engineering problem they still have to confront.”

The political engineering problem still needs work, too, though some surprising bipartisanship has taken place over the past year.

An unusual coalition of Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) sponsored legislation aimed at speeding up NRC reactor approvals and capping company costs. The Senate passed the bill Dec. 20 and the House on Dec. 21. The measure was seen as a triumph for the industry group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, which called it “a significant, positive step toward reform.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists took a neutral stance on the measure, which was altered before passage to protect the latitude of the NRC. But Lyman said the group still did not like the “idea of Congress micromanaging NRC licensing activities.”

For all nuclear designs, both new and old, the colossal expense of nuclear construction and the absence of a carbon tax remain obstacles.

In the United States, only one new nuclear reactor has been completed in three decades. Two were shelved in 2017. Two others in Georgia are running wildly behind schedule and over budget with costs running around $27 billion, more than double the original estimate.



—Temporary shutdown relief, but a serious backlog awaits: Federal workers will get a temporary reprieve after Trump agreed to sign legislation to reopen the government through February 15. But the massive bureaucratic reboot necessary to get nine Cabinet agencies and dozens of other federal agencies back up and running means it could take weeks or months for things to return to normal, The Post’s Lisa Rein, Juliet Eilperin and Sarah Kaplan report along with a team of colleagues. “The National Park Service will need to restore basic amenities at hundreds of parks and monuments, removing accumulated trash and plowing multiple feet of snow,” they write. “The EPA, for example, must now update its enforcement actions database, which has sat idle for more than a month, along with other key computer registries and air and water permits across the country.” Gary Morton, president of a union representing thousands of Environmental Protection Agency employees asked, “[H]ow much will we be able to accomplish before we have to start worrying about shutdown procedures again if they don’t reach a deal?”

Research will take time to get up and running, too: There are almost 2,000 research grants ready to be reviewed that piled up for the National Science Foundation during the impasse. A program director for the foundation told The Post it “doesn’t feel resolved at all." “I’ll be very happy to see my colleagues and make a little progress. But it’s not like we feel relieved. We worry that we’re just going to be used again in three weeks, if nothing is resolved,” the program director said.

Even dinosaurs were shut down: Paleontologists looking forward to fossil research were on standby during the more-than-month-long shutdown. Fieldwork planning was paused, student recruitment for field research was halted until funding was available, Brian Switek reports for The Post. “Planning on key conferences has been on hold,” he writes. “Even the process of how new discoveries make their way to publication has come to a halt for anyone needing Interior Department paleontologists to review papers based on findings made on federal lands.”

Why the clock tower at Trump’s hotel stayed open: The historic site at the top of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, which houses the Trump International Hotel, stayed open during most of the government shutdown. The General Services Administration, which leases the Old Post Office to the Trump Organization, said in a post on its website that it “was authorized to pay the National Park Service to keep the observation tower open, even though the Park Service’s funds lapsed during the shutdown,” The Post’s Hamza Shaban reports. “The GSA said the money came from the Federal Buildings Fund, which is “primarily supported by rent paid to GSA from other federal entities.” The GSA told The Post the clock tower was one of 8,000 properties across the country funded through the Federal Buildings Fund that were “operating as normal” during the shutdown.

— “There is a lot I don't understand about climate change”: Bill Wehrum, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the office of air and radiation, said the administration is focusing on climate change but stopped short of calling it a crisis. At a Washington event on Friday, when asked whether the EPA is determining whether global warming is a crisis, he said: “I’m trying to figure that out. I’ll admit I did not come to the agency as a climate change expert,” Reuters reports. “I’ll admit, there is a lot I don’t understand about climate change.” Wehrum also said he’s had a “series of briefings with climate change experts to help me better understand this … Everybody is still exploring the science of climate change.”

— The cost of Trump’s rollbacks: The Trump administration’s push to roll back environmental regulations will lead to “more premature deaths and illnesses from air pollution, a jump in climate-warming emissions and more severe derailments of trains carrying explosive fuels,” the Associated Press reports, based on an analysis of 11 rules the administration aims to repeal or weaken. “The AP found the administration has sought to bolster the changes by emphasizing, and sometimes exaggerating, economic gains while minimizing negative impacts,” the report adds. 

— Trump admin stalling Puerto Rico aid: Billions in appropriations have not yet been delivered to the U.S. territory about a year after lawmakers approved funds to assist with hurricane recovery, Politico reports. “Beyond dollars and cents, two explanations are offered for the president’s stance,” per the report. “One is his fixation on Puerto Rico’s substantial debt and the notion that bond holders will profit from disaster aid. The second goes to the rawer stuff of Florida politics—a state important to Trump’s base and the site of closely fought elections this past year.” When asked about Trump’s current position on aid to Puerto Rico, a spokesperson told Politico to refer to an October Trump tweet in which he accused the territory’s leaders of using the “massive and ridiculously high” disaster funding to pay off debts.

— What about Zinke: After speaking at a crypto-finance conference in Switzerland last week in his new role as managing director of Artillery One, former interior secretary Ryan Zinke criticized division in Washington and explained it was part of the reason for his departure from the Trump administration. “D.C. has become a very angry, very hateful city,” he said in an interview with Vice News. “The sides are divided into a red team and a blue team. As a former military commander, I'm red, white, and blue — and for me, it was time.”

— 2020 watch: Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) urged climate action during her formal presidential campaign kickoff speech in Oakland, Calif. “Let’s speak truth,” she said. “Climate change is real and it’s happening now. From wildfires in the West to hurricanes in the East to floods and droughts in the heartland … We’re going to act based on science fact, not science fiction.”


— A new climate strategy: Climate scientists and meteorologists are trying something new to get through to people about the need to take action to combat climate change: Avoid the phrase all together. Instead, as these scientists discussed at the annual American Meteorological Society meeting this month, they’re taking the politics and political connotations out of discussions and talking about the consequences warming has on people’s lives, Politico Magazine reports. “The hope is to persuade the small but powerful minority that stands in the way of new policies to mitigate climate change’s worst long-term effects—as well as the people who vote for them—that something needs to be done or their own livelihoods and health will be at stake,” per the report. “The new language taking root is meant to instill this sense of urgency about what is happening in ways to which everyday citizens can relate—without directly blaming it on human activity.”

— Polar vortex headed to Great Lakes: A large lobe of the polar vortex is set to bring a serious outbreak of frigid arctic air to the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes by the middle of the week, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. “Some of this teeth-chattering cold will spill into the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as well, but it won’t be quite as extreme,” he writes. “The hardest-hit zone will span from Minnesota and Iowa through Michigan, including Minneapolis, Des Moines, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit.”


Coming Up

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of Nicole R. Nason to be Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration on Tuesday.  
  • The Environmental Law Institute holds an event on Tuesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing to examine the impact of the shutdown on federal workers, public health and the environment on Thursday.

— “Today was a rough day for the ice disk”: The days may be numbered for a perfectly round ice disk that formed on a river in Maine. Last Thursday, after getting hit by warmer temperatures and heavy rains, a New Jersey man took a chain saw to the disk, saying he wanted to make a “giant peace sign out of this,” The Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan writes. “We discourage anyone from attempting to go out on the ice,” the city of Westbrook, Maine wrote on Facebook. “It is not safe and the public is enjoying it [intact.] We hope the ice disk can rebound.”