At least for now, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates is pulling back on nuclear power. He hasn’t changed his mind on the science—he puts his blame on the Trump Administration’s bitter relationship with China.
Gates invested in TerraPower in 2011 with the hope of helping to prove the company’s core concept: a so-called traveling-wave reactor (TWR) which would run on depleted uranium, as opposed to the enriched uranium commonly used in nuclear plants. The concept is appealing on several levels—not only would its small design lower the currently rising price of nuclear energy, it would actually consume the trash pumped out by today’s modern reactors.
In 2015, the company signed a deal with the Chinese government to be a small demonstration plant to be constructed by 2022. Since then, it has remained relatively low-profile. In 2017, Gates gave a speech at Peking University saying he was developing nuclear energy that was “dramatically safer and substantially cheaper” than what the world has previously known.
From trade to security to environmentalism, the Trump administration has taken an aggressive stance toward the Chinese government. In October 2018, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said that the United States “cannot ignore the national security implications of China’s efforts to obtain nuclear technology outside of established processes of U.S.–China civil nuclear cooperation.”
The Department of Energy then announced it would deny any new licenses from U.S. companies wishing to work with the Chinese government, and current licenses would not be given extensions. The department cited the indictment of the Chinese state-owned nuclear corporation in 2017 alongside Taiwanese-American Allen Ho, who was eventually jailed for assisting the Chinese state on nuclear issues.
In his year-end letter for 2018, Gates notes that “we had hoped to build a pilot project in China, but recent policy changes here in the U.S. have made that unlikely.”
Pulling out of the project leaves TerraPower’s future uncertain. According to company CEO Chris Levesque, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the price of a demonstration reactor is around $1 billion. Having to cancel a project worth such an extraordinary amount would likely be the death knell for most new players in any field. Most new players, however, aren’t funded by Bill Gates—still valued by Forbes to have a fortune north of $93 billion.
In his letter, Gates notes that the company “may be able to build … in the United States” under certain funding and regulatory conditions. He also announced that he would be taking up the mantle of nuclear energy in a more public way this year in actions unaffiliated with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change,” Gates says in his letter, “because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.” He adds that “problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation.”
For now, though, TerraPower’s technology looks like it may have to start from scratch.