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Bill Gates’ Traveling Wave Reactor Plan Criticized

Leon Walker

TWR3The traveling wave reactor concept championed by TerraPower, in which Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame, is a key investor, is “likely to be a commercial failure,” according to a report by the nonprofit advocacy group the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

The traveling wave reactor (TWR), first conceived in 1958, has been intensively investigated only since about 2006.  It is a sodium-cooled “fast” reactor design in which neutrons are not slowed down and the heat created by fission is carried away by liquid sodium, which is used to boil water.  In turn, the steam is used to drive a turbine-generator set to generate electricity. To date, no TWR has ever been built, according to Traveling Wave Reactor:  Sodium-cooled Gold at the End of a Nuclear Rainbow?.

Some $100 billion has already been invested by over half a dozen countries over more than six decades in an unsuccessful commercialization effort.  There has been “essentially no demonstrable learning curve”: the most recent sodium-cooled demonstration reactors in France and Japan have among the worst reliability records, the opinion report says.

The French demonstration reactor, Superphénix, operated at an average capacity factor of less than 7 percent over 11 years before being shut in 1996, the report says. Japan‘s Monju reactor, commissioned in 1994, and connected to the grid in 1995, had a sodium leak and fire in 1995. It was closed until May 2010, when it was restarted for testing, but suffered another accident in August 2010. It has not been restarted since, the report says.

Furthermore, the IEER alleges that any power derived from a TWR will be neither affordable or competitive. The Fermi I TWR, built in the 1960s, cost about $4,000 per kW, while the Fast Flux Test Facility, operational in 1980, cost over $10,000 per kW. Superphénix cost, commissioned in 1986, about $4,800 per kW, but Monju, commissioned nearly a decade later, cost over $20,000 per kW (all these costs are in 1996 dollars), the report says.



5 comments on “Bill Gates’ Traveling Wave Reactor Plan Criticized

  1. Molten salt reactors were the most reliable and convenient of the explored configurations in the mid 50′s at Oak Ridge, where a Thorium based molten salt reactor operated for over 6 years once teething problems normal to even opening a lawn chair were resolved. Molten salt with Thorium is already safe, effective, tested and much cheaper.

  2. I don’t understand the statements “To date, no TWR has ever been built” and “There has been “essentially no demonstrable learning curve” followed by a list of facilities and experiences. Fermi I was a commercial sized plant near Detroit, that melted down due to an obstruction left over from construction object at the bottom of the reactor vessel blocking a coolant passage.

    Look up the book “We Almost Lost Detroit”

  3. “TWRs could theoretically run, self-sustained, for decades without refueling or removing any spent fuel from the reactor”

    Unfortunately, the above statement violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t have a black box that just sits there and does nothing except produce an energy output.
    What happens in reality is that structural materials in the reactor core will degrade to unusability due to heat and high radiation levels long before the fuel is burnt.
    BTW, the sun is no exception.
    Why Bill Gates would throw money at this boondoggle is beyond me.

  4. Bill Gates – Your incredible. Nuclear Power is the answer. However, please consider funding a new Chemical Looping Plant which can use any carbon material for producing fuel. Also, Biobutanol fuel can be used as a direct replacement for gasoline with much less of the pollution. http://cbe.osu.edu/news/2013/01/doe-supported-project-advances-clean-coal-carbon-capture-technology
    Very, Very, BEST Conversion of coal to gas without heating
    Chemical Looping
    Chemical Looping is an innovative chemical process that converts carbon-based fuels such as coal, biomass, syngas and natural gas to electricity, liquid fuels and/or hydrogen with low to negative net carbon emissions. The process is a series of reduction-oxidation reactions where initially a carbon-based fuel is reacted with metal oxide at high temperatures. The carbon reacts with the oxygen from the metal oxides to form carbon dioxide and steam. By producing only carbon dioxide and steam gases, the carbon dioxide can be easily separated and captured by condensing the steam. Then using air, the reduced metal particles are re-oxidized back to metal oxides that can be circulated and used again in the chemical looping process.
    patented Coal-Direct Chemical Looping (CDCL) technology – a one-step process to produce both electric power and high-purity carbon dioxide (CO2).
    Large Scale Demonstration Project
    http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/looping203.htm
    Very, Very, BEST Conversion of coal to gas without heating
    and ….
    Here’s why we need N-Butanol aka Biobutanol
    •Has an energy value of 110,000 BTU/Gal, similar to gasoline (114,000) and much higher than ethanol (76,100).
    •Is non-corrosive and can be shipped via pipeline rather than in rail tanks and tank trucks.
    •Can be blended up to 40% with diesel fuel.
    •Lower emissions: reduces hydrocarbon emissions by 95%; carbon monoxide to .01%; and oxides of nitrogen by 37%.
    •Can be made from a wide variety of non-food feedstocks such as wood and forest residues, temperate prairie grasses, corn stover, bagasse, and green bio-waste as well as low cost sugar crops such as sweet sorghum or sugar beets.
    and
    It can be used in unmodified internal combustion engines blended with gasoline at any concentration (as opposed to 10%-15% for ethanol). Its low vapor pressure facilitates its application in existing gasoline supply

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