The 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.