Last month, Wyoming became ground zero for the future of nuclear power. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and the state of Wyoming announced their intent to construct a commercial fast reactor demonstration plant, known as the Natrium project. Experts are already debating the project’s merits. Can it really be built for just four billion dollars? Are sodium fast reactors more or less safe than current thermal reactor designs? Why are two of the richest men in the world asking the Department of Energy for millions of dollars of subsidies in the project? Will the project ever be completed?
All of these questions are in play. One question that’s not – the project’s nuclear weapons proliferation implications – however, needs to be. As Victor Gilinsky and I note in the attached piece that The National Interest just ran, “Bill Gates’ Fast Nuclear Reactor: Will It Bomb?” Bill Gates’ nuclear firm, TerraPower, plans on exporting the Natrium reactor. What’s worrisome is the reactor can’t work without uranium enriched to 20% (something we don’t want Iran or other countries to do because it brings nations close to getting bomb-grade) or the recycling of nuclear explosive plutonium (another nonproliferation no-no).
India and China are also interested in fast reactors. New Delhi wants to use theirs to make bombs; Beijing may as well. That’s why the United States has historically opposed commercializing such reactors and their related fuel cycles.
Before our government pours more money into such fast, “advanced small reactors,” it should identify what the associated proliferation risks are of pushing these projects.
By Henry Sokolski and Victor Gilinsky
TerraPower, the nuclear company founded by Bill Gates, just announced an agreement with private funders, including Warren Buffet, and the state of Wyoming to site its Natrium fast reactor demonstration project there. It is the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) flagship “advanced” small modular reactor (SMR) project, for which DOE will pay a heavy share, starting with $80 million this year.
“Fast” means Natrium relies on energetic neutrons as opposed to “slow” neutrons that drive all our current power reactors. That’s also what gives it the “advanced” label. DOE and nuclear enthusiasts have advertised that small, factory-built, modular reactors will be cheaper and safer, and will be so attractive to foreign buyers that they will revive America’s nuclear industry, currently dead in the water; that they will enable the United States to compete in an international market now dominated by China and Russia; and they will provide a solid nuclear industrial base for meeting U.S. military nuclear requirements.
With all these supposed advantages it is not surprising that DOE is pouring money into SMRs. And based on little more than slogans, it is also getting enthusiastic bipartisan Congressional support. To understand what is really going on, one has to look beyond most of DOE’s small reactor projects, mere distractions with little future, to TerraPower’s Natrium. This is not, by the way, the company’s original “traveling wave” concept. That one apparently did not work.
To read the full article, click here.