How a billionaire and a Nobel Prize winner can come up with better ideas by putting their heads together
Billionaire Bill Gates and DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu have something in common. Both are getting ink in the Wall Street Journal for their support of small reactors. Gates is supporting one through his foundation. It is development of the so-called “traveling wave” reactor which will be designed to run on depleted uranium fuel from commercial light water reactors. Chu writes in a March 23WSJ OP ED that his agency will invest $39 million in small reactor R&D in 2011 assuming Congress agrees to that plan.
An added bonus to the media excitement is that the WSJ reported March 22 that Toshiba has approached Gates about joint nuclear R&D for its sodium cooled, solid state “nuclear battery” which could come on the market in 50 and 100 MW sizes. The news report is odd because of the very dissimilar technologies being developed by the two firms. Neither firm was forthcoming to the WSJ about the mutual benefits of a partnership.
Missing the point for leverage
As much as I’m in support of development of technology in this market space, both men come across as missing the real points of leverage to achieve success. Like Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.”
First, Gates and his team at Terrapower must realize by now that the path to commercial success runs through the doors of a nondescript office building in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC which are portals to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Second, unless or until Gates can get the reactor design certified by the NRC, his project has a huge reality check facing it.
Second, DOE’s investment of $39 million in small reactor R&D is the wrong place to put the money. Taking point one above as the springboard, why not use the money to create a fund to pay the NRC to move up the learning curve on how to license small reactors instead of sticking it to the investors? NuScale, B&W, Hyperion and several other firms developing small reactors, including Toshiba, can see this option in a heartbeat.
Unless the regulatory bottleneck is removed, all the talk about small reactors remind me of pulp magazine articles about ways to turn waste fast food frying oil into gasoline for your car. The technology works, but it doesn’t scale because the inventory of feedstock is highly variable in quality and widely distributed in terms of geography. What you’ve got is the nuclear energy equivalent of a lot of backyard garage tinkers, but no technology roadmap for their segment of the industry that takes market factors and regulatory issues into account.
Two heads are better than one
The breakthrough both Gates and Chu must have to achieve success is to reduce time to market. Surely Gates must know this. Why doesn’t someone put Gates and Chu in the same room so they can talk turkey? This meeting could create the pulling power needed to move the small reactor market segment ahead.
Gates might see some value talking to Toshiba, but he might get even more value talking to Chu about convincing Congress to change the NRC’s cost recovery rule for small reactors. Gates doesn’t need federal money to pursue his vision of a traveling wave reactor which means Chu has nothing to lose by talking to him.
Putting Bill Gates and Steven Chu in a congressional appropriation hearing room would snap a few heads to attention. It would generate a media storm of coverage about the funding needed to open a path through the NRC for all types of small reactor technologies. This is one of those times when two heads are better than one.
# # #