Is Bill Gates planning to nuke us?
Bill Gates, ultimate power player
The short answer would be, “Yes, he’d like to.”
But that’s actually a good thing. I think.
Let me explain.
I’ve been looking at billionaires a bit lately and one of the all-time billioniest billionaires is Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and for 14 of the last 16 years Richest Human Being Alive, according to Forbes magazine.
Gates has dropped out of day-to-day management of Microsoft and currently devotes much of his time, money and energy to saving the world with his wife through their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Gates Foundation's three principal aims are to reduce hunger in the world, improve education in high schools and eradicate (primarily through the development of vaccines) some of the deadliest diseases in the world.
The Gates Foundation has a better shot at achieving its goals than any government-run or intra-government organization, mainly because the Gates organization is results-driven, not tied to any political agenda, and has superbrain Bill Gates calling the shots.
A private company that the Gates Foundation has working on a number of projects (including the elimination of malaria) is Intellectual Ventures, a 500-strong collection of scientists, inventors, physicists, biotechnologists, engineers and even patent attorneys devoted to “pure invention” (and, to be a little cynical, getting rich off "pure invention").
Here’s how the company describes itself on its website:
“Intellectual Ventures is the global leader in the business of invention. We collaborate with leading inventors, partner with pioneering companies, and invest both expertise and capital in the process of invention. Our work has generated one of the largest and fastest-growing intellectual property portfolios in the world. Our mission is to energize and streamline an invention economy that will drive innovation around the world."
The Washington-state-based company has a proven track record (with hundreds of millions earned already in royalty payments on its inventions) and a who’s who of high-tech investors — from Microsoft, Apple and Intel to Sony and Nokia to Google and eBay — that have poured about $5 billion into Intellectual Ventures.
(One of Intellectual Ventures’ working models for the elimination of malaria, by the way, is to go to the source and eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes in tropical zones by zapping them with lasers. The company has developed a system that identifies flying insects in a micro-second and sends out an instantaneous laser blast to kill only an identified mosquito, leaving butterflies and other non-targetted flying insects unharmed. When fully developed, it’s estimated that one of these handy, portable skeeter beaters can kill millions of mosquitoes in one night.)
Now I know all this is a long way from Bill Gates trying to nuke us, but I’m getting there.
A spin-off company from Intellectual Ventures is TerraPower, a group developing new-age, next-generation nuclear power that is truly clean, cheap, safe and does not require the enriched uranium fuel that also makes bombs and leaves stockpiles of radioactive waste collecting around the world.
Inspectors check out cylinders holding depleted uranium at a nuclear waste dump site in the U.S. There are hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of these storage cylinders full of radioactive waste piling up from about 400 nuke plants around the globe. Yes, Canada has more than its fair share, thanks to CANDU.
The technology that TerraPower is developing is called a traveling wave nuclear reactor.
(I’m using the American spelling of “travelling” because they’re the ones who named it and if you want to look it up on the Internet you really have to use the American spelling. There are thousands of articles on traveling wave reactors out there, but most of them are in professional journals for nuclear physicists and whatnot, so I get lost after the first six words — sometimes after the first three words.)
What makes a traveling wave reactor different from current (dirty, dangerous, expensive and toxically wasteful) nuclear reactors? And what does all this have to do with Bill Gates?
Firstly, a traveling wave reactor (TWR) uses a low grade of uranium as fuel — so low, in fact, that the uranium does not have to be reprocessed to make it enriched and so low that a TWR can be fueled by those stockpiles of still-ticking used nuclear rods that have to be pulled from current reactors every two or three years.
So that’s good: No enriched, bomb-grade uranium is needed anymore. The system also does not require the massive amounts of water that current nuke technology demands.
Secondly, a TWR is self-perpetuating: It creates a traveling-wave reaction that constantly creates new fissionable material as a byproduct of its energy production. I think the pros call it "burn and breed."
That means when a new TWR is built, enough fuel to power it for the reactor’s entire life — probably 60 years, but 100 years is possible — can be loaded in and locked down tight. Meltdown and contamination risks are greatly reduced, if not entirely eliminated.
This Intellectual Ventures/TerraPower diagram apparently explains the "concept" of how a traveling wave reactor works. I've been reading quite a bit about TWRs but I still don't understand the concept. Then again, I don't understand how CDs or telephones really work — or how airplanes can stay in the sky even when there's no volcanic ash.
So traveling wave reactors are much safer, cleaner, cheaper, more efficient and less destabilizing (politically and militarily speaking) than current nuclear technology.
They will also turn the whole debate over competing energy sources on its head. The flim-flam over government-subsidized wind turbine plantations is unnecessary. There will continue to be a vital role for solar power and fossil fuels (for very specific purposes) but the need to exploit massively expensive, environmentally damaging petrochemical sources like the Alberta oil/tar sands will pretty much disappear. (Sorry, Albertans — in your hearts, you know the tar sands project is so 20th Century.)
Here’s the link to a YouTube video of TerraPower CEO John Gilleland explaining how TWR technology works.
If all this is true (and it certainly seems to be more than wishful thinking), why haven’t we already shut down all the dirty old nuke plants and opened a Starbucks-like chain of these cheap, clean TWRs around the world?
Because the TWR does not exist yet.
TerraPower, the company on the cutting edge of this new technology, plans to have its first TWR prototype in operation by 2020 — still a decade away. And that’s just the prototype. Apparently you can't build a scale model of this type of thing — you have to build the Big Daddy to see if it really works the way it's supposed to.
Nuclear scientists have been discussing traveling wave reactors since the 1950s, but the stumbling block has been — until recently — the immense expense and complexity of the supercomputers required to initiate, operate and control the perpetual-ignition/re-creation sequence of traveling wave nuclear physics.
But Bill Gates (both privately and corporately) and Microsoft are on board now and Microsoft’s supercomputing muscle will provide the 1,000-plus Xeon core processors required to get the prototype plant in operation. There is apparently about five more years of preparation time required and another five years of construction before the first working TWR goes on line.
Pushing the whole process forward is a development deal Gates announced about six weeks ago between TerraPower and Japan’s Toshiba Corporation.
Toshiba is involved because it is already a nuclear industry leader and innovator. Toshiba currently is developing the 4S ultracompact nuclear reactor that, according to Wikipedia citing Japanese reports, “can operate continuously for 30 years without fuel handlings and generates 10,000 kilowatts.”
The Wikipedia entry also says “some of the technologies used in 4S are considered to be transferable to TWRs.”
When they go into commercial production, the TWRs are expected to be built in large power units (kicking out a continuous energy stream of more than 1,000 megawatts) and low-to-medium power units (300 megawatts) described as being about the size of a six-person hot tub. Current nuclear reactors each produce anywhere between 500 and 1,300 megawatts.
If and when all eight reactors at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station (the largest nuke facility in North America) are online together, they can produce more than 6,200 megawatts of power.
A megawatt is one million watts, by the way. A kilowatt is 1,000 watts — or the power to keep 10 100-watt light bulbs burning at the same time. A large commercial office building consumes two or three megawatts of power when it's busy.
So there you have it.
Yes, Bill Gates does want to nuke the world. But he’s doing it to provide the world with cleaner, safer, cheaper power.
He’s combining his current philanthropic bent with his business savvy and intellectual innovation to make himself and the Gates Foundation potentially wealthier while improving the lot of the world’s poor and powerless — and also the lot of those of us in the rich world facing the economic and environmental consequences of our gluttony for non-renewable energy.
It will be a decade before we really know if TWRs are the energy game-changer the experts think they will be. But I wouldn’t bet against Bill Gates on this one.