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Bill Gates shifts nuclear sights from China to U.S.

TerraPower lab
TerraPower, a venture co-founded by Bill Gates, conducts nuclear energy research at a 10,000-square-foot laboratory in Bellevue, Wash. (TerraPower Photo)

In his year-end letter, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates says his to-do list for 2019 includes persuading U.S. leaders to regain America’s leading role in nuclear energy research and embrace advanced nuclear technologies such as the concept being advanced by his own TerraPower venture.

“The world needs to be working on lots of solutions to stop climate change,” Gates wrote in the wide-ranging letter, released tonight. “Advanced nuclear is one, and I hope to persuade U.S. leaders to get into the game.”

Gates acknowledged that tighter U.S. export restrictions, put in place by the Trump administration, have virtually ruled out TerraPower’s grand plan to test its traveling-wave nuclear technology in China.

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Hanford sounds all-clear after steam sparks alarm

Hanford waste site
Crews inspected the area around a tunnel at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that contains nuclear waste. (Department of Energy Photo)

Workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state were told to take cover for several hours today when steam was seen escaping from a tunnel where radioactive waste is being stored.

The take-cover order was lifted at about 12:15 p.m. PT when inspectors confirmed that there was no radiological release from Tunnel 2 at Hanford’s Plutonium Uranium Extraction facility, or PUREX, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office reported in an update.

For the past few weeks, Hanford workers have been filling the 1,688-foot-long tunnel with thousands of cubic yards of grout to guard against the tunnel’s collapse. The tunnel, which dates back to 1964, houses a set of 28 rail cars that contain contaminated equipment. The last rail car was placed inside in 1996.

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Northwest nuclear projects win fresh federal funds

NuScale facility
Artwork shows NuScale’s concept for a small modular nuclear reactor. (NuScale Illustration)

Oregon-based NuScale Power is the big winner in today’s round of grants from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy for innovations in nuclear reactor technology.

NuScale is receiving $7 million from the Energy Department and $7.1 million from other sources to advance the company’s plans to build its first small-scale modular reactor by 2026. NuScale was granted $40 million in federal funds nearly three months ago under the same program.

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Project tests nuclear reactor that’s made for space

Kilopower test
Kilopower lead engineer Marc Gibson and Vantage Partner’s Jim Sanzi install hardware on the Kilopower assembly at the Nevada National Security Site during testing in March. (NNSS Photo)

That’s one small step for nuclear reactors on the moon and Mars, and several giant leaps to go.

Eventually, the technology pioneered by NASA’s Kilopower project could provide the electricity required to keep the lights on at off-Earth outposts, and to turn space resources into the breathable air, water and rocket fuel required for those outposts.

“When we go to the moon, and eventually on to Mars, we are likely going to need large power sources and not rely on the sun,” Jim Reuter, NASA’s acting associate administrator for space technology, explained today during a news briefing at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

The first step is to confirm that the technology works, reliably and safely. And officials from NASA and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, say they did that during a series of tests conducted between last November and March at NNSA’s Nevada National Security Site.

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Tri Alpha Energy fires up new plasma machine

Tri Alpha Energy's Norman plasma generator
Tri Alpha Energy’s plasma generator has been nicknamed “Norman” in honor of the company’s late co-founder, physicist Norman Rostoker. (Tri Alpha Energy Photo)

Tri Alpha Energy, the fusion energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it has achieved first plasma in its latest generator.

The $100 million device at Tri Alpha’s lab in Foothill Ranch, Calif., had been known as C-2W, but it’s been renamed “Norman” in honor of company co-founder Norman Rostoker, a fusion physicist who died in 2014 at the age of 89.

“We believe this machine will continue to prove the approach to plasma physics he first envisioned and to which he dedicated his life,” Michl Binderbauer, Tri Alpha’s president and chief technology officer, said today in a news release.

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Tunnel collapse sparks emergency at Hanford

Hanford tunnel collapse
This picture shows the 20-by-20-foot area where soil has caved in over a storage tunnel at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (Hanford via Twitter)

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation says a 20-foot section of a tunnel system where it stores contaminated material and equipment collapsed today, sparking an emergency alert and restrictions on workers’ movements. No injuries were reported.

A remotely operated TALON robot surveyed the scene and detected no release of contamination, Hanford said in its online update on the emergency.

Hanford said workers conducting routine surveillance this morning discovered the 20-by-20-foot hole in the roof of one of the two storage tunnels at the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, or PUREX Plant, in the site’s central 200 East Area.

The tunnels were constructed of wood and concrete during the Cold War, and covered with about 8 feet of soil. They’ve been used for decades to store contaminated equipment from plutonium production operations at the site in southeastern Washington state.

The cave-in occurred in the 200 East Area, around a spot where the two tunnels join together, Hanford said.

The workers on the surveillance team were evacuated, and thousands of employees sheltered in place for hours. As of this afternoon, all non-essential employees at the Hanford site have been released, officials said in a tweet.

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Why war? Exhibit takes on a burning question

Atom bomb replicas
Replicas of the first atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, are on display in the “Why War” exhibit at the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

EVERETT, Wash. – The idea behind the Flying Heritage Collection’s groundbreaking new exhibit about the causes and effects of conflict, “Why War,” was born five years ago – and the man behind the idea is none other than Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who owns the collection.

“He’s the ‘Idea Man,’ as you know,” said Adrian Hunt, the collection’s executive director, referring to Allen’s memoir.

The Flying Heritage Collection shows off scores of historic aircraft and other military artifacts in a 57,000-square-foot hangar complex next to Everett’s Paine Field, including a German V-2 rocket, a Soviet Scud missile system and a couple of tanks.

Hunt recalled that Allen raised a big-picture question during a conversation about the collection and its future: “At some level, don’t we just have a lot of weapons on display? … We should do something to provide some context.”

That set off years of thinking and designing, aimed at putting together an interactive exhibit to explain why conflicts arise, how warfare has changed, and how war affects societies. Hunt says the resulting 2,500-square-foot exhibit, which opens to the public on March 4, is the only one of its kind in the U.S.

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Need for nuclear option explained, with toasters

If renewable energy is on the rise in America, why should we even bother with nuclear power? Seattle tech maverick Nathan Myhrvold, who’s backing a next-generation nuclear venture called TerraPower, explains the rationale in terms of toasters.

Myhrvold lays out his toaster analogy in an extended video clip from “Nova: The Nuclear Option,” a PBS documentary that premieres tonight.

The program looks at the prospects for nuclear power five years after an earthquake and tsunami dealt a crippling blow to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. Fukushima’s foul-up dealt a blow to nuclear power’s image as well, but tonight’s show focuses on next-generation technologies aimed at making fission-generated power safer and easier to manage.

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Contamination found at another Hanford tank

Image: Double-shell tank
This graphic shows a cutaway view of a double-shell nuclear waste storage tank at the Hanford Site. (Credit: Washington State Department of Ecology)

Workers at Eastern Washington’s Hanford Site are trying to track down the source of radioactive contamination at an underground waste storage tank, one week after an internal leak sparked concern about a different tank at the facility.

Both double-walled tanks were put into service 45 years ago to hold radioactive and chemical wastes from plutonium production for the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Each tank is 75 feet wide and can hold a million gallons of waste.

One of the tanks, AY-102, has been the subject of concern for years. That’s where an alarm went off on April 17, when liquid waste and sludge leaked through the tank’s inner wall and built up to a depth of 8 inches in the space between the inner and outer walls.

That leak was cleaned up, and nearly all of the waste that was in AY-102 has been transferred to other storage tanks. But now the U.S. Department of Energy says air filter samples from the space between the walls in the other tank, AY-101, registered higher than normal levels of radioactive contamination this month.

“While these readings were higher than normal, they were well below the alarm level,” the Energy Department’s Office of River Protection said in a statement.

So far, visual inspections and detection instruments have shown no evidence of a leak in the tank’s inner wall, but workers at the Energy Department and its contractor for the tank farms, Washington River Protection Solutions, are continuing to look. “DOE is conducting engineering analysis and assessments to determine potential causes of the readings,” the department said.

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Hanford waste removal resumes after leak check

Workers install transfer lines in March to connect the equipment for transferring toxic waste from Hanford’s Tank AY-102 to another double-shell tank. (Credit: DOE)
Workers install transfer lines in March to connect the equipment for transferring toxic waste from Hanford’s Tank AY-102 to another double-shell tank. (Credit: DOE)

The U.S. Department of Energy says there’s no sign that toxic waste has leaked into the environment from a double-shell storage tank at Eastern Washington’s Hanford Site, and it has resumed operations to remove the waste from the tank.

Last weekend, an alarm was set off when sensors detected that the level of sludge had risen to about 8 inches deep in the space between the inner and outer walls of Tank AY-102.

Leaks in the inner wall of that underground tank have been causing problems for years, and last month, workers began pumping the mixed radioactive and chemically toxic waste out of the tank for storage in other double-shell tanks. Even before the procedure began, planners determined there was a chance that disturbing the material in AY-102 could cause more waste to leak into the space between the walls.

“We were prepared for this event,” Glyn Trenchard, the Energy Department’s deputy assistant manager for Hanford’s tank farms, said April 21 in a statement.

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