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TerraPower advances plans for next-gen nuclear power

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has gotten a boost on two fronts in its campaign to pioneer a new generation of safer, less expensive reactors.

On Aug. 24, the Idaho National Laboratory announced that an industry team including TerraPower has been selected to begin contract negotiations to design and build the Versatile Test Reactor, a federally financed facility that’s meant to test advanced nuclear reactor technologies. The team is led by Bechtel National Inc., with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy among the other industry partners. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is on the concept development team.)

“We received excellent proposals from industry, which is indicative of the support to build a fast-spectrum neutron testing facility in the United States,” Mark Peters, director of the Idaho Falls lab, said in a news release. “We are excited about the potential for working with the BNI-led team.”

The plan calls for work on the project to begin in 2021, and for the reactor to be completed by as early as 2026.

Then, on Aug. 27, the Bellevue-based venture announced that it’s working with GE Hitachi on a reactor architecture that could supplement solar and wind energy systems with always-on electricity.

The system architecture, known as Natrium, would involve building cost-competitive, sodium fast reactors as well as molten-salt energy storage systems. The heat generated by the 345-megawatt reactors could be stored in the molten-salt tanks, and converted into grid electricity to smooth out fluctuations in renewable energy.

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TerraPower, GE Hitachi team up on nuclear project

Versatile Test Reactor design
This cutaway graphic shows the design of the Versatile Test Reactor. (DOE Illustration)

TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., is collaborating with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy in pursuit of a public-private partnership to design and construct the Versatile Test Reactor for the U.S. Department of Energy.

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TerraPower branches out into medical isotopes

Nuclear processing
A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory opens a uranium-233 canister inside a glovebox. (ORNL Photo)

TerraPower, the nuclear research venture founded by Bill Gates, is joining with Isotek Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy in a public-private partnership aimed at turning what otherwise would be nuclear waste into radiation doses for cancer treatment.

The partnership matches TerraPower’s demand for radioisotopes with the federal government’s need to dispose of nuclear material that’s been stored for decades at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Isotek, a DOE contractor that’s responsible for overseeing Oak Ridge’s inventory of uranium-233, will use the proceeds from the sale of extracted thorium-229 to accelerate the schedule for disposal of the Cold War stockpile. In a news release, the Department of Energy said the deal will save $90 million in taxpayer dollars.

TerraPower will use the thorium that it purchases from Isotek to further medical applications of radioisotope technologies.

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Nuclear venture targets coal-based carbon fiber

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)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the venture that’s working on next-generation nuclear reactors with backing from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is now working on next-generation uses for coal as well.

The privately held company, based in Bellevue, is part of a team that’s receiving more than $1 million in federal funding to develop an emissions-free process to produce carbon fiber from coal.

The prime recipient of the funding is Ramaco Carbon — a coal resource, research and carbon manufacturing company based in Sheridan, Wyo. Ramaco focuses on developing high-value applications for coal that don’t involve its use in power plants.

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Peek inside TerraPower’s nuclear research lab

TerraPower lab
A panoramic view of TerraPower’s laboratory shows a full-scale fuel assembly test stand at the center of the frame – with lab facility manager Brian Morris pointing out details toward the left of the frame. The circle that’s painted on the floor indicates how big the nuclear containment vessel would be. Click on the picture for a larger version. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 90’s crush of traffic, a decade-old startup founded by Bill Gates is running tests aimed at building the next generation of nuclear reactors.

You’ll find no more than a smidgen of radioactive material at the privately funded venture, known as TerraPower. But if Microsoft’s co-founder and TerraPower’s other leaders have their way, the technologies being pioneered at the 10,000-square-foot lab could boost electrical grids around the world.

We got a rare look inside the lab, which is housed alongside facilities for Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood, and we heard from TerraPower’s executives about the connection between Gates’ past as a co-founder of Microsoft and his vision for future energy innovation.

“If you think about Bill Gates’ accomplishments in computing, we’re really trying to repeat that for nuclear energy,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO. “We think nuclear is overdue for technology demonstrations.”

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Bill Gates endorses bill to boost nuclear power

TerraPower test
A technician places a full-size test fuel pin bundle in TerraPower’s pin duct interaction test apparatus. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working on traveling-wave reactor technology. (TerraPower Photo)

If dollars were votes, newly reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting nuclear energy innovation and advanced reactors would be a winner, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ strong endorsement today.

The world’s second-richest person is the founder and chairman of Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, a startup that’s working on next-generation nuclear fission reactors. Back in December, Gates listed nuclear energy research as one of his top policy priorities, and he reportedly followed up by promising lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money and line up another $1 billion in private capital if federal funds were approved for a TerraPower pilot project in the United States.

TerraPower had planned a pilot in China, but trade tensions upset the plan.

During the waning days of the previous congressional session, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a measure called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which would promote next-generation nuclear power by boosting research and setting up long-term agreements for federal power purchases from newly licensed reactors.

The bill would require the Department of Energy to demonstrate two advanced reactor concepts by 2025, followed by another two to five concepts by 2035.

That would brighten the outlook for TerraPower as well as other next-gen nuclear power companies such as Oregon-based NuScale Power, which is planning to build a small-scale modular reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2026.

There wasn’t enough time to move the bill out of committee last year — but on Wednesday, the legislation was reintroduced by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

That came as music to Gates’ ears, and today he let the world know on Twitter.

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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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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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