Why Aren't We Building a Traveling Wave Reactor in the U.S.?

Why Aren't We Building a Traveling Wave Reactor in the U.S.?
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Why Aren't We Building a Traveling Wave Reactor in the U.S.?
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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For well over a decade, Bill Gates has funded TerraPower, a startup seeking to design, build, and commercialize a revolutionary nuclear reactor. Their traveling-wave reactor design uses depleted uranium to operate, rather than uranium-235 like in current reactors, and is built so that if left unattended, it will slowly shut down, making a catastrophic meltdown a near impossibility. Optimistic estimates from the company suggest that current American stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel could be used in traveling-wave reactors to electrify the entire country for hundreds of years, and for far cheaper than current nuclear plants. This is carbon-free, baseload electricity that could easily provide the foundation for a next-generation, renewable-focused energy grid.

In partnership with the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), TerraPower was preparing to break ground on a prototype 600 MegaWatt reactor in Fujian province, but then political disaster struck. Late in 2018, Department of Energy policy changes stemming from the U.S. - China trade war forced TerraPower to end its agreement with the CNNC, leaving their potentially game-changing reactor without a home.

This saga brings up a key question: why was an American company, funded by one of America's most wealthy and respected philanthropists, going to China to build their next-generation nuclear reactor? Why not here? The simple answer is that Americans are notoriously afraid of and unfriendly toward nuclear power. Though nuclear has reliably and safely provided roughly 20% of electricity in the U.S. for the past quarter-century, a majority of Americans oppose it and politicians have repeatedly erected more and more regulatory roadblocks, driving up costs and making new nuclear power plants nearly impossible to build. Even innovative ideas like what Bill Gates and TerraPower are proposing are not welcome.

But that could change very soon. A bipartisan group of twenty senators, including twelve Republicans and eight Democrats, are currently sponsoring the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act. Its stated goals:

"Putting America back in first place on nuclear energy by establishing robust public-private partnerships between our leading research institutions and our best industry innovators. NELA will facilitate the path to market for advanced reactors by allowing the federal government to be an early adopter of commercialized technologies; demonstrating innovative concepts in partnership with the private sector; providing for needed scientific research facilities; breaking down fuel availability barriers when the market cannot; and training the next generation of nuclear scientists who will lead the U.S. to a brighter energy future."

This is exactly the sort of legislatory breakthrough needed to spur nuclear power innovation in the United States.

There's no guarantee that TerraPower's traveling-wave reactor will work in practice. Its system of liquid sodium cooling has been attempted before with little success. Moreover, power production efficiencies could end up far lower than what their simulations suggest. Other, unforeseen problems could also arise.

But we'll never know unless government gets out of the way and allows our scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers to build the nuclear reactor prototypes that could power the future.

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