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Why Bill Gates' Nuclear Reactors are No Match for Russian Competitors

© AP Photo / Leon NealBill Gates speaks during the Global Investment Summit at the Science Museum, London, Tuesday, Oct, 19, 2021
Bill Gates speaks during the Global Investment Summit at the Science Museum, London, Tuesday, Oct, 19, 2021 - Sputnik International, 1920, 20.03.2024
Bill Gates-founded TerraPower is seeking permission to build a new-generation nuclear power plant in Wyoming in a bid to promote the technology in Europe, Africa and Asia to sideline Russian and Chinese competitors. Will Gate's bold new project succeed?
US firm TerraPower has thrown its hat into the ring of the global nuclear energy market in competition with Russia and China.
The company claims its Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactors are safer, cheaper and more energy efficient than water-cooled power plants.
Belonging to the class of small modular reactors (SMRs), Natrium is reportedly capable of producing 345 megawatts (MW) and could be boosted to 500 MW for over five-and-a-half hours if needed.

Obstacles in Way of TerraPower

The technology tapped by TerraPower is nothing new, explained Alexey Anpilogov, a political scientist and expert in the field of nuclear energy. The concept of using sodium-cooled fast reactors and depleted uranium-238 as fuel was explored in detail back in 1958 by physicists at the USSR's Kurchatov Institute.
"The [TerraPower] system uses liquid sodium as coolant [which does not moderate neutron speeds], because it is very important for uranium-238 to have fast neutrons to cause fission," Anpilogov told Sputnik. "But this reactor has a nuclear safety problem. In the process of fission of uranium-238, which occurs in this reactor, more plutonium-239 is produced, and plutonium-239 is the best raw material for the production of nuclear weapons."
It remains unclear what will happen with the plutonium produced in the result of nuclear reaction, especially if Gates supplies the technology to third countries.
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The nuclear proliferation issue has haunted TerraPower for quite a while, Anpilogov noted.
"Even though TerraPower was created back in 2008, that is, almost 16 years ago, it has yet to receive a number of licenses that are necessary for the construction of a pilot experimental installation," the scientist said. "I think that the nuclear security issue, namely the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, will be a proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over Bill Gates' project."
While the USSR — and later the Russian Federation — mastered producing and exploiting sodium-cooled fast reactors, similar projects in Japan and France were eventually shut down, the scientist noted.
"Despite having a seemingly good engineering school, and a generally high level of technological production, the French and Japanese projects turned out to be unreliable," Anpilogov said. "Russia has developed a proven operating technology. And Bill Gates has a beautiful idea. But this idea still needs to be turned into reality to achieve the stability of all parameters."
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US Energy Companies Trying to Catch Up With Russia, China

TerraPower and other US energy companies are striving to catch up with their peers in Russia and China, who exploit small, cost-effective SMR reactors of various types in Pevek and at Shidao Bay, according to the Financial Times.
Russia's floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) in Pevek is equipped with two KLT‑40S nuclear pressurized water reactors, whereas the Chinese use high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGR) to power the Shidao Bay Nuclear Plant.
When it comes to fast sodium-cooled reactors, the technology has already been used in Russia's high-power nuclear devices of the BN series, Anpilogov said.
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He pointed to the BN-800 reactor operating at Beloyarsk Unit 4 near the town of Zarechny, Sverdlovsk Region, Russia. The reactor boasts a generating capacity of 880 MW of electricity.

"Russia has implemented clear procedures for the BN-800 with regard to how fuel and its by-products are used because the BN-800 also produces weapons-grade plutonium-239, but it is constantly disposed of in the same fuel that is produced," Anpilogov explained. "We have no problems either with the United States, as some kind of external controlling force, or with the IAEA, which is the official authorized body of the UN that monitors the non-proliferation regime."

The smaller-capacity fast reactor niche could be filled by Russia's lead-cooled BREST-OD-300 (300MW) which is run on mixed uranium-plutonium nitride fuel (MNUP-fuel) specifically developed for the new generation of fast reactors by the Bochvar Institute, a research facility of Rosatom's TVEL Fuel Company. The project creates a base for development of commercial reactors, its designers say.
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US Set to Conquer EU's Nuclear Energy Market

According to the Financial Times, TerraPower has already secured pledges from the US government of $2 billion to build an atomic power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
TerraPower chief executive Chris Levesque told the newspaper that the company would begin construction work in June regardless of whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues permits by that time. The new nuclear power plant is expected to start operating in 2030.
Last December the company inked an agreement with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation to supply its Natrium reactors to the United Arab Emirates.
"Nuclear energy has great commercial attributes but it also has huge geopolitical attributes. So you have to look at the competition in China and Russia, who are looking at Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere as future markets," Levesque told the FT.
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Anpilogov noted that the US is already trying to squeeze Russia as well as its European rivals out of the nuclear fuel market. Washington has been twisting Europe's arm into abandoning Russian fuel as part of its latest sanctions spree.
In addition, US energy companies are seeking to increase their share in the nuclear reactor construction market at the expense of both Russian and European manufacturers.

"One needs to bear in mind that the departure of Germany [from the nuclear energy market], the problems of France with new-generation reactors, all this will be used by American companies in order to promote their technologies in every possible way, including the one TerraPower is still working on," Anpilogov said.

Europe does not have the political will and agility to fight for its technological sovereignty, according to the scientist.
"I think that the Americans will outplay the Europeans in the long run," Anpilogov said. "Europeans are divided; Europeans have long been incapable of doing any joint projects similar to that of Airbus. Bureaucrats have defeated businessmen due to the formal centralization of [the bloc's] economic life by the European Commission."
"The nuclear energy industry still involves high risks; these risks are not of a nuclear accident, but the risks of incorrect investments," the nuclear scientist added "And I don’t see political will in the EU for any new technological breakthroughs."
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