Bill Gates’ bad bet on plutonium-fueled reactors

By Frank N. von Hippel | March 22, 2021

Bill Gates in October 2018, at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium to promote health and clean-energy Initiatives. Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images Bill Gates in October 2018, at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium to promote health and clean-energy Initiatives. Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

One of Bill Gates’ causes is to replace power plants fueled by coal and natural gas with climate-friendly alternatives. That has led the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder to embrace nuclear power, and building nuclear power plants to combat climate change is a prospect worth discussing. But Gates has been persuaded to back a costly reactor design fueled by nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium and shown, through decades of experience, to be expensive, quick to break down, and difficult to repair.

In fact, Gates and his company, Terrapower, are promoting a reactor type that the US and most other countries abandoned four decades ago because of concerns about both nuclear weapons  proliferation and cost.

The approximately 400 power reactors that provide about 10 percent of the world’s electric power today are almost all water-cooled and fueled by low-enriched uranium, which is not weapon usable. Half a century ago, however, nuclear engineers were convinced—wrongly, it turned out—that the global resource of low-cost uranium would not be sufficient to support such reactors beyond the year 2000.

Work therefore began on liquid-sodium-cooled “breeder” reactors that would be fueled by plutonium, which, when it undergoes a fission chain reaction, produces neutrons that can transmute the abundant but non-chain-reacting isotope of natural uranium, u-238, into more plutonium than the reactor consumes.

But mining companies and governments found a lot more low-cost uranium than originally projected. The Nuclear Energy Agency recently concluded that the world has uranium reserves more than adequate to support water-cooled reactors for another century.

And while technologically elegant, sodium-cooled reactors proved unable to compete economically with water-cooled reactors, on several levels. Admiral Rickover, who developed the US Navy’s water-cooled propulsion reactors from which today’s power reactors descend, tried sodium-cooled reactors in the 1950s. His conclusion was that they are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.” That captures the experience of all efforts to commercialize breeder reactors. The United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan all abandoned their breeder-reactor efforts after spending the equivalent of $10 billion or more each on the effort.

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Today, despite about $100 billion spent on efforts to commercialize them, only two sodium-cooled breeder reactor prototypes are operating—both in Russia. India is building one, and China is building two with Russian help. But it is not clear India and China are looking only to generate electricity with their breeders; they may also be motivated in part by the fact that breeder reactors produce copious amounts of the weapon-grade plutonium desired by their militaries to expand their nuclear-weapon stockpiles.

The proliferation risks of breeder-reactor programs were dramatically demonstrated in 1974, when India carried out its first explosive test of a nuclear-weapon design with plutonium that had been produced with US Atoms for Peace Program assistance for India’s ostensibly peaceful breeder reactor program. The United States, thus alerted, was able to stop four more countries, governed at the time by military juntas (Brazil, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan), from going down the same track—although Pakistan found another route to the bomb via uranium enrichment.

It was India’s 1974 nuclear test that got me involved with this issue as an advisor to the Carter administration. I have been involved ever since, contributing to the plutonium policy debates in the United States, Japan, South Korea and other countries.

In 1977, after a policy review, the Carter administration concluded that plutonium breeder reactors would not be economic for the foreseeable future and called for termination of the US development program. After the estimated cost of the Energy Department’s proposed demonstration breeder reactor increased five-fold, Congress finally agreed in 1983.

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But the dream of plutonium breeder reactors lived on in the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory, and, during the Trump administration, the department agreed to back the construction at INL of a plutonium-fueled, sodium-cooled reactor, deceptively called the “Versatile Test Reactor.” The VTR is a bigger version of INL’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which I helped shut down in 1994 because the reactor no longer had a mission, when I worked in the Clinton administration’s White House.

The consortium that is to build the Versatile Test Reactor, at an estimated cost of up to $5.6 billion, includes Bill Gates’ Terrapower.

Gates is obviously not in it for the money. But his reputation for seriousness may have helped recruit Democratic Senators Cory Booker, Dick Durbin, and Sheldon Whitehouse to join the two Republican senators from Idaho in a bipartisan coalition to co-sponsor the Nuclear Energy Innovations Capabilities Act of 2017, which called for the VTR.

I wonder if any of those five Senators knows that the VTR is to be fueled annually by enough plutonium for more than 50 Nagasaki bombs. Or that it is a failed technology. Or that the Idaho National Laboratory is collaborating on plutonium separation technology with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute at a time when about half of South Korea’s population wants nuclear weapons to deter North Korea.

Fortunately, it is not too late for the Biden administration and Congress to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to zero out the Versatile Test Reactor in the Department of Energy’s next budget appropriations cycle. The money could be spent more effectively on upgrading the safety of our existing reactor fleet and on other climate-friendly energy technologies.


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Bill Horak
Bill Horak
6 months ago

Dr. Von Hippel seems to be stuck in 1950s with this comment which mashes together two very different projects. Terrapower, which is the company Mr. Gates has investments, is developing multiple reactor types, one of which is the traveling wave reactor which was specifically developed in the late 1980s to address the proliferation issues with breeder reactors. It is designed to burn in-situ what it breeds. Terrapower is also looking at other designs, including molten salt reactors. Dr. Von Hippel then conflates this effort with the Versatile Test Reactor which is not a bigger version of an experimental breeder reactor… Read more »

Eugene Shwageraus
Eugene Shwageraus
6 months ago

Although Terrapower designs (both molten salt and sodium-cooled ones) primarily fission plutonium, they do NOT rely on either reprocessing of spent fuel or initial uranium enrichment. This is precisely in order to eliminate the proliferation risks, which are primarily a result of fuel cycle operations. Sodium-cooled reactors had their teething problems, but these have largely been resolved by continuous operation of BN-family reactors in Russia over the past several decades. VTR is an important step in reviving the US capabilities and filling a worldwide gap in testing fuels and other materials for advanced reactors.

Gary Ameika
Gary Ameika
6 months ago

It seems Bill Gates is insane. If this plan of his became a reality there would be all the more nuclear waste that nobody knows how to contain for 10000 years. This stuff will be dangerous for longer than recorded history. Think of Fukashima, 10 years after a tidal wave damaged the shorefront reactors (who would have guessed?) it is still an out of control melted down highly radioactive mess. Every day thousands of gallons of highly radioactive water is spilling into the Pacific with no end in sight. Humans do not have the knowledge to control nuclear waste and… Read more »

Robert A Burkhart
Robert A Burkhart
5 months ago
Reply to  Gary Ameika

The molten salt fast reactor that Gates is funding development is able to consume nuclear waste as fuel. The net effect would be a continuous reduction in the amount of nuclear waste we need to store. Elysium Industries is also working in a similar design. Check it out.

Charles Forsberg
Charles Forsberg
6 months ago

The author has no knowledge about the Bill Gates TerraPower Traveling Wave Reactor. If he did, he would know that the goal is a once-through fuel cycle where once the reactor is started up, depleted uranium in and spent nuclear fuel for disposal. It is designed to minimize the risks of proliferation.

Bruce MacDonald
Bruce MacDonald
6 months ago

Frank, Excellent article. Crisply written and convincing (not that I needed convincing!). Some bad ideas just won’t die. Hope you are keeping well. Best, Bruce MacDonald

Lee Miller
Lee Miller
6 months ago

I think this article needs to be read by Bill Gates.

Ron Fernandez
Ron Fernandez
6 months ago

Dooms day proponents like Frank von Hippel have dealt the US economy and the world several serious setbacks for their irrational fear. They have existed since before the days when we were encouraged to get under our desks and hide from the world. The Clinton administration along with Jim Kerry, who promoted Iran having nuclear weapons, shut down the EBRII reactor program when it had demonstrated the ability to produce power for very long periods of time with the same fuel set, successfully deal with and minimize hazardous waist, provide much safer reactor technology, a better method of storing waist… Read more »

Thor Zollinger
Thor Zollinger
6 months ago

You’re missing one main point: the Plutonium needed to fuel the VTR already exists in weapons stock piles. The VTR burns up the weapons-grade material rendering it unusable for weapons, and reduces the weapons stockpile. It doesn’t increase proliferation risk, it reduces it.

Thor Zollinger
Thor Zollinger
6 months ago
Reply to  Thor Zollinger

In addition, INL’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II was operated successfully from the 1960’s all the way to 1994. That doesn’t sound like a failed technology to me.

Jon
Jon
6 months ago

Let’s be honest here. There is no reactor technology that BAS supports. The only reason it is less critical of LWR reactors is because they are too inefficient to be competitive with other forms of energy generation and are therefore likely to be eventually phased out altogether. Has the BAS in recent history ever supported expansion of LWR’s for carbon-free power generation? I think not. Sodium cooled fast reactors are not a “failed technology,” Just look at EBR-I and II, and the BN-800 reactor. Clinch River was cancelled as much for the fact that its design was out of date… Read more »

Tom Caldwell
Tom Caldwell
6 months ago

I would have thought that the bad experience with the Enrico Fermi #1 reactor (Not the current Fermi 2 which is a BWR)would have been enough to scare everyone including Mr. Gates away from Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors(LMFBRs).

WARREN STERN
WARREN STERN
6 months ago

Thanks as always Frank for your thoughtful analysis

Morton Brussel
Morton Brussel
6 months ago

The IFR, integral fast rector design developed at Argonne National Lab, from what I’ve read, would not be usable for bomb making, but has many other advantages. This program was cancelled during the Clinton administration for short sided, faulty, economic reasons. I’m unsure whether this is the breeder reactor you are discussing.

Russell Lowes
6 months ago

Thank you for your service to a more nuclear proliferation-free world. It is insanity to promote nuclear energy as a climate solution. Nuclear energy is the worst for solving the global heating crisis on an economic dominance basis. Only 4 or fewer kilowatt-hours (kWhe) of new nuclear electricity can be purchased for the price of $1. With what I call the “solar blend” of solar, wind, energy efficiency and storage, about 9 kWhe can be purchased. Every time you waste $1 on new nuclear energy, you create a deficit of 5 kWhe that you now have to figure out how… Read more »

Seth
Seth
5 months ago
Reply to  Russell Lowes

You clearly are unfamiliar with how true electrical generation works. Solar and wind are solid forms of generation, and should be part of the electrical system bar none. That said, they are terrible at addressing power loads. Power is generated at the exact same rate that it is consumed. If you turn on a light bulb, although slightly, a generator at the interconnection of your power branch, slightly slows down. Not a lot, but a nearly undetectable amount. But it’s not just your lightbulb, it’s others. Essentially, things need to have a fly wheel or heavy body moving to deal… Read more »

Larry A. Rhoads
Larry A. Rhoads
6 months ago

I really thought Bill Gates was more intelligent than to support any type of plutonium breeder reactors. As far as neutron breeding goes natural uranium 238 is a relative a fast breeder but Plutonium 244 is even faster! The faster the neutron breeding the more unsafe a nuclear reactor becomes. It appears their plan was to slow down the Plutonium 244 neutron breeding by using natural uranium 238 and Plutonium 244 to make a Plutonium 239 isotope for reactor neutron breeding and at the same time use less natural uranium. They may also have been concerned that low cost natural… Read more »

JMini
JMini
6 months ago

There are plenty of deep coal mines that can be used to deposit any nuclear waste. The issue is always cost to build , maintain and take care of waste. If no cost is spared for waste solutions are abound. Buried miles underground .. rocket the stuff to the sun . .. solutions are there … But alas corporate/ those profiting always leaves the waste by products for government / people to handle…

Julius Mazzarella
Julius Mazzarella
6 months ago

Bill Gates has also backed startup fusion power pioneer.. I think he just want something that will work and get humanity out of a tight spot here. He’s a nice guy with a good heart. Energy is the one thing you need to get everything else and there is enough hydrogen in one glass of water to suppy the energy needs of one person for their entire life. Plutonium is draconian. It has a half life of 24,000 years and after you use it you will need more energy to clean up the mess you make producing it. Fusion is… Read more »

Robert A Burkhart
Robert A Burkhart
5 months ago

The VTR will gather data that will be meaningful research focused on a dozen different reactor designs. The amount of disinformation being thrown out in opposition to the new crop of advanced reactor designs makes me think conspiracy.
Most of the new designs wouldn’t require manufactured Uranium fuel feedstock. The sale of fuel is a larger source of revenue for reactor manufacturers than the sale of the PWRs ever are.
We should be spending more on developing these reactors. They have much greater promise than fusion