Gates explained the concept of the travelling wave reactor in a TED talk (TED/James Duncan Davidson)

China to help Bill Gates develop “pioneering” nuclear reactor

30 September 2015 | By David Rogers 3 Comments

TerraPower, an American nuclear technology company, has signed a memorandum of understanding with China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to develop the world’s first “travelling wave” reactor (TWR).

The TWR uses cheaper nuclear fuel and produces less radioactive waste than current designs.

Present at the signing on 22 September in Seattle was Bill Gates (pictured), the former head of Microsoft, and the founder and chairman of TerraPower, and Zhang Xiangchen, a vice minister at China’s Ministry of Commerce.

“Additional work must be done to define what a possible joint venture may look like, but this memorandum signals that we are well on track”– Lee McIntire, TerraPower chief executive

TerraPower wants to build a 600MW demonstration plant by 2022, followed by larger commercial plants of 1.15GW in the late 2020s.

The company says its TWR would help solve safety, environmental and cost issues that bedevil nuclear power.

“The TerraPower-CNNC collaboration on advanced nuclear technology aims to benefit the world by pioneering new options in civilian nuclear energy that address safety, environmental and cost concerns,” said Lee McIntire, chief executive of TerraPower.

“Additional work must be done to define what a possible joint venture may look like, but this memorandum signals that we are well on track.”

Seattle-based TerraPower was set up to exploit travelling wave technology, a process in which the nuclear reactions move through the fuel in a wave that travels at the speed of about 5cm a year, rather than occurring throughout the fuel.

Where the wave passes through natural or depleted uranium, it becomes plutonium.

The theoretical work on the design was carried out in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1990s that a method of achieving the wave was patented by Intellectual Ventures, the company from which TerraPower was formed.

The particular design of reactor chosen is a cooled by liquid sodium and uses depleted or natural uranium as fuel.

TerraPower’s general idea (TerraPower)

In mid-2011 TerraPower changed its design to a standing-wave reactor in order to address the problem of cooling a moving region.

At present, the company is in the research phase of the technology development process, and does not have any contract to build a prototype.

The backers of the idea had been in talks with Japanese engineer Toshiba, the owner of US reactor maker Westinghouse.

The deal with CNNC may now mean that the detailed design and fabrication work will be undertaken with Chinese backing.  

In February 2014, Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) signed an agreement to support the development of TerraPower’s TWR.

Under the agreement, B&W will provide services and programme support, including the design and fabrication of components and fuel fabrication.