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Bill Gates attends the World Leaders' Summit "Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment" session on day three of COP26 on November 2, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Scientists Warn Experimental Nuclear Plant Backed by Bill Gates Is 'Outright Dangerous'

"Gates has continually downplayed the role of proven, safe renewable energy technology in decarbonizing our economy."

Andrea Germanos

Officials announced Tuesday that the small city of Kemmerer, Wyoming would be the site of a new Bill Gates-backed nuclear power project—an initiative whose proponents say would provide climate-friendly and affordable energy but which some scientists warn is a dangerous diversion from true energy solutions.

"Gates has continually downplayed the role of proven, safe renewable energy technology in decarbonizing our economy."

The experimental Natrium nuclear power plant will be at the site of the coal-fired Naughton Power Plant, slated for retirement in 2025, though siting issues are not yet finalized. The company behind the project is TerraPower. Gates, who helped found TerraPower, is chairman of the board.

"Mr. Gates," nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen wrote in an open letter in August, Natrium "is following in the footsteps of a 70-year-long record of sodium-cooled nuclear technological failures. Your plan to recycle those failures and resurrect liquid sodium again will siphon valuable public funds and research from inexpensive and proven renewable energy alternatives."

The project in October received an $80 million U.S. Department of Energy grant.

“Our innovative technology," Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, said in a statement Tuesday, "will help ensure the continued production of reliable electricity while also transitioning our energy system and creating new, good-paying jobs in Wyoming."

The company said that once the plant is operational, likely in seven years, it will employ approximately 250 people and is slated to produce 345 megawatts of power.

A feature of the future plant, TerraPower says, is "a molten salt-based energy storage system"—technology it claims represents "a significant advance over the light water reactor plants in use today."

At a June press conference, Gates said Natrium was poised to "be a game-changer for the energy industry." In a Tuesday tweet, Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming gave a similar message, saying "the Natrium reactor is the future of nuclear energy in America."

While the company asserts the safety of Natrium's sodium-cooled fast reactor, a report released in March by the Union of Concerned Scientists, entitled "Advanced" Isn’t Always Better, casts doubt on those claims.

UCS's Elliott Negin highlighted the analysis in a June blog post, writing:

In fact, according to the UCS report, sodium-cooled fast reactors would likely be less uranium-efficient and would not reduce the amount of waste that requires long-term isolation. They also could experience safety problems that are not an issue for light-water reactors. Sodium coolant, for example, can burn when exposed to air or water, and the Natrium's design could experience uncontrollable power increases that result in rapid core melting.

"When it comes to safety and security, sodium-cooled fast reactors and molten salt–fueled reactors are significantly worse than conventional light-water reactors," says [report author Edwin] Lyman. "High-temperature gas-cooled reactors may have the potential to be safer, but that remains unproven, and problems have come up during recent fuel safety tests."

Fast reactors have another major drawback. "Historically," the report points out, "fast reactors have required plutonium or [highly enriched uranium]-based fuels, both of which could be readily used in nuclear weapons and therefore entail unacceptable risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism." Some fast reactors, including the Natrium, will initially use a lower-enriched uranium fuel, called high-assay low-enriched uranium, which poses a lower proliferation risk than highly enriched uranium, but it is more attractive to terrorists seeking nuclear weapons than the much lower-enriched fuel that current light-water reactors use.

Reporting last week by DW also highlighted voices critical of the Natrium project.

They included Michael E. Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, who told the outlet that "Gates has continually downplayed the role of proven, safe renewable energy technology in decarbonizing our economy, playing up instead more dangerous and risky technology like geoengineering and nuclear."

"In the race to net-zero emissions, nuclear energy remains at the starting line."

"It's misguided and dangerous," Mann told DW, "because it leads us down the wrong path. The obstacles to meaningful climate action aren't technological at this point. They're political."

According to nuclear expert Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace, "fast breeder reactor" types "are proliferation nightmares."

"They are delivered together with the reprocessing technology that also is necessary to isolate material for nuclear bombs," Haverkamp told DW. "For that reason alone, I think the ideas of Gates in this respect are outright dangerous."

Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University who was also quoted by DW, previously said that nuclear is "fraught with dangers" and represents the wrong path forward amid the climate emergency.

“A decade ago, perhaps one could still argue we need new nuclear power plants to combat global warming, and that better approaches were hopefully just around the corner," Howarth told CNBC in April. 

"But in 2021," he said, "it is very clear that we can completely rebuild the energy economy of the world moving forward built on renewable energy alone, with no need for fossil fuels or nukes. To build our future on renewables is [the] fastest, safest, and cheapest way to address climate disruption."

Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at George Washington University, echoed the argument that nuclear energy is a "distraction" in the face of the climate crisis.

"Despite its low-carbon virtues, nuclear energy is anything but quick," Squassoni wrote in a blog post Monday at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. "In the race to net-zero emissions, nuclear energy remains at the starting line. Continuing to support nuclear energy at the expense of faster and cheaper alternatives for cutting greenhouse gas emissions is a losing strategy."


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