You are here
Home > Cover Story > TerraPower – another Bill Gates brainwave

TerraPower – another Bill Gates brainwave

TerraPower will re-use the spent fuel rods with depleted Uranium-238, burnt in conventional light-water reactors. This technology, if perfected, will help the US meet all its fuel needs for the next 120 years using the existing used fuel rods!

Terrapower will address the present concerns: chances for human error, long-term storage of spent fuel, theft of nuclear material during re-fuelling and re-processing the fuel.

In a fascinating biopic, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda join the narrative on Bill Gates’ life. The riveting narration describes the strokes of genius in Bill Gates right from his school days and to the several landmarks in the spectacular growth of Microsoft.

Even more striking are the parts devoted to his post-retirement days when the prized couple set up the Bill Gates-Melinda Foundation. Just think of this richest man on earth, committing 99 per cent of his huge wealth for charity! The projects the foundation has chosen relate to providing relief to the poorest sections of the globe through healthcare, making excellent use of technology and management. The billions of dollars the foundation has spent on the eradication of polio, AIDS and diarrhoea have saved thousands of lives in countries in Africa and Asia. The sharp focus on sanitation and safe water, aided by hi-tech projects developed at modest costs, have made the schemes affordable and capable of replication over vast geographies.

The Swachh Bharat initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a lot to adopt from these experiments.

Promise of TerraPower

The success of the foundation in preventing diseases and spreading vaccines provides hopes on the hi-tech project of TerraPower. The objective is indeed mind-boggling: to produce nuclear power using the spent fuel from nuclear power stations that have been in operation. It would eliminate the need for highly-expensive systems to store these and for getting natural uranium whose supplies are scarce and limited to mines in a handful of countries.

Bill Gates firmly believes that nuclear power is a source for clean energy “ideal for dealing with climate change because it is the only carbon-free, a scalable energy source that is available 24 hours a day.” He sought to solve the problems of today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, through innovation.

My interest in nuclear power dates back to the 1970s when I visited the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam. The team of scientists was gung-ho about the prospects. I remember the then Director, M R Srinivasan, talking of a 10,000 MW nuclear power capacity by 2000.

At the invitation of H N Sethna, Chairman, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), I visited BARC at Trombay and the Tarapur Atomic Power Station, the first Indian nuclear power station built with American assistance. A decade later, I visited a nuclear power plant in the UK and also had discussions with senior officials of Framatome in Paris. Those were days rapid build-up of nuclear power capacity across the globe. France and Belgium already had several nuclear power plants that met over 75 per cent of their energy needs. French experts were absolutely confident about the safety and clean aspects of nuclear power. Particularly aware of the harm done to the environment by coal-fired thermal stations and the cost and logistics of moving huge quantities of coal across the nation, I was impressed with the advantages of nuclear power generation.

Spent fuel will do!

Bill Gates, with his characteristic yen for perfection, operated on several fronts – interacting with policymakers in the US, with experts on nuclear energy, with manufacturers of nuclear power equipement driving them hard on the imperative for cost economics and the re-use of spent Uranium-235 fuel rods. It is gathered that only around 10 per cent of the fissionable material in these was used.

Gates encouraged TerraPower scientists and engineers to innovate new technologies. The concept is to use Uranium-235 burnt in conventional light-water reactors to ignite fuel rods with the depleted Uranium-238 treated as waste. This technology, if perfected, it is claimed, will help the US to meet all its fuel needs for the next 120 years using the existing used fuel rods! The scheme will address the present concerns: chances for human error, long-term storage of spent fuel, theft of nuclear material during re-fuelling, re-processing the fuel…

While TerraPower has been experimenting with the facilities available within the US, it suffered from the lack of availability of functioning nuclear reactors in the US to validate its ideas.

Even Russia and China accessed…

So, the experiments were conducted in nuclear plants across the globe, including in a Russian test reactor. TerraPower arranged with the China National Nuclear Power Corporation to build a pilot reactor as a joint venture. But this plan suffered a setback in October last due to the strained trade relations between China and the US. The US energy department felt that China might illegally divert US civilian nuclear technology for military purposes.
I feel Prime Minister Modi could use all his charm and closeness with President Trump to activate cooperation in the nuclear field. I covered the President Bush-Manmohan Singh Meet at Washington in July 2005. The meet firmed up agreements for cooperation in agriculture, higher education, research and nuclear power.

Dr. Singh staked his all in getting the deal passed by the Parliament after waging a long battle with the left parties, which propped up his minority government. Unfortunately, the benefits of the deal could not be derived through the next 15 years. The promise just remained that.

Ideal to collaborate

India has been working on a fast breeder technology for close to five decades. It has several nuclear reactors that are in operation that would lend TerraPower the space to experiment and validate its innovations.
Remember, India started nuclear power generation at Tarapur, where 2×200 MW units were set up with American funding and technology?

I believe more can be achieved in collaborating with the US in the field of high technology, rather than haggling on tariff issues.

With the Congress Party support such an initiative?

The Microsoft story

In 1975 bill Gates read about Altair 8800 in Popular Electronics. This was the start and Micro-soft was born. In 1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen worked together to develop and sell BASIC interpreters for the Altair 8800. On 1976 the trade name Microsoft was registered.

In 1979, Bill received an offer from IBM to create an operating system for the world’s first personal computer. Microsoft bought ‘basic’ operating system 86-DOS from Tim Paterson for $50,000. Microsoft refined 86-DOS, made MS-DOS – which was used as the main OS for IBM personal computer. In September 1980, IBM signed a contract with Microsoft that changed the history of the personal computing.

Microsoft was restructured on 1981, Gates become the president and board chairman. Microsoft launched retail version of MS Windows in 1985. In 1995 MS Windows 95 as well as Internet Explorer (Microsoft’s own browser) were launched.

Microsoft has been growing ever since and Bill Gates became the most influential and richest man on earth. In 2000 Steve Ballmer took over as Microsoft CEO. Bill with net worth of $60 billion quit the role. In 2012 Microsoft rebranded itself in 25 years. 2014 saw major changes – Satya Nadella was appointed as new CEO and Bill stepped down as chairman.

Microsoft expanded collaborating with IBM, SalesForce, Dropbox… New software and hardware products were launched regularly, viz., Windows OS, Microsoft Office Suites, Office 365, Xbox, Bing, Hotmail… Windows software is still used in most companies across the globe. The company has consistently kept up with the pace of change. In 2019 Microsoft was ranked 60 in Fortune 500 list of global companies.

Leave a Reply

Top