Traveling-Wave Reactors: The Future of Sustainable Energy

September 25, 2019

The need for sustainable energy sources has become the focus on the international stage over the past decade. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (the “EPA”), total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States have decreased by 7 percent, while global greenhouse gas emissions are at an all-time high. Even as world leaders have continued to ramp up discussions on how to curb climate change, there have not been significant strides to combat the problem. Recently, the march toward renewable energy has hit a slump and some areas, such as wind energy, have regressed. Less than half as many wind turbines were installed in 2018 as were in 2017.

The greatest barriers to renewable energy are cost, efficiency, and in the case of the most promising form of renewable energy, fear. Professional advocates for nuclear energy have come together and proclaimed that “increased use of nuclear energy is not only possible but the best bridge to a low-carbon future.” The reputation of nuclear energy hit a low during the Fukushima reactor meltdown. Nuclear energy has never been hugely popular with the general public. Perhaps because nuclear power shares it source of clean energy with the most devastating weapon in history. That said, nuclear energy has a better safety record than coal, petroleum, biomass, and natural gas combined. Even still there is plenty of room for improvement, and the greatest improvement for nuclear energy may have just arrived.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, has made waves recently in the nuclear community with TerraPower. TerraPower, founded by Gates, produces Traveling Wave Reactors (TWR). These reactors rely on depleted uranium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors currently in use across the world. In short, these reactors rely on nuclear waste to generate power. Better still, the reactor does not need constant refueling like traditional reactors. The reactor can run for decades without refueling. However wonderful, safe, and sustainable TWRs and nuclear reactors are, the greatest barrier to overcome is public perceptions of nuclear energy. That is why TWRs are the ideal reactor. As highlighted by the Environmental Law Report News & Analysis, the “traveling wave reactor (TWR) is also designed to eliminate the possibility of certain severe accidents; it uses depleted uranium for fuel and has features that render it proliferation-resistant.” Nuclear waste has always been a concern with traditional fission reactors. No state wants to harbor the waste. However, TWRs run on the byproduct of reactor waste, making it much more favorable. On a global scale, the lower risk of nuclear proliferation makes TWRs viable in countries with less security resources.

As of yet, the United States does not have a certification process for TWRs, which lead TerraPower to make an agreement with China. While China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases contracted for Gate’s TerraPower reactors, the United States and China began a trade war with one another, effectively ending the hopes for China to adopt one of the most promising sources of sustainable energy. TerraPower had hopes to build a pilot project in China; however, the Department of Energy announced it would deny new licenses from U.S. companies seeking to work with China on nuclear projects. Yet TWRs are just a steppingstone to something greater, fusion reactors.

In a publication by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reaffirmed, “[t]he fusion option for a nuclear reactor for efficient production of electricity should be vigorously pursued on the international arena as well as within the European energy roadmap.” However, even the NCBI stated that research and application are needed for the continued realization of the benefits of nuclear power. Unfortunately, only one new fission reactor has been completed in the last three decades in the United States, and as a whole nuclear energy only accounts for 11 percent of global electricity generation. The cost of energy still disproportionately favors carbon producing energy. As highlighted in an article from Stanford University, “[t]he US Energy Information Administration estimated that for new nuclear plants to go into service in 2019, capital costs will make up 74% of the cost of electricity; higher than the capital percentages for fossil-fuel power plants—63% for coal and 22% for natural gas, but lower than the capital percentages for other renewable sources—80% for wind and 88% for solar PV.”

Until the United States creates a pathway for TWRs and other like reactors, the search for sustainable energy will continue. Needless to say, even if regulatory leniency shifts in favor of nuclear energy, especially in light of the increased safety of TWRs, the change must start with the public perception, and the public should start by asking, “if we are truly in a climate crisis, shouldn’t we consider the nuclear option?”

Vincent Doa

October 25, 2019