Bill Gates Goes Nuclear

2010 has been a good year for nuclear power, with funding for new plants cropping up in President Obama's budget as well as in the stalled Senate climate bill. Bill Gates recently lent his star power to the industry by advocating for small-scale nuclear reactors produced by TerraPower, an energy start-up he partially funds. The Wall Street Journal reports that TerraPower is in talks with Toshiba to collaborate on nuclear technology, a partnership that would jumpstart the very expensive process of developing these smaller reactors.

Also in the Journal today is an editorial by Energy Secretary Steven Chu that heralds the promise of small modular reactors (SMRs), which avoid many of the obstacles full-scale reactors face. Traditional power plants are expensive and complicated, requiring massive start-up loans. Communities are also reluctant to host new reactors due to safety and waste disposal concerns. SMRs, however, are less than a third the size of traditional plants. They could be manufactured off site, transported by truck or train, and would be ready for action upon arrival. They would also be cheaper and quicker to build, even potentially running on their own waste. According to Chu, SMRs are about ten years away from functionality.

Private innovation from both start-ups and established forces like Toshiba will spur this process along, as would a carbon-pricing mechanism to drive green investment. The Senate climate bill Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham are crafting could do more on the carbon-pricing front -- its cap-and-trade scheme will be limited to utilities -- but it is reported to include $54 billion in new nuclear loan guarantees to ease the construction of new plants.

Nuclear investment is proving to be a crowd-pleaser, with a new Gallup poll showing public support for nuclear energy at more than 60 percent. This support is more prevalent among Republicans than Democrats, as has traditionally been the case, though a majority of both parties now endorse nuclear power.

(Nav Image Credit: Topato/flickr)

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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