24 July 2012
Nuclear power is a complicated issue these days. Protests are expanding in Japan as reactors come back online, while countries around the world stake out spots on the “for” and “against” bandwagons. It seems, though, that a net worth with lots of zeroes at the end might influence one’s opinion. That is, at least if we take three of the world’s most visible entrepreneurs as a representative sample. Here are the nuclear ambitions of a triumvirate with a collective worth of $83.6 billion.
The Virgin Group chairman is known for some extravagant investments, perhaps most notably Virgin Galactic and its desire to send you—yes, you—into space. Branson recently sent a letter to President Obama asking for a meeting and urging him to reopen government research into integral fast reactors (IFR), though he apparently has not yet thrown any money into the idea. IFRs can burn uranium and plutonium generated as waste by standard fission reactors, thus solving the ongoing nuclear waste question and reducing the chances of nuclear weapons proliferation. Still, there is plenty of controversy surrounding these reactors—enough that Obama declined the requested meeting.
The world’s second richest person actually is spending some dough on nuclear power, as a significant investor in a company called TerraPower. TerraPower is working on a design called a traveling wave reactor (TWR). These reactors need a small amount of enriched uranium to start up, but once working they can sustain the reactions using spent uranium from standard reactors. TWRs use a slow-moving wave where neutrons convert adjacent waste products like uranium-238 into fissile isotopes; this would theoretically use far less fuel and require less refueling and maintenance than traditional reactors. TerraPower says there are 700 000 metric tons of spent fuel in the U.S. alone, and one 8-ton canister could power 2.5 million homes for a year. Gates’ investment is reportedly in the tens of millions of dollars.
Amazon’s founder is throwing his money farther into the reaches of science fiction than his co-billionaires. His investment company Bezos Expeditions contributed some unknown portion of $19.5 million to a company called General Fusion in 2011. As the name suggests, General Fusion is going for the sun-in-a-bottle approach to nuclear power instead of using fission, focusing on a technique known as magnetized target fusion. This involves creating fusion reactions; to do so, the company first confines “plasma in a magnetic field, and then compress[es] the confined plasma to thermonuclear conditions.” It may seem pie-in-the-sky, but… well, it probably is.
These rich kids are right that the world needs an emissions-free revolution in energy in the coming decades, and it’s interesting to see exactly where they think the promise lies. If people who made their money essentially predicting the future get behind these nuclear ideas, it might not be wise to bet against them.