Bill Gates says TerraPower is in discussions with China

First there were rumors earlier this week that the Bill Gates–backed nuclear startup TerraPower had a deal to build a reactor with China’s National Nuclear Corporation. But Gates has clarified with various media reports including the Wall Street Journal that the discussions with the Chinese government are just preliminary and don’t constitute a deal. TerraPower has also been talking to the governments of Russia, India and other countries, too. TerraPower’s backers have long said it will likely commercialize its technology first outside the U.S.

If you have Bill Gates as your liaison, doors tend to open. The company was also reportedly in talks with Japanese giant Toshiba to jointly develop a small nuclear reactor. TerraPower also has high-profile investors including Khosla Ventures — Vinod Khosla’s venture fund — Charles River Ventures, Gates himself and the investors at Intellectual Ventures, which is an invention think tank founded by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold (here is my “From Microsoft to nuclear, 10 questions for Nathan Myhrvold”).

TerraPower is actually a spin-off from Myhrvold’s incubator, and the company is building nuclear traveling wave reactor technology, which is a relatively new type of small nuclear reactor design that can use the waste byproduct of the enrichment process, or waste uranium, for fuel. Traveling wave nuclear reactors have been under development since the 1990s, but TerraPower is one of the first companies to develop a practical design for the technology. (See “6 nuclear power startups to watch” and “Nuclear power by the numbers.”)

The benefits of the traveling wave reactor design are that the reactor doesn’t have to be refueled or have its waste removed until the end of the life of the reactor, which is theoretically a couple of hundred years. Using waste uranium reduces the amount of waste in the overall nuclear life cycle and extends the available supply of the world’s uranium for nuclear by many times. According to a presentation by TerraPower CEO John Gilleland, “operation of a traveling wave reactor can be demonstrated in less than ten years, and commercial deployment can begin in less than fifteen years.”

Not surprisingly, with its Microsoft connection, TerraPower has leaned heavily on supercomputing to design and model the reactor and the life cycle of the fuel. The TerraPower team is using “1,024 Xeon core processors assembled on 128 blade servers,” which is a cluster that is “over 1000 times the computational ability as a desktop computer.”