Bill Gates’s Nuclear Miracle? John Gilleland Says TerraPower Needs Discipline, Not Divine Intervention

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world to look at plants. He asks penetrating questions about the neutronics calculations [for instance], how you do the program mapping to follow the daughter products. He came in once with a 10-inch-thick book labeled “nuclear power.” It’s a nontrivial amount of time he’s spent—long hours and hard questioning.

X: What kinds of specific questions and feedback has Gates provided?

JG: He will remind us that the economics of the thing must be there. It must be competitive economically. Even if it is much lower proliferation risk, or there’s fuel forever, if you can’t afford it, it probably won’t happen. The safest position is for it to be less expensive than any other nuclear process, and less than or equal to natural coal. We have a time constraint: raising the standard of living is a key to wellness, but the climate change timescale and the time it takes to change the energy infrastructure are of comparable scale. But in that context, you must find something that is affordable. [Gates] reminds us of how the world works every once in a while, which is good for us.

X: So how do you actually make this thing operational by 2020?

JG: We have to find a place to build a prototype. We are discussing this with various institutions. We need to build a reactor in [the range of] a few hundred megawatts electric. It needs to be that large to demonstrate this reactor can live on depleted uranium fuel, that this wave action in the core exists and we understand it all correctly. The remarkable thing we found out is that the technologies basically exist to put this reactor core in the Fast Flux Test Facility in eastern Washington, and in Idaho. France, China, India, Russia, and Japan have built [fast neutron] reactors of this type—it was that type of reactor that can uniquely support running this new kind of [traveling wave] reactor core.

There are problems. We have to discover which metal is the best one to clad the fuel and have structures inside the reactor. Fundamental measurements have to be made along the way to optimize the reactor. There’s no doubt the reactor will work, but we don’t know until we’ve done more R&D.

X: What lessons do you bring with you from your time at Archimedes, Bechtel, and ITER, in terms of leadership?

JG: There are different phases. Whether its fusion or new renewables, when it’s a new project, you’ve erased the grease board. You have to bring a sense of vision and behave more like a movie director than a manager. You say, this is what we want, and you let them perform. The art is, when do you bring in discipline? Now we have to stop and build [a reactor], and change the nature of the organization. This is where you have the lighting manager in the plan, and then have a schedule. Engineers need to meet the schedule. This is where perfect is the enemy of the very good.

As I learned at ITER, it’s also culturally based. People are born with similar brains, … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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