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

3/23/10Follow @gthuang

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but they learn a lot about how to think, and it will vary from culture to culture. Running a U.S.-Japan collaboration, you could sense the way the Americans, Japanese, Russians, and others would approach the problem. The Japanese were prone to go all the way to the result in consensus, and then come back and consider what to do. The U.S. would start down a beautiful road in the landscape they had planned, but then they’d see beautiful flowers on the left and they’d take an immediate turn and explore the new flowers. You have to do it just right.

At TerraPower, we’re pretty much a U.S. organization. We have different professors with different personalities and priorities, contracts with national labs and businesses, all with different attitudes and views. We’re in the transition between the initial creative phase and really nailing down what we’ll build by 2020.

X: What is the biggest remaining challenge?

JG: To see it through institutionally, we need to make sure we have the patience to push through the development all the way to operations. Then there’s the technical challenge. Some of the testing we need to do needs to be done in other countries. We don’t have a fast [neutron] reactor operating in this country. Most energy technologies benefit from superior materials—radiation resistance, strength, ability to take temperature. The best way to learn how to do something is to build one. I would like to see the U.S. build a fast reactor to enhance our ability to study the materials. We’re absolutely thrilled there’s an embodiment [a big enough core in fast reactors] that looks just like what we need to build. But we have to optimize it. That’s our technical challenge in creating a new path to fission power by 2020. We need to build a machine that looks the same but has some differences in the size of the vessel and so forth. That’s why I’m still around after three and a half years.

X: Are there lessons from the recent failure of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor in South Africa (which had been touted as a nuclear silver bullet and was nearing construction)?

JG: Yes and no. The technology and goal are different. The lesson is you have to decide you’re going to follow through and you’ve got something different about it. I’m not an insider on why the gas reactor has come and gone. At the time of Pebble Bed, the world wasn’t building reactors all over the place. That’s relatively new. The Chinese, I believe, have a variant on it, at Tsinghua University, and they’re beginning to revive it.

X: If you could ask the God of Physics one question, what would it be?

JG: What is dark energy? [In astrophysics, this is the mysterious stuff that seems to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe---Eds.]

X: So you must be pretty confident that TerraPower is going to work. You don’t need the God of Physics for that?

JG: I think he’s given us enough information, and we have to be very clever to work out his puzzle. We’re there but for some knowledge about some particular piece of metal [for instance]. I’ll turn the question around and say, we ought to thank him because he gave us the toolkit and the data—the physics is well understood. This project will just take a lot of discipline, not divine intervention.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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