Intellectual Ventures: Troubled Japan Plant’s Technology is Like a Model T Compared to TerraPower’s Next-Gen Nuclear Systems

3/16/11Follow @curtwoodward

Intellectual Ventures, the invention lab headed by former Microsoft technology chief Nathan Myhrvold, says the technology behind its nuclear-energy startup TerraPower is vastly more advanced than the earthquake-damaged nuclear reactors currently making dire headlines from Japan.

In a blog post Wednesday, Intellectual Ventures said all of its employees based in the Tokyo office were safe, and said the Japanese government appeared to be “acting appropriately to protect the public’s health and safety.”

But with reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in trouble, Intellectual Ventures wrote that it had been getting “inquiries” about TerraPower’s technology. The company, which spun out of Intellectual Ventures in 2008, is developing a new kind of nuclear reactor called a “traveling wave” reactor. That system uses spent fuel or natural, unenriched uranium to produce the fission reactions necessary to generate power for 60 years or so without refueling.

“Comparing our design with the reactors at the center of the crisis in Japan is like comparing a Ford Model T with a Volvo S80. It’s important to remember Japan’s troubled reactors were designed in the 1960′s. However, even though the earthquake and tsunami exceeded their design basis, the reactors remain essentially intact,” Intellectual Ventures wrote.

The firm also noted two key points of TerraPower’s design—it doesn’t have holding pools for spent fuel and doesn’t use the “light water” technology employed at the troubled plant in Japan.

“These two features alone would avoid the major problems encountered with light water technology,” Intellectual Ventures reported. It also added: “Safety is our top priority and we remain committed to defining a simple fuel cycle that ensures our plants operate safely no matter the conditions.”

Go read the whole thing, which struck me as sensitive to the remarkably precarious situation in Japan while also making a pretty forceful case that TerraPower’s technology is of no real comparison.

This comes, of course, as the conventional U.S. nuclear power industry is facing a new round of public scrutiny. The New York Times was among those reporting Wednesday on congressional hearings in response to the disasters, and GigaOm also reported from a Cleantech Forum event in San Francisco where participants questioned whether the situation in Japan could delay the movement toward next-generation nuclear.

Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates is an investor, advisor, and key evangelist on the TerraPower project. TerraPower announced last summer that it had landed $35 million in venture financing. At that time, the company said it had about 40 full-time employees and some 75 technical consultants.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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