Nathan Myhrvold the ex-Microsoft chief scientist who started Intellectual Ventures, a group think tank, has the firm spinning out a company named TerraPower to enter the new nuclear market with reactors that run on natural or depleted uranium.

The idea is that with un-enriched fuel, the reactors could be loaded up with fuel and sealed for 30 to 60 years primarily because the stockpile of uranium would go further. Not using enriched fuel reduces the risks associated with nuclear proliferation and transportation as well as reducing the amount of radioactive nuclear waste. Depleted uranium is also a waste product in the enrichment process. But TerraPower’s reactor needs some enriched uranium, at the beginning to initiate the reaction.

Intellectual Ventures thinks the switch could also mean that the available supplies of uranium could be exploited to provide power for centuries or even thousands of years, far longer than the projections using enriched uranium.

Reactor ideas vary in size from a few megawatts, large enough to power industrial sites or small cities, up to large multi-gigawatt reactors that can power a major city. TerraPower is also looking at thorium reactors, which do not release plutonium as a byproduct. Using thorium fueled reactors further reduces the risks associated with fission reactors.

TerraPower is exploiting a gap that formed in the reactor market. With new reactor applications in the U.S projected to get to 30 soon, with nuclear power’s obvious low global warming footprint and opponents complaining they are not cost effective, new reactor ideas have best chance to get into the market since the advent of fission fueled nuclear power generation. It’s about time, too.

Hyperion Power Generation has a sealed reactor design in the market now, adding TerraPower opens the market further. It could cut the public relations effort by half for each. Hyperion’s leadership has already hinted that it’s not interested in taking up the fight with the media and press to persuade Americans that fission power is safe and worthwhile to add generation capacity. That suggests that the company may well know its progress and the jobs they create will be offshore. Media ignorance and regulatory inertia has a steep price in economic losses.

Intellectual Ventures’ activity is gathering scientists from major research universities, independent researchers and private enterprise into brain storming sessions that come up with ideas that can be turned into inventions and companies. The group meetings shoot for ideas that might have a major impact on society several years into the future.

Intellectual Ventures then applies for patents on the ideas and forms companies when it’s possible. But that is controversial in the technology business and critics say that the company files for patents and buys patents, to sue corporations for extracting royalties. The term “patent troll” is often applied to the firm. Not a great starting place for persuading the public and sensitive regulators that your technology is socially great.

But Myhrvold is telling a different story – the people involved in Intellectual Ventures are primarily scientists, and often well-regarded scientists who have won major awards. That’s true, and they aren’t marketing and sales experts. Bringing the mentality of Microsoft might not be the best starting point though. Myhrvold asserts that major corporations have gutted their research departments. So, the company exists to fill a gap that has occurred in the market. Or maybe it’s that the scientists gain freedom from having to build a full-fledged company and large corporations don’t have to worry about recruiting high-priced talent. Whatever the story, it’s a story with the mendacious reputation of Microsoft looming in the background, a serious problem across much of the society. Getting away from Microsoft and demonstrating a distinctly healthier ethics and morality culture might be Job One.

The top guy is John Gilleland, the manager of the nuclear program at Intellectual Ventures. Before the TerraPower start, he was the CEO of Archimedes Technology Group, where he worked on developing new technologies for mitigating waste from nuclear weapons, reprocessing spent reactor fuel, and enriching uranium. Before that, he was at the estimable construction firm Bechtel and the managing director at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor program.

However good the ideas are, they are a very long way from being adopted and integrated into the reactors for sale mix in the U.S. Myhrvold may well be executing a valuable business model, but the Microsoft gloom and the patent troll history needs addressed. The path to success in fission nuclear power in the science alone and on to products is a “massive mountain climbing” project. I can’t see how the Microsoft pattern of “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” with dubious products riddled with holes, patches and errors, monopoly settlements, and predatory pricing patterns is going to help.

I think Gilleland really has his hands full before even looking at the technology, of which there isn’t anything to see.

Big names, big ideas, and a suspicion that the thing is another vaporware for some legal or licensing purpose. I hope I’m wrong, but the pattern to date isn’t real encouraging. Energy and fuels is founded in physics, chemistry and engineering, not code, user interfaces and bluescreens of death. The tolerance in fission nuclear is zero, no patching allowed.


3 Comments so far

  1. Micheline Suckow on November 4, 2010 10:03 AM

    I read some thing related to your “A New Nuclear Reactor Company | New Energy and Fuel” post at some other site I frequent… anyway, I feel apple is usually overrated but has some good products also.

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