Or technology can be in the wrong hands.

Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold, old pals at Microsoft are going after nuclear power.  I’m not surprised.  We had a look last year followed by the PR folks of Mr. Myhrvold shopping for more postings here about TerraPower. Publicity can be hard to get when you have the business reputations that Gates and Myhrvold have. As a sometimes Windows user and sometimes Linux user, depending on the importance and safety required, I can’t warm up to these guys.

I needed an extra key for Office XP so I could install it with Windows 7 and Windows XP on the same machine – and the fellow on the phone supposed to help me – hung up on me.  There went the safe and elegant dual boot idea for migration with the document files on a separate partition.  Now Gates and Myhrvold are migrating to participate in nuclear power.  This cannot be a good thing. Prior performance matters when plutonium is involved.

Myhrvold is busily ‘buying’ intellectual property or some such scheme to get patent or intellectual property rights.  Then they sue. The vehicle is called Intellectual Ventures and has managed to attract a substantial amount of brainpower, too.  This does prove that people with worthwhile brainpower likely need a smart agent even more than professional athletes.

What got these fellows tracking together now a year later is Gates is a principal owner of TerraPower and Myhrvold or his Intellectual Ventures is involved as some sort of investor or owner.  Things must be going excruciatingly slowly.  Gates has started commenting, most lately at his TED talk. They’ll learn more about excruciating at the Federal Regulatory Commission.

The technology behind all this is called ‘traveling wave reactor design’ a technology that’s been in research since the 1990s.  It seems, factual or not, that Myhrvold has clutched on to the technology and perhaps funded it along to developing an unproven practical design.  Over the years TerraPower has managed to get some press, and has a pdf and little video on the website to explain it in an understandable way.

Traveling Wave Graphic at Year 1

Basically a traveling wave moves a fuel breeding reaction front through a lower grade of fuel than the highly enriched fuel as used now.  The wave is triggered off with a small shot of highly enriched uranium to start then improves and uses the lower grade fuel as it moves along.  Theory has it that these things could run a couple hundred years before refueling or waste removal.  The self breeding reactor design can be set up to use the current supply of spent fuel, thus recovering a vast store of energy sitting at power plants across the U.S.   Sounds great.  Just remember, these guys thought selling Windows ME and Vista were wonders of the world for the rest of us, too.

Terra Power is reported to have used Microsoft supercomputing to design and model the reactor and the fuel lifecycle.  They’re saying in effect that the simulations and engineering studies show that fission moving slowly through a fuel core could generate “a billion watts of electricity” on a continuous basis for well beyond 50 and perhaps over 100 years.  Umm.  What about those climate computer models?  Those folks had a case to make, and Gates and Myhrvold are trying to make one as well.  Computer model is a term to describe programming a set of variables through processing to a result.  How’s that Windows ME, Vista, the Windows XP update just a few days ago working out for ya?

TerraPower’s President John Gilleland explains the hopes, “operation of a traveling wave reactor can be demonstrated in less than ten years, and commercial deployment can begin in less than fifteen years.”

The problem – as with all matters involving Gates and Myhrvold – is the price to society.  A little research will show that Edward Teller and Lowell Wood working at Lawrence Livermore National Lab originally designed the traveling wave in the current form.  The odds are with that level of theoretical depth and theory dating back decades the foundation is firm.  There is (was?) also a major amount of prior art in the hands of the US citizenry.  That leads one to think that Gates and Myhrvold have a plan to make it their own, certainly already in place, with the PR working to ‘make it so’ in the minds of the public.

That’s all fine, up to a point.  Let these gentlemen pour all the money they like into the project.  But before anyone considers letting this caliber of businessmen get their hands on any enriched uranium we all better step back and remember – all that low grade and spent fuel can be used other ways without getting involved with these two.

This writer used to admire Gates – a young bright fellow with considerable acumen – right up to Windows ME going to market.  I was an ‘early adopter’ and suckered for $110.  Following that came XP, a restorative tonic, until the anti monopoly suit cast a shadow of evasiveness, a self interest above the law and the public interest, consumers and competitors, then the miseries of the anti piracy thing burning through countless human hours wasted worldwide, endless “updates” better described as corrections that as of just last week, another one showed to be almost or more destructive as the problem.

I cannot and will not succumb to those with such attitudes handling uranium, actinides, plutonium and supplying power to the grid. Their actions to date absolutely disqualify them from such a level of responsibility. When we examine the actions to date, the behavior, the willingness to foist costs on customers to solve their own self created problems and other items in a long list of shortcomings in character, the idea of trusting the possession of heavy elements, radioactive material in highly enriched form or plutonium even if just in a short phase as the fuel breeds forward of the burning front is too far, too much risk to bear.

These people don’t do business in the classic sense.  The past two decades have seen copyright and intellectual property evolve into rental where we never own what we buy.  We don’t get software, we get a ‘license’, a way of thinking that includes no responsibility for making things right.  This is not any sort of responsible business model positioning for energy production, especially nuclear energy.

I’m sorry. I see that Rod Adams, Al Fin and others are enthused.  I am too about the technology, but sometimes technology is simply in the wrong hands.  Think about it. Great wealth amassed as seen with the Microsoft story at the expense of consumers and the miseries that have come with it is not a business model an energy provisioning system and the economy dependent upon it can survive.


15 Comments so far

  1. MattMusson on February 24, 2010 7:38 AM


    What is the difference between a software salesman and a used car salesman?

    A used car salesman actually knows when he is lying!

  2. Al Fin on February 24, 2010 9:12 AM

    I understand what you are saying, Brian. But I would caution you not to focus your mistrust too tightly upon one group or technology. There are plenty of technologies on the horizon that will give individuals and groups of people unprecedented power — much more wealth and power than the traveling wave reactor may eventually bring to Myhrvold and Gates.

    Even good people tend to get corrupted when presented with fortune and power. Humans have not changed much over the years. In fact, Jane Goodall may understand humans better than human psychologists do.

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