U.S. Nuclear Power to China?

(Courtesy of Terrapower.com)

In our “Weird Recycling” podcast, Nathan Myhrvold talks about TerraPower, the nuclear-power firm that he and Bill Gates are promoting, which would use depleted uranium (castoff waste from traditional nuclear plants) as fuel. TerraPower has impressive plans but has yet to build its first plant.

It was a long interview, only a sliver of which made it into the podcast. One leftover part concerned the U.S.’s skittishness about nuclear power:

DUBNER: So do you think that the first Terra Power plant to be built if there is one built will be not on US soil?

MYHRVOLD: Virtually certain.

DUBNER: Where do you think it would be?

MYHRVOLD: Well, there are two natural places to build the first Terra Power plant. One is in the countries that have the demand … a place like China or India, where they have the need for the power. Another place you might build it is a country that understands the strategic importance of nuclear and has been, you know, supporting nuclear for a long time. That’s not the United States, but that is France. That is Japan, although their local support for that has been wavering of course. That’s also Russia.

Today comes news, via the Associated Press, that the first TerraPower plant may land a destination sooner rather than later:

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates says he is in discussions with China to jointly develop a new kind of nuclear reactor. During a talk at China’s Ministry of Science & Technology Wednesday, the billionaire said: “The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste.” … He says TerraPower is having “very good discussions” with state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation. Gates says perhaps as much as a billion dollars will be put into research and development over the next five years.

It would be a curious thing indeed if TerraPower’s American-designed nuclear technology were pioneered in China and then re-imported to the U.S. if and when it were proven safe and effective.

On the other hand, maybe that’s not so curious: just as we have off-shored manufacturing in recent decades, this would be a case of off-shoring perceived risk. 

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  1. Mike B says:

    Depleted uranium on its own isn’t waste, it is actually a very useful material for building tank armour and military projectiles. Spent nuclear fuel can be considered a waste product due to the non-uranium radionuclide, but we shouldn’t just be sending that to China because it can be reprocessed into usable fuel again. The only reason our country doesn’t reprocess (aka Recycle) nuclear fuel is because of a Carter administration policy to convince other countries not to reprocess their fuel. This is because commercial fuel reprocessing can also be used to create material for nuclear weapons so Carter felt that we would be hypocrites if we were reprocessing and telling others not to.

    In the no so distant future as the world hits peak Uranium all that spent fuel waste we used to be so eager to bury will rise in value as power plants look to source new fuel.

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    • DrTocToc says:

      Why isn’t depleted uranium waste ? Doesn’t it contain radioactive materials ?

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      • Travis says:

        Depleted Uranium is “waste” in that it’s a waste product from nuclear power production, however, it’s also a highly used metal in military applications due to its high density and hardness (to my understanding).

        This itself is an example of “weird recycling” because our old nuclear fuel is being used as bullets and tank armor in military applications.

        The fact that it is radioactive (even though it is supposedly 60% less radioactive than naturally occurring radiation) makes its use a somewhat controversial point, both for soldiers, as well as for the places the military goes shooting things.

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      • Mike B says:

        Natural Uranium isn’t that dangerous as a radiation source and depleted Uranium is even less so. Even with a half life of 4 billion years it is an alpha emitter which isn’t harmful unless taken internally. The depleted Uranium that we have laying around is mostly from cold war Uranium enrichment programmes and more recent fuel enrichment programmes. In theory it can be bombarded with neutrons in breeder reactors and be transformed into fissionable fuel like Plutonium…but I don’t know why we would want to give China a create capacity to make nuclear weapons.

        Fun fact about Uranium metal. It is pyrophoric and burns on contact with air.

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    • J says:

      “depleted uranium” is not used fuel, it is the uranium that has had some portion of the U-235 extracted for use as fuel or weapons.

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      • Mike B says:

        In theory fuel completely burned up in a nuclear reactor would have much less fissionable U235 than U238 and earn the label depleted, however it also has all sorts of other nasty junk in it. The article wasn’t clear if China wanted our spent reactor fuel or our stock of depleted Uranium left over from Uranium enrichment. I don’t know what they plan to do with the latter because it doesn’t work to well for generating power.

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  2. Joel Upchurch says:

    This isn’t new. They are building AP1000 reactors that Westinghouse designed in China right now. The first reactor is supposed to go online in 2 years. We won’t even have started on our first one by then. By the time we start building them, it will make more sense to buy the components from the Chinese.

    Frankly I’d rather deal with a honest opponent of nuclear power than a Prohibitive Procrastinator like NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.
    http://botstudent.org/2011/03/13/delay-denial-parkinson-politics/

    You forgot to mention one of the applications for depleted uranium. It is used for radiation shielding. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium-238#Radiation_shielding

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