Speech: Why I invest in nuclear innovation

10 June 2021

It's hard to imagine a future where we can decarbonise our power grid affordably without using more nuclear power, Bill Gates told participants in the Nuclear Energy Assembly, held this week as a virtual event by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). The text of his keynote speech on 9 June is as follows.

"Obviously as the fact that we're not all in a room together right now attests, we have faced an historic global public health crisis over the past year-and-a-half. COVID-19 has killed millions, devastated economies and disrupted the lives of everyone on the planet.

We still have a long way to go before we can say that we've contained the pandemic, especially in the countries around the world that don’t have full access to vaccines. But the fact that we have these vaccines, and they were invented within a year of the first COVID diagnosis, is a testament to humankind's ability to solve global problems through innovation. Because scientists worked together on vaccines by sharing data online and working together on critical trials, we now have the tools to bring the pandemic to an end.

As you know, the world faces another historic global crisis in climate change, one that threatens to be devastating to all life on Earth if we don’t act now to mitigate it.

Currently the world emits roughly 51 billion tonnes a year in greenhouse gases. We need to get that number to net zero within the next 30 years. That is no small task. It's going to take every tool that we have in our arsenal and some we don’t have yet. This is especially true because, as with vaccines, many low and middle income countries don't yet have the same access to energy as wealthy nations. This inequality is holding back their development. So while getting to net-zero emissions we also have to provide more energy availability.

Fifteen years ago, I sat with a group of experts to explore the technologies necessary to solve the dual threats of global energy poverty and climate change. It became clear that an essential tool to solving both is advanced nuclear power. Nuclear power of course is the only carbon-free energy source we have that can deliver power day and night, throughout every season, almost anywhere on Earth. And it's been proven to work at a large scale. It's hard to imagine a future where we can decarbonise our power grid affordably without using more nuclear power.

In 2018, MIT researchers analysed nearly a thousand different scenarios for getting the US to net zero and all the cheapest paths involved using a clean, always available, energy source like nuclear power. That's why, after my learnings back in 2006, I co-founded TerraPower. And I've remained the chairman and largest investor ever since because I believe this work is essential to solving climate change and bringing clean, reliable and affordable energy to everyone.

Today nuclear power is at a crossroads. Nearly 20% of America's electricity comes from nuclear and it remains the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country. But while America's current nuclear capacity serves the country well, there are far more reactors slated for retirement than there are new reactors under construction. If we're serious about climate change and, quite frankly, we have to be, the first thing we should do is keep safe reactors operating. Even then, just maintaining that status quo is not enough. We need more nuclear power to zero out emissions in America and to prevent a climate disaster.

I've spent my life working in markets that evolve quickly and in companies that rely on innovation to stay competitive. For decades, energy markets and technologies changed very slowly and we need to do better than that. As we've seen in technologies like solar and lithium batteries, any technology can change, with improvements in costs that are very impressive. And just as with computers, the companies and industries that don't innovate will be left behind. That's why I've pushed TerraPower to think like a technology company rather than an energy company. And it's why TerraPower's Natrium energy system redefines how nuclear power is designed and offers a different value proposition.

Natrium was designed in a partnership between TerraPower and GE Hitachi, and our design is different. Instead of using a reactor's heat to generate steam and spin a turbine, Natrium uses it to run a massive molten salt energy storage system, one that is an order of magnitude larger than the biggest lithium ion battery storage system currently in existence. That means Natrium can provide steady baseload power when needed, but it can also ramp up and down as generation from variable renewable technologies like wind and solar falls, when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. In addition, Natrium's design reduces the costs and the time of construction for nuclear power plants, while increasing flexibility to make the plant more valuable to utilities.

Last week, we announced that, in partnership with the Department of Energy, as part of their Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, TerraPower will build the first Natrium plant at the site of a coal plant in Wyoming that's slated to be retired. We will take advantage of the existing grid infrastructure and the skilled unionised workforce there to build and operate the Natrium plant. And we hope to show that, on top of all of its energy benefits, advanced nuclear can play a key role in the development of good jobs for skilled workers across the country.

TerraPower isn’t the only company thinking about advanced designs and new applications for nuclear power. And this is what makes me optimistic about the future of nuclear energy. We're seeing a growing demand for technologies that can enable decarbonisation. Many innovative companies are working on bringing new nuclear technologies to market, and policy makers are recognising the need for these technologies, to solve climate change and maintain American leadership in nuclear technology.

So we have a solid foundation, but these factors alone will not ensure success for America's nuclear industry. The market will continue to evolve and other energy technologies will continue to innovate. To reach its potential, the nuclear industry will need to embrace innovation and change. We also need the federal government to follow through on its commitment to fully fund programmes like the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, and we'll need organisations like NEI to continue to push for policies that value carbon-free power generation and encourage regulators to update their views for these innovative technologies.

I'm committed to my work with TerraPower because I strongly believe that nuclear power must play a role in getting the world to net zero. To reach that goal, we need to work together, just as virologists worked together to create COVID vaccines at the fastest pace in human history. Never before has there been a greater need to collaborate across the industry - from technologists, to utilities - with a common vision for the role of nuclear in our electric grid. I look forward to working with all of you to make that future happen."