Bill Gates and techno-fix delusions

When elites try to change the world, it’s not usually for the better for the rest of us

By M.V. Ramana and Cassandra Jeffery

Note: The original version of this article includes endnotes. In the interests of space — and consistent with our formatting — we have not included these here. However, please refer to the original publication of this article in Against the Current, to see these references.

Bill Gates, the businessman, made one of the world’s biggest fortunes by designing, selling and marketing computer technology. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when it comes to climate change, he’s pushing more technology.

When wealthy people push something, the world pays attention. Practically all major media outlets covered his recent book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, and Gates has been interviewed dozens of times. All this pushing came with the pre-emptive caveat expressed in his book that the “world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do, or who think technology can fix any problem.”

In his account of how elites try to “change the world,” journalist Anand Giridharadas explained: “All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions…the attempts naturally reflect their biases.”

Anand Giridharadas, speaking at a forum with Senator Elizabeth Warren, has examined how elites try to change the world. (Photo: Elizabeth Warren/Wikimedia Commons)

Gates is no exception to the rule; his bias favors maintaining the current economic and political system that has made him into one of the richest people in the world. The same bias also underpinned his stance on preserving intellectual property rights over Covid-19 vaccines, even at the cost of impeding access to these vaccines in much of the world.

Just as the pandemic was accentuated by insisting on the rights to continued profits for pharmaceutical companies, climate change is exacerbated by the current economic system that is predicated on unending growth.

A focus on technical solutions without fixing the underlying driver of climate change will not help. What is worse, some of the proposed technologies are positively dangerous.

Exhibit A: untested nuclear reactors like the ones that Gates is developing and endorsing.

Puzzling Choices

In an interview with CNBC following the publication of his book, Bill Gates announced: “There’s a new generation of nuclear power that solves the economics, which has been the big, big problem.”

To understand the economic problem, consider the only two nuclear reactors being built in the United States. These are in the state of Georgia, and the cost of constructing these has ballooned from an initial estimate of $14 billion to over $30 billion.

Even worse was the case of the V. C. Summer project in South Carolina, where over $9 billion was spent, only for the project to be abandoned because cost overruns led to Westinghouse, one of the leading nuclear reactor companies in the world, filing for bankruptcy protection.

These high construction costs naturally result in high electricity costs. In 2021, Lazard, the Wall Street firm, estimated the average cost of electricity from new nuclear plants to be between $131 and $204 per megawatt hour, whereas it estimated that newly constructed utility-scale solar and wind plants produce electricity at somewhere between $26 and $50 per megawatt-hour.

Likewise, in June 2022 NextEra, a large electricity utility, estimated that wind and solar energy, with four hours of electricity storage to allow for generation even when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing, ranged between $25 and $37 per megawatt-hour. Electricity from renewables is thus far cheaper than nuclear power, a difference only growing as solar and wind continue to become cheaper.

Electricity from renewables is far cheaper than nuclear power, a difference only growing as solar and wind continue to become cheaper.

Many reactors have been shut down because they are unprofitable. In 2018, Bloomberg New Energy Finance concluded that more than a quarter of U.S. nuclear plants don’t make enough money to cover their operating costs.

That year, NextEra decided to shut down the Duane Arnold nuclear reactor in Iowa, because it was cheaper to take advantage of the lower costs of renewables, primarily wind power. The decision, NextEra estimated, will “save customers nearly $300 million in energy costs, on a net present value basis.”

It is this economic conundrum that Gates is claiming to address through new nuclear reactor designs. He is not alone. A number of other investors have backed “new” nuclear technology, and dozens of companies have received funding to design “advanced” or “small modular” reactors.

But these nuclear reactors of the future are no less problematic than traditional reactors. Besides unfavourable economics, there are at least three other well-known “unresolved problems” with nuclear power.

First, the acquisition of nuclear power technology increases the capacity of a country to make nuclear weapons, and thus increases the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Second, despite assurances about safety, all nuclear reactors can undergo major accidents, albeit infrequently. Chernobyl and Fukushima are the best-known examples, but not the only ones.

Third, the multiple forms of radioactive waste produced during the nuclear energy generation process pose a seemingly intractable management problem. Exposure to these wastes will be harmful to people and other living organisms for hundreds of thousands of years.

Wastes must therefore be isolated for millennia from human contact. The storage and disposal of these wastes often take place in poor, disadvantaged communities, typically far away from the gated homes of people like Gates.

It is not possible to simultaneously address all of these four challenges — cost, safety, waste, and proliferation — facing nuclear power. To a greater or lesser extent, all these problems will afflict the reactors being developed by TerraPower, the nuclear power company backed by Gates.

Bill Gates and TerraPower

TerraPower was founded in 2006 and Gates continues to serve as Chairman of the Board. The company has funded the development of three different nuclear reactor designs through a mix of venture capitalist investments from fellow billionaires, engineering and manufacturing corporations in the energy and defense sector, and government.

The company has research and development partnerships with several major institutions, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex, both of which design and test nuclear weapons.

The Y-12 National Security Complex, site of frequent protests, tests and manufactures nuclear weapons. Gates’s TerraPower has research and development partnerships with Y-12 and Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Photo of OREPA protest at Y-12 by Brian Stansberry/Wikimedia Commons)

TerraPower is well-funded. In 2010, the company received $35 million in seed money from venture capital firms to develop the first of its nuclear power plant designs, the “traveling wave” reactor. It has also received an undisclosed amount of funding from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm co-founded and co-chaired by Gates.

According to a 2015 TerraPower promotional video, Gates pledged to invest $2 billion into emerging energy technologies, including nuclear technologies produced by TerraPower. And a few years back, Gates promised to invest $1 billion from his personal coffers and raise another $1 billion in private capital to fund TerraPower directly.

Despite these announcements, the exact financial figure Gates has personally invested into TerraPower is not known. In 2019, he declined interview requests by the Washington Post about his investment in the company. TerraPower’s financial records are not publicly available.

But investments by Gates and his friends are not the only source of funding for TerraPower. In 2016, TerraPower received a $40 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE), followed by another $80 million in 2020, and $8.5 million in 2022.

In 2021, under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations has set aside $2.5 billion for nuclear projects and some of this funding will subsidize the TerraPower nuclear project slated for development in Wyoming.

As far as we can tell from publicly available data, government support adds up to nearly as much as private investments and almost certainly more than Gates has personally invested. In other words, taxpayers have already paid tens of millions of dollars, and could pay far more in the future, for this technology.

The U.S. taxpayer isn’t the only source of public funding that Bill Gates has tried to leverage. The 1.4 billion people of China came close to ponying up their tax dollars (or renminbis). After a series of visits by Gates to the Middle Kingdom, TerraPower reached an agreement with state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation in 2017 to build an experimental nuclear reactor south of Beijing.

That project would have likely gone forward but was stopped by America’s waning diplomatic and trade relationship with China.

Technical Problems

TerraPower has three different nuclear reactor designs on the books: the Natrium reactor; the molten chloride fast reactor; and the traveling wave reactor.

Given his emphasis on novelty and innovation, one would expect Gates to put his money on reactor designs that are new and likely to succeed. None of these designs have that merit. All of these reactors are based on two old reactor designs vexed with major problems.

Let us start with the problems with the molten chloride fast reactor. As its name suggests, the reactor uses nuclear materials dissolved in molten chemical salts.

Salt is corrosive — just ask anyone who lives on the coast. So the inside of the reactor will be a chemically corrosive and highly radioactive environment.

No material can perform satisfactorily in such an environment. After reviewing the available studies, all that the U.S. Idaho National Laboratory — a nuclear power booster — could recommend was that “a systematic development program be initiated.”

Other leading research laboratories like France’s Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire (IRSN) and the U.K.’s Nuclear Innovation and Research Office, have concluded that molten salt reactors are problematic. As IRSN put it, “numerous technological challenges remain to be overcome before the construction of an MSR can be considered.”

The historical experience with molten salt reactors has been pretty bleak, to put it mildly. The last one to be built was the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment in Oakridge, Tennessee. It operated intermittently from 1965 to 1969, and operations were interrupted 225 times in those four years; of these interruptions, only 58 were planned.

But it’s not just a matter of molten salt reactors being unreliable or technologically challenged. As Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists has documented at length, the “use of liquid fuel instead of a solid fuel” in molten salt reactors “has significant safety implications for both normal operation and accidents.”

Specifically, the molten nature of the fuel makes it easier for radioactive materials to escape into the atmosphere and be dispersed.

Terrapower’s other two reactor designs are not much better. Both the Travelling Wave Reactor and the Natrium use molten sodium. Another problematic material, molten sodium is used to transport the intense heat produced by the nuclear fission reactions. Again, such reactors have been constructed since the dawn of the nuclear age and with similarly dismal results.

To start with, such reactors have had numerous accidents. The record starts on November 29, 1955 when the Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) in Idaho had a partial core meltdown.

A decade later, in October 1966, the Fermi-1 demonstration fast reactor in Michigan suffered a partial core meltdown. The shock made its way into the cultural mainstream in the form of a book called We Almost Lost Detroit and a song with the same name by Gil Scott Heron.

In Japan, the Monju reactor suffered a series of accidents and produced almost no electricity, after an expenditure of at least $8.5 billion.

In Japan, the Monju reactor, sodium-cooled and MOX-fueled, suffered a series of accidents and produced almost no electricity, after an expenditure of at least $8.5 billion. (Photo: IAEA Imagebank)

The use of molten sodium makes such reactors susceptible to serious fires, because the material burns if exposed to air. Almost all sodium-cooled reactors constructed around the world have experienced sodium leaks, likely because of chemical interactions between sodium and the stainless steel used in various components of the reactor.

Finally, the use of sodium also makes it difficult to maintain and carry out repairs on fast reactors, which then become susceptible to long shutdowns. Having to deal with all these volatile properties and safety concerns naturally drives up the construction costs of fast reactors, rendering them substantially more expensive than common thermal reactors.

Sodium-cooled reactors are also unre­liable, operating at dismally low rates compared to standard reactors. The load factor (the ratio of the amount of electrical energy a power plant has produced to the amount of energy it would have produced had it operated at full capacity) for the Prototype Fast Reactor in the United Kingdom was 27%; France’s Superphenix reactor managed a mere 7.9%.

The typical U.S. reactor operates with a load factor of more than 90%. Sodium- cooled reactors would have to sell their power at higher prices to compensate for the fewer units of electrical energy generated.

“Without innovation, we will not solve climate change,” chanted Gates. But no amount of innovation will change the laws of chemistry or physics. How sodium behaves when it interacts with air or water won’t be affected, even if the sodium is inside a nuclear reactor backed by one of America’s oligarchs.

Innovation will not change the fact that the radioactive wastes produced by the Natrium reactor will remain hazardous for tens of thousands of years.

Systemic Problems

Why is Bill Gates investing in nuclear power? This question comes up a lot, although fre­quently as a rhetorical excuse to wax eloquently about the virtues of nuclear technology. The answer is by no means straightforward.

Nuclear energy is only one lottery ticket among many for Bill Gates. He’s invested into dozens of companies, especially through Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Breakthrough’s investments range from companies that focus on energy storage — examples are Form Energy and Malta — to ones making new kinds of concrete, developing geothermal energy, and producing steel.

Gates has also secured a stake in the future of agriculture; in 2021, he was dubbed America’s largest private farmland owner.

Clearly, Gates’ strategy is to diversify his investments. If the Natrium reactor — TerraPower’s leading offering at this point — turns out to be a nuclear lemon, which is quite likely for the reasons discussed above, Gates will have a suite of investments to fall back on.

This tactic — diversifying assets and investments to increase the probability that at least one stake will pay off big time — is standard practice among venture capitalists. Other fellow billionaires investing in nuclear power have similarly diversified strategies.

Gates and fellow oligarchs have other strategies to maintain their wealth. They devote enormous financial resources and time to nurture their economic positions by political campaign financing and lobbying for favorable policies and regulations.

Such tactics are legal but amount to a form of corruption and facilitate the extraction of what economists call rents (for example, through the imposition of intellectual property protections), which are going to come in the way of climate mitigation as well.

Such forms of corruption are also widespread in the nuclear industry, with groups like the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), devising marketing campaigns that benefit nuclear power plant owning companies, including influencing the appointment of officials to oversight bodies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Among the recent pieces of legislation that NEI lobbied for was the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernisation Act. Publicly endorsed by Gates, the law makes it easier for “next-generation advanced reactors,” the kind that TerraPower is developing, to be licensed for construction by the NRC.

Such behaviors, unfortunately, are standard for the large organizations that dominate today’s economy.

People like Bill Gates are billionaires because they hit the jackpot on a lottery ticket and then lobbied rule-makers to extract as much money as possible from that lottery ticket. These gains allow them to reinvest into a diversified portfolio to increase the odds of another windfall prize.

In this pursuit, the public also gets to foot the bill; in the case of TerraPower, taxpayers have put up tens of millions of dollars into this venture without ever being given an opportunity to provide or deny their informed consent for this technology.

The public — especially those who live near one of the sites targeted for new reactor deployment, the areas where uranium will be mined and processed, and wherever the long-lived nuclear waste will go — will be subject to environmental contamination, paying far more than just a financial cost.

Given the experimental technologies involved in these new nuclear reactor designs, the risks to such communities are considerable. Many of these risks will only become greater with climate change as extreme weather events become more frequent and challenge operations at nuclear plants.

The risks and wasted investments are mounting. Further, this obsession with nuclear power and other untested technologies diverts the public’s attention from the larger systemic drivers of the climate crisis: unabated capitalism and its need for never-ending economic growth.

Pushing the nuclear agenda furthers the falsehood that growth can continue indefinitely with no limits, and the pretense that climate change can be solved using one more technology from the same toolbox that caused the problem in the first place.

“Those most responsible for creating the problem [of climate change] will see to it that they profit from the solution that they propose,” observed Indian writer Arundhati Roy in 2019. People like Gates exemplify that observation. Not only do they create the conditions for accelerating global warming but they also see to it that they are amply rewarded when they claim to know how to solve climate change.

Bill Gates might well be interested in finding a solution to climate change but he seems far more devoted to maintaining the current system for as long as it is feasible. Protecting this system requires, among other things, selling people the idea that the system is capable of solving climate change. Selling nuclear power is part of that larger sales job.

M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarma­ment, Global and Human Security and Professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and the author of The Power Of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy In India. Cassandra Jeffery holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Global Affairs from the University of British Columbia and is the recipient of a Simons Award in Nuclear Disarmament and Global Security for research into the political economy of nuclear energy.

This article was first published by Against The Current and is republished with permission of the editor.

Headline photo of Rick Perry and Bill Gates by Office of U.S. Secretary of Energy/Wikimedia Commons.

The opinions expressed in articles by outside contributors and published on the Beyond Nuclear International website, are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Beyond Nuclear. However, we try to offer a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives as part of our mission “to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future”.

%d bloggers like this: