700 years of electricity from nuclear waste? Can TerraPower do it?

While investments in solar panels, wind turbines, biofuels, and hydropower continue to increase, it will not be enough to meet the 56% increase in energy consumption by 2040. [1]

Why is nuclear energy important?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration presented an analysis (Exhibit 1) showcasing the consumption of energy by type. There were a few interesting takeaways from this analysis:

  • Renewable energy will be the world’s fastest growing energy source.
  • Within fossil fuels, natural gas will grow the fastest and surpass coal by 2030 as the world’s second largest energy source.
  • Nuclear energy will grow from 4% of the global total to 6% by 2040.

Exhibit 1: World energy consumption by source [1]

World energy consumption by source


While the growth in renewable energy sources will help reduce the negative impact on the environment, it will not be enough to meet the increase in global energy demand. So, which source of energy can help us bridge the gap? Nuclear energy.

Enter TerraPower

In the United States itself, over 750,000 metric tons of depleted uranium sits useless. TerraPower plans to convert this nuclear waste to generate electricity that can potentially power all U.S. households for more than 700 years. [2]

TerraPower believes that while many forms of energy will play a crucial role in addressing the energy crisis and reducing greenhouse gases, we will need to develop improved nuclear energy technology to take advantage of the vast amount of nuclear waste. To help with this, TerraPower is building a traveling wave reactor (TWR), which will burn fuel made of depleted uranium. As a result of burning the fuel, the reactor will generate heat and produce electricity. [3]

How effective and safe is this traveling wave reactor (TWR)?

In comparison to the conventional nuclear reactor, the TWR is 50 times as efficient as and more economical. Besides being more efficient, the reactor also has several safety features that allow it to be automatically shut down in case of any emergencies. [4]

What’s the current state and what has TerraPower done so far?

TerraPower was founded in 2008 and since then, it has been funded by Bill Gates. Since its inception, the company has conducted several computer model simulations and has changed their strategic approach multiple times in search for a cost-effective, safe, and reliable solution.

In September 2015, the TerraPower signed a deal with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to jointly work on a 1150 megawatt-electric liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor. In terms of execution and next steps, TerraPower and CNNC plan to build a 600MW prototype between 2018 and 2023 in China. The prototype will primarily be developed to test the plant equipment, qualify the fuel and materials for longer use, and build the economic basis for commercializing TWRs. If the testing proceeds as expected, the 1150 MW commercial plant will be built in late 2020s or early 2030s. [5]

What will be some challenges for TerraPower?

While TerraPower has gained significant momentum in terms of receiving funding and signing a deal with the CNNC to build a prototype, it still has a long way to go in terms of proving the concept and commercializing the TWR.

In terms of risks, the company will need to work on addressing the following challenges over the next few years:

  1. Feasibility – While the computer model simulations have shown promise, TerraPower still has to test their hypotheses through their pilot plant and this might take 6-7 years.
  2. Supply chain and material costs – The TWR will be built using novel technologies and materials. In order to make an economical case for the TWR, TerraPower will need to actively work with third parties to manufacture their materials in a cost effective way.
  3. Funding – While Bill Gates continues to provide funding to help build the prototype, the company may need to look for more capital from the private sector.

Even though there are significant challenges, I remain optimistic about this venture to explore the use of nuclear energy and unlock its full potential to help meet the global energy demand increase by 2040.

(650 words)


[1] Adam Sieminski, “International Energy Outlook 2016”, May 11 2016, http://www.eia.gov/pressroom/presentations/sieminski_05112016.pdf, accessed November 2016.

[2] TerraPower, “Environment”, http://terrapower.com/pages/environment, accessed November 2016.

[3] TerraPower, “Technology”, http://terrapower.com/pages/technology, accessed November 2016.

[4] State of the Planet | Earth Institute, Columbia University, http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2016/03/04/what-five-tech-companies-are-doing-about-climate-change/, accessed November 2016.

[5] Neutron Bytes, https://neutronbytes.com/2015/09/23/terrapower-inks-deal-with-chinas-cnnc-to-build-fast-reactor/, accessed November 2016.


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Student comments on 700 years of electricity from nuclear waste? Can TerraPower do it?

  1. Nuclear power plants provide immense amounts of energy, can scale output to match demand, and can sustain us for centuries to come. Many different technologies will be needed to provide clean energy in the future, but nuclear is surely among those. We need to explore the ways in which it can be made safer, cheaper, and longer lasting. It’s great to see another company looking to make its mark and to have the support of Bill Gates. Hopefully, we will continue to develop better plant designs and educate the public about the potential of nuclear power.

  2. Nucler power surely provides “clean energy” in terms of the level of greenhouse gas emitted. Yet, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 reminded the world of how destructible nuclear reactors and the radioactive materials can be, there is a growing concern against nuclear power. Countries such as Switzerland, Italy, and Germany voted against building new nuclear power plants and are in the process of accelearting the shut down of old nuclear power stations. How do you think that new changes in regulations and societal perceptions on the reliability of nuclear energy affect TerraPower?

  3. Using existing nuclear waste as an energy source is a ground-breaking concept, but I am cautiously optimistic about the idea given the enormous technical, regulatory and temporal risks involved. If successful, TWR will not only reduce the amount of nuclear waste but also risks associated with nuclear proliferation and transportation. However, not all risks will be mitigated as a TWR reactor will still need fissile material (i.e., enriched uranium) to initiate a reaction. Moreover, the eventual nuclear decommissioning of a TWR reactor will also present a lot of risks and challenges. Scientists and researchers must thoroughly test and plan out the full, end-to-end implementation and operation strategy before this technology can be rolled out en mass.

  4. Another option, which is possible in both conventional nuclear fission as well as TWR is the use of thorium instead of uranium. Firstly thorium is three times more abundant in the Earths crust, making it easier and more eco-friendly to mine. Waster from thorium reactors can be reprocessed as additional fuel stock. Thorium is also not as easily weaponised making it a safer nuclear fuel. Also thorium produces less than a tenth of the nuclear waste of conventional nuclear reactors. Compared to conventional nuclear reactors thorium is also requires less capital expenditure. It would be interesting to see TWR use thorium instead of depleted uranium, which TerraPower has hinted on sometimes.

  5. I agree that nuclear is an extremely powerful (pun intended) option for expanding global energy sources while increasing resource efficiency and reducing relative GHG emissions. The TWR is an interesting and promising extension of this. However, I think we always have to be overly cautious. Even with a proven track record of safety, nuclear power still has the potential for things to go very wrong. Normalcy bias, the idea that people underestimate the probability of a disaster as well as the scale of its effects, can come into play here. With that in mind, we should push further into nuclear power while remaining uncompromising on safety.

  6. Great article! We definitely have a need for alternative power sources. However, I think this type of initiatives would probably face a lot of public resistance given the perceived safety risks, especially after recent accidents in nuclear power plants. Should TerraPower be concerned about the perceived risks? How should they educate consumers of the improved safety of nuclear power?

  7. I couldn’t agree more on the importance of nuclear as an energy source moving forward. The problem is adressing public perceptions of what “nuclear” actually is. People typically think of tragic explosions, nuclear bombs, and nuclear waste when they hear the word nuclear. We need to spent a lot of time and energy educating the public on the pros and cons of nuclear power.

    It sounds like TerraPower is using nuclear waste as an input to its reactor compared to traditional plants which rely on Uranium. So, if I understand correctly, TerraPower has a two-fold positive effect on the planet. First, it is finding something to do with the nuclear waste from other plants. This is huge because waste disposal is a huge undertaking for traditional plants. Second, it is creating power that can be used in baseload grid applications. With these two huge benefits, I would make a strong push for TerraPower’s success.

  8. I totally agree that the nuclear energy is a very important energy source. But I am a little bit skeptical of the data which says that the nuclear energy will grow from 4% of the global total to 6% by 2040, because nuclear technology entails serious safety issues and there is also the fact that some countries are reluctant to use this energy source. For example, in Japan, before the earthquake and nuclear power plant incident in 2011, the government and the electric power companies were very aggressively introducing nuclear power plants, but now there is only one plant operating. Germany also decided to shut down all of the nuclear power plants operating within the country by 2021. I do not think that the US will prohibit the usage of nuclear energy but I thought there are some hurdles that TerraPower has to overcome in order to succeed.

  9. Great piece Karan! It would be interesting to see if any analysis has been done that takes into account the anticipated global slowdown in energy demand. With efficiency measures and new price scenarios, would existing energy plays encounter utilization issues and perhaps affect the economics of new energy investments?

  10. Given the upfront capital intensive nature of power projects, and that most of the expansion of power generation will occur in capital constrained markets (i.e. emerging and frontier economies), where do you think nuclear comes out in respect to a per mega watt comparable to gas to power and coal to power? In addition, what safety concerns do you have as the resources for governance and oversight decrease?

  11. Karan, the chemical engineer in me thinks that the ability to convert spent nuclear fuel might come with serious caveats. That is, often times these kind of projects have a hidden cost or extra upfront conversion cost/capital structure. It will be very interesting to see however, if a technology like this has a long term potential to be successful given newer reactor technologies (e.g. thorium-based) that might produce significantly less waste.

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