Myhrvold Pushes Advanced Nuclear at NRC Conference

Nathan Myhrvold, the long-time polymath idea man for Bill Gates, his former boss at Microsoft, on March 12 told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) annual regulatory information conference, “Energy is the fulcrum that gives leverage to human ingenuity.” Nuclear, he said, must be a large part of providing that leverage to the world.

Myhrvold, speaking at the NRC event in North Bethesda, Maryland that runs today through March 14, made his case using U.S. and worldwide daily per capita energy consumption. He said that consumption is 9.2 kW in the U.S., “around six” in Europe, “around three” in China, and “the world average is 2.4.” He likened that to the electric energy consumption of a toaster, with the U.S. average nine toasters.

Nathan Myhrvold

“We have a mature, developed economy,” Myhrvold said. “If fact, by 2100 the whole world will have nine toasters.” He noted that “innovative use of energy might reduce that,” but then cited the Jevons paradox. In 1865, British economist William Stanley Jevons looked at the impact of increases in the energy efficiency of coal-burning steam engines. He found that as steam engines became more efficient, the result was an increase in coal consumption as the technology spread to new, unforeseen uses.

“We need to build five times more power plants than we have today, of some sort,” said Myhrvold. “The power industry needs to develop something that we can deploy at a scale far larger than we do today. That means we need to build five times more nuclear plants, and there are reasons we might want to go beyond that.” He added, “If we don’t allow more toasters per capita,” it would subject billions of people outside the U.S. to a lower standard of living.

Nuclear Key to Increased Power Generation

Nuclear, in Myhrvold’s view, is a preferred path to more power generation, because the greater spread of nuclear power will improve public health by reducing air pollution. “Nuclear, by any rational measure, is the safest form of power.” Nuclear, he added, also has the ability to produce industrial heat, and has important medical uses.

But the conventional light-water reactor, the workhorse of the world’s current nuclear fleet, isn’t the right choice for new nuclear plants, according to Myhrvold, who looks to advanced technologies such as fast neutron reactors and molten salt reactors as offering a better course. The company that he and Gates have formed, TerraPower, is betting on a form of breeder reactor that burns natural uranium, breeds fuel, and is smaller and safer than LWRs.

In an article in Scientific American last fall, Myhrvold wrote, “TerraPower is just one of dozens of startups around the world that are now exploring new and better kinds of reactors: big ones, tiny ones, some that float and some that operate underground. Several of these innovative designs could burn existing nuclear waste and the byproducts of uranium enrichment.”

What’s the way to develop and build more advanced designs? Myhrvold laid out three requirements:

  • Nail the safety case: get high pressure out of the system.
  • Give operators lots of time to analyze an accident and respond correctly.
  • Shrink the safety perimeter to the plant boundary.

“Every nuclear plant is going to be in somebody’s back yard, at least figuratively,” Myhrvold said. “New designs are they only way to address those things.”

Building new kinds of nuclear requires private-sector investment. “The fuel that every nuclear company needs is vast bundles of cash. You burn cash before you burn uranium,” Myhrvold said. But new nuclear generation will also require “substantial government funding,” he said. “No first-of-a-kind technology has ever been built without government funding.”

Finally, Myhrvold connected his message to the NRC’s mission. “Proactive regulation is wanted,” he said, pointing to the way the federal government regulates new drugs, automobiles, and aircraft. In those cases, regulation is expensive, often with long time frames, but works nonetheless. Why? Because the public has faith in the regulation.

Global Need for Winning Technologies

In his Scientific American article, Myhrvold wrote, “It’s too early to say which ideas will succeed. But it is clear that the need is global, and the market for winning technologies will be huge. Governments and investors would be smart to place many bets. We need to increase the odds that at least one will pay off wildly—and soon.”

Myhrvold has had a remarkable career, including 14 years at Microsoft and now head of a venture capital firm, Intellectual Ventures. Before joining Microsoft, he was a postdoctoral fellow in applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University, working with Stephen Hawking.  He earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics and a master’s degree in mathematical economics from Princeton, and a master’s degree in geophysics and space physics and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UCLA.

Myhrvold is also a gifted photographer and a complete foodie, co-authoring the award-winning cookbook, Modernist Cuisine (2011), and Modernist Cuisine at Home (2012), which takes modernist cooking techniques and makes them more accessible to the home cook.

“Transformation” is the theme of this year’s 31st Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), and the first to feature an outside speaker. The agency has seen its workload change dramatically, as has its workforce, but the fundamental mission of nuclear safety continues. Chairman Kristine Svinicki in kicking off the meeting, which she noted was her 10th, said that when she attended her first RIC a decade ago, “There were points where we were seeing not just one application (for a new plant) a month but sometimes two. Contrast that with today, when we have reactors ceasing operation.” The agency has also largely completed its response to the 2011 Fukushima accident, which involved a lot of internal turmoil at the NRC. She said that the past 10 years taught her “to have a really deep humility about the ability to predict what the future is going to look like.”

Ho K. Nieh, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, offered a quick look at the demographics of the NRC staff. “In February of this year,” he said, “with roughly 2,900 staff on board, we have 24% of our staff eligible to retire now, 38% eligible in three years, and 42% eligible in four years.” The agency increasingly consists of a diminishing number of very experienced staff and an increasing number of new employees, with few in the middle to fill the ranks of future project managers and agency leaders.

Kennedy Maize is a long-time energy journalist and a frequent contributor to POWER.