With the first use of nuclear weapons in Japan to end World War II, the world saw the destructive power of the atomic nuclei. The two bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where uranium and plutonium bombs appeared like firecrackers when we compare them with modern-day nuclear weapons. This claim shows that the world now has mastered and estimated the true potential of atomic nuclei, enabled by new technologies, such as computing sciences to material sciences. All these domains add multiple layers of security and safety to the nuclear energy infrastructure. These modern innovations were missing when the world saw the first use of atomic energy in the service of mankind when Admiral Hyman G. Rickover built the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. This new development back then was mainly for military purposes, but these achievements opened many new avenues to extend nuclear energy to power our cities.
The dawn of nuclear age brought a radical change in our perception of energy management. To produce power, we relied heavily on oil and gas, of which a huge amount is needed so that the process of electricity generation never halts. In contrast, in a nuclear power plant, a tiny uranium pellet is sufficient to produce power equivalent to 3 barrels of oil.
Nuclear power was a widely accepted model of power when it was first tested and employed to become a part of the global energy mix. Many Western countries were the first to make strides in nuclear technology. The United States, Germany, France, Sweden, and Canada were among the pioneers of this technology. However, as the issue of nuclear waste started to emerge in the late 70s, and few incidents related to nuclear power plants occurred in the communist and non – communist world at that time, nuclear energy was labeled as a deathtrap. Many western NGOs, government officials, and civil societies launched a crusade against nuclear power. All these efforts over the decades following 1970 to phase out nuclear power are collectively known as the anti-nuclear movement. This movement followed by the rise of Green politics dented the relevance and credibility of nuclear power in public eyes. The Greens were traditionally skeptical of the nuclear power and its environmental toll on the pristine European landscape. This movement left huge footprints on the American energy strategy as well, after the Three Mile Island accident in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, aftershocks spread globally, and nuclear energy was labeled as something that humans should never consider as a reliable energy source.
Germany and Sweden are the prime examples of this anti-nuclear movement. These two pioneering countries in nuclear technology are on the cusp of phasing out their nuclear power plants, introducing radically new concepts to reshape their energy policies and energy consumption habits and resurrecting new energy infrastructures. In Germany’s case, Energiewende (German for “energy transition”) is the new strategic scale energy sector transformation strategy to phase out nuclear energy entirely by 2022 and to convert Germany’s energy system to renewable energy. These ambitious climate goals pursued by the developed states are prime examples of the modern age energy system, but the world is not convinced by this German experiment. Though they are not entirely rubbishing it, they are rejecting claims that nuclear energy’s time is counted, and that nuclear energy is some destructive form of energy.
Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is the new voice in this realm, who brought massive support and rightly touted nuclear energy as energy for the future. The world is fraught with the looming dangers of catastrophic global warming patterns, high sea levels, and health emergencies in the form of pandemics. Nuclear energy is the only solution to eliminate and to reduce carbon footprints, and to control or somehow amend the patterns of carbon infusion into the environment. The denialist doubts both the models of energy transformation and its effect on our environment. The German-led model calls for employing renewable sources while discouraging fossil fuels and nuclear energy, while the other model calls for accommodating various forms of energy while advocating greater share of the nuclear power to cap carbon footprints. The climate change denialists find it easy to target both camps. Bill Gates is a unique figure in this energy debate since he hails from the technology sector and can be labeled as a pro-nuclear activist. However, he is different from other classes of activists since he is a multi-billionaire and the second richest person in the world. He rolled out his own company, TerraPower, a nuclear innovation company tasked with revolutionizing nuclear reactor design and nuclear power. Due to his repeated calls and concrete steps in revolutionizing the global health system and energy systems, he is an easy target for denialists and conspiracy theorists. Although these self-propelled ideas may not reflect the primary objectives of the serious environmental activists and anti-nuclear campaigners, the spread of this misinformation has grave effects on the current climate change awareness campaigns around the globe. In an open letter to Microsoft employees, Bill Gates tried to address the common misconceptions about nuclear energy and the nuclear disasters of the past. Although he recognized the roles of faulty reactor systems and human error in the initiation of destructive sequences of events, as a technology expert, he knows how to remove bugs from the system to support maintenance. He promotes innovative nuclear reactor systems using traveling wave reactors (TWRs) as its primary technology using closed fuel cycles.
To decode Bill Gates ideas about nuclear energy, we need to think of a nuclear reactor as any other machine. The only touted threat is from the nuclear fuel and the end product we get at the end of the nuclear cycle. Bill Gates calls for reactor types that address this problem. His traveling wave reactors under the TerraPower framework can use depleted uranium to ward off all the concerns about the highly enriched uranium. The proliferation pathways enabled by today’s reactors can be halted, thus making sure that no nuclear fuel cycles end up producing weapons-grade fuel. The nuclear fuel cycle a few decades back was also a cause of concern, but new frameworks introduced by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other bilateral and multilateral bodies that encourage innovations in fuel cycle, are the surest way to keep future meltdowns at bay.
The current US Administration under Trump is returning to nuclear power generation and resuming nuclear trade by exporting its reactors to other countries, which will greatly multiply the global output of nuclear power and also introduce innovative thinking and methods about nuclear reactors and energy. This US decision is at the backdrop of new players in the nuclear energy market. France, China, and Russia are leading nuclear trade trends these days, with many countries opting for nuclear energy. The most notable entrants in the nuclear energy club are Gulf oil superpowers like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Ultimately, we may see significant improvements to nuclear power and its utilization.