The two firms have been developing similar technology; mini reactors which are safer and cheaper to run than the current generation of nuclear power plants. The purpose of the talks is to bring about a development partnership combining their knowledge, but Toshiba emphasised that the talks were in early stages.
Terra Firma is a unit of Intellectual Ventures, a patent holding company partly backed by Gates. Terra Firma is concerned with developing a travelling wave reactor (TWR). This reactor will theoretically only need a small amount of enriched uranium to start, and then uses depleted or natural uranium to keep producing the nuclear fission reactions necessary to generate power; they are also predicted to be able to run for 60 years without the need for refuelling or the removal of spent fuel.
Toshiba has been independently investigating the possibility of creating mini reactors that could run for 30 years without any intervention, so the links between the two companies’ research is obvious. Critically, these kinds of reactor should be cheaper, safer and more socially acceptable than current reactors. They are intended for use either in cities or in emerging markets. Bill Gates has even gone so far as to say that a TWR could be buried underground and could operate without any human intervention.
The reason it can run for so long is that the reactor should be able to ‘breed’ its own fuel. The enriched uranium will emit neutrons which will convert the depleted uranium into plutonium, which will split to produce heat energy and will also emit further neutrons which will ‘breed’ more fuel.
However, the reactors could take years to develop even with the two firms co-operating as the technology is so new, and it is still unknown if it is possible. Which is why the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not even have a certification process for such a reactor.
With the current emphasis on greener energy and President Obama’s recent US$ 8 billion loan to the nuclear energy industry, the impetus and financial backing to develop new nuclear technologies is there, and America is always wary of losing the technological race with China and Europe, who are also busy developing their own next generation nuclear power plants.
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