Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Nuclear Conundrum

Some time ago, I wrote a post  about Bill Gates' talk at TED 2010 -  probably the very best organized talk I've ever heard.   Gates blew me away with his clarity and coherence as he took us through his analysis of the climate change problem.  Basically, he said, 'If climate change is the question, then nuclear is the answer'.

Gates outlined the argument that to attack global poverty, you had to attack climate change, because it was the poor who would suffer the most from climate change.  And if you eliminate all the ways that cannot solve climate change, you're left with nuclear power as the only option.   Of course, this option is anathema to environmentalists, but as Sherlock Holmes put it,“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”   One could rephrase that as "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the answer."

In that talk, Gates introduced a new type of nuclear reactor which uses spent uranium (helping clean up the existing nuclear waste mess) and runs buried underground for 20 years at a time without the need to refuel or remove waste (the activities that introduce immense risk in current nuclear plants).  The technology was developed at TerraPower, a company led by Nathan Myrvold, former chief scientist at Microsoft.

Well, I recently read an article on telling of Gates' visit to China, where he had discussions about introducing this technology there.  Pretty interesting, I thought.  If there's a place that is likely to tip the planet over the climate change abyss, it's developing China.  Wouldn't it be nice if this technology delivers on its promise and China doesn't fuel its growth by building more dirty coal plants?

There's another interesting perspective on this visit in the Washington Post, lamenting that Gates had to go abroad to try to sell this revolutionary idea because the US has become a hostile environment to introducing such revolutionary technology.   As a person who follows innovation, and writings about innovation, pretty closely, that article is part of a chorus of voices disturbed over the US' loss of innovative leadership in the world.

Nixon's visit to China is considered to be pivotal in global affairs; Gates' visit could be even more significant for the planet.

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