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Bill Gates: Nuclear power will 'absolutely' be politically acceptable again — it's safer than oil, coal, natural gas

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Bill Gates
Gerard Miller | CNBC

Nuclear energy will "absolutely" be politically palatable, billionaire philanthropist, technologist and climate change evangelist Bill Gates recently told Andrew Ross Sorkin on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Nuclear power has to overcome a baneful reputation garnered by association with the atomic bomb and radioactive disasters, but it's a necessary, worthy and surmountable challenge to correct the naysayers, according to Gates.

That's because the need for clean energy is dire, and the operation of nuclear power plants produces no greenhouse gas emissions. According to Gates, new innovations in nuclear technology (in which he is an investor) are making nuclear energy safer and more affordable, and countries around the world are starting to adopt nuclear power.

Nuclear energy is safer than coal, oil, natural gas

Nuclear energy has long had reputation of being dangerous: Early innovations in nuclear power were made in furtherance of the nuclear bomb, and in more recent decades, there have been high-profile disasters like the Chernobyl plant meltdown in 1986 in Ukraine and the the Fukushima Daiichi plant accident in 2011 in Japan.

But while the disasters get a lot of attention, Gates points to the relative safety of nuclear power over time.

"Nuclear has actually been safer than any other source of [power] generation," Gates told Sorkin. "You know, coal plants, coal particulate, natural gas pipelines blowing up. The deaths per unit of power on these other approaches are — are far higher," Gates said, a fact he also references in his new book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster."

Death rates from energy production per unit of energy generated.
Courtesy Our World in Data

"There's a new generation [of nuclear power] that solves the economics, which has been the big, big problem," he said, referring to the fact that the power plants are very expensive to build. "At the same time, it revolutionizes the safety."

Innovations include using liquid sodium instead of water to cool the reactor at a lower pressure, which can help avoid meltdowns and also allows nuclear power plants to be smaller and therefore simpler to build.

"As we solve these engineering problems and cost problems, I hope people will be open-minded to see how incredibly safe the next generation will be," Gates told Sorkin. Gates is an investor in and founder of TerraPower, one of the leading new nuclear power companies.

Global adoption matches changing sentiment

Around the world, the adoption of nuclear energy is starting to change.

"The potential of nuclear energy as a part of a broad, low carbon-generation portfolio is becoming clearer to those governments that want to take action on climate change," says Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager for World Nuclear Association, a non-profit of industry stake-holders.

"The United Arab Emirates is looking beyond its fossil fuel history and has just started up the first of four nuclear reactors, which by the middle of this decade will supply 25% of its electricity, and Turkey and Bangladesh are constructing their first nuclear reactors," Cobb says.

And "other countries, such as Poland and Egypt are intending to build their first nuclear power plants in the future," he says.

In the United States, where about 20% of total annual U.S. electricity generation comes from nuclear power, a new nuclear power plant is being constructed by Southern Nuclear at the Vogtle plant in Waynesboro, Georgia (which is about 40 minutes south of Augusta). The new reactors, due online in 2021 and 2022, will be some of "the world's most advanced," according to the Office of Nuclear Energy of the federal government's Department of Energy.

US political sentiment about nuclear power has been changing too.

Nuclear energy innovation was part of President Joe Biden's campaign pledge to address climate change.

And over the past four years bipartisan political support for nuclear has grown, says John Kotek, vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Washington D.C-based Nuclear Energy Institute, and a former head of the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy during the Obama administration.

"Congress has passed several pro-nuclear bills by overwhelming bipartisan majorities and has increased funding for nuclear energy research by more than 50%" in that time, he says. "And several states – led by both Democratic and Republican governors – have enacted policies to keep existing nuclear plants in operation because they value both the carbon-free electricity and the thousands of good-paying jobs those plants deliver."

But some say it's be better to focus on renewables like solar and wind

Of course, there are those who say nuclear power is not the immediate answer.

"This proposed technology is a distraction from existing low-cost, safer, and faster solutions available today," like wind and solar power, says Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

"Since we need to solve 80% of the climate and pollution problems by 2030, and 100%, ideally, by 2035, a new nuclear reactor that takes an average of 15 years between planning and operation is completely useless in terms of helping the climate problem," Jacobson says.

The myriad of risks with nuclear power are also not insignificant, he says. There is some risk of weapons proliferation, mining uranium can be dangerous, and there is no good safe long-term storage solution for nuclear waste in the United States, to name a few.

Jacobson also points out that while the operation of nuclear power plants does not emit greenhouse gasses (the federal government calls nuclear energy "a zero-emission clean energy source), there are emissions generated in the production of nuclear power plants and in the decomissioning of reactors.

"By far, the best solution is to deploy existing clean, renewable energy and storage technologies," Jacobson says.

But according to Gates, fully renewable energy systems faces an as yet unsurmounted challenge: It has so far been impossible to create a battery that can be scaled to store enough energy to power entire electrical grids. (Wind and solar energy need to be stored so there is still power when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not out.)

"I've lost more money on battery companies than anyone," Gates, who also invests in battery storage companies, told Fortune recently. "And I'm still in, like, five different battery companies...."

Kotek points to the opportunity cost of solely focusing on things like wind and solar. The two new nuclear reactors being built in Georgia, for instance, "will produce more carbon-free electricity than is currently generated by the more than 7,000 wind turbines in the state of California" he says, and "will, over a 60-year lifetime, avoid the release of about 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide."

Regardless, many of the new nuclear technologies like advanced power plants are currently "energy unicorns," says Gregory Jaczko, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman and the founder of Wind Future LLC. "They have amazing powers to solve all kinds of environmental problems, they just don't exist in the real world."

Until they come to fruition, existing solutions "may not have horns, but you can actually put a saddle on one and cut carbon emissions."

Going forward, even with new technology and demand for clean energy, nuclear energy still has an uphill public relations battle, though, Gates says. "Nuclear power can be done in a way that none of those failures of the past would recur, because just the physics of how it's built," Gates told Anderson Cooper on CBS' "60 Minutes." "I admit, convincing people of that will be almost as hard as actually building it. But since it may be necessary to avoid climate change, we shouldn't give up."

See also:

Bill Gates: This is what you — yes, you — can do to help prevent a climate change disaster

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