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Indonesia’s nuclear future: Electricity, clean water and – Bill Gates?

A low-CO2 model for other countries too

The greening of Kalimantan: Lush Indonesia generates close to 90 percent of its electricity from coal, oil and natural gas. It needs a lot more power to sustain its economic growth, and it's looking toward nuclear, which could power smelters and desalination in places like Kalimantan (above).

Nuclear energy developer Bill Gates – better known as software billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates – is reportedly mulling a proposal to build his novel reactor for Indonesia, and while a deal looks unlikely, the prospect underscores how nuclear is poised for a pivotal transition towards not only superior new reactor technologies, but also to new markets and innovative uses of the clean energy source.

Gates, who is chairman of U.S. nuclear startup TerraPower, fielded an offer in Jakarta last month from state-owned nuclear company PT Batan Tekno to jointly deploy what TerraPower calls a “traveling wave reactor,” (TWR) Indonesia’s Antarra News wrote.

The TWR is a type of “fast reactor” that departs from conventional reactor design. It is designed to turn depleted uranium – generally unusable as fuel – into plutonium and to operate for 60 years without refueling, one of many advantages over conventional reactors. Fast reactors in general make more efficient use of fuel than today’s reactors, which slow down neutrons in order to grab them for nuclear reactions, and leave more long lived waste. Fast reactors carry their own design challenges.

Tekno’s president, Yudiotomo Imardjoko, pitched the partnership to Gates when Gates was in the capital city for among other reasons to pledge $40 million from his philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help combat diseases including HIV-AIDS and malaria.

Yudiotomo praised the TWR for its efficiency and safety. He told Antarra News that he is interested in placing a reactor on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan to help power the many mineral smelters planned there. He also noted that Kalimantan has a relatively low earthquake risk (an issue in seismically active Indonesia).

FAST COUNTRIES

Bill Gates, pictured several years ago in an Indonesian batik shirt, hopes to bring nuclear power into fashion.

Bill Gates, pictured several years ago in an Indonesian batik shirt, hopes to bring nuclear power into fashion.

TerraPower has been seeking international partners to help develop the TWR for several years, including China, Russia, Japan and India, all of which have substantial research and development in – and in some cases deployment of – fast reactors, as do other countries, like France. TerraPower’s investors include Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries.

An Indonesian hook-up seems questionable, but not because Indonesia isn’t a likely candidate for nuclear energy. Rather, TerraPower hopes to team up in a country established in fast reactor research, which Indonesia is not.

“We appreciate the interest expressed by the Indonesian government,” TerraPower CEO John Gilleland told me via email this week. Although Gilleland did not specifically rule out Indonesia, he noted, “We are planning to build the prototype reactor in a country with an on-going fast reactor program.”

Nevertheless, Indonesia’s interest in the TerraPower machine highlights what is shaping up as a triple dip of transition toward a greatly expanded role for nuclear power in the world’s energy future:

  • Emerging and rapidly growing countries like Indonesia, as well as traditional non-nuclear nations, are turning to nuclear to for the huge additions in generating capacity they’ll need to drive their economies and to power manufacturing, businesses, services, transportation and homes. Nuclear generation does this with no carbon emissions – a priority for many countries in today’s CO2-linked global warming scenario. Nuclear also provides power in a large scale, efficient, round-the-clock manner, unlike intermittent wind and solar (renewables also require far more land than nuclear). Indeed, some of nuclear’s nearest term growth is happening in countries including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others. The Saudis, for one, are trying to decrease their use of oil for electricity generation, as they place greater emphasis than ever on exporting oil.
  • As these countries embrace nuclear, they become possible launchpads for non-conventional reactor types such as TerraPower’s fast reactor and a number of other fission reactor types including molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors, prismatic fuel reactors, and fusion machines which are under development by scores of startups or governments in countries including China, Canada, the U.S., India, South Africa, Japan, France, Norway and others. Some of these initiatives include the deployment of thorium fuel. They all aim, in some combination, to greatly improve safety and efficiencies, to cut costs, reduce waste, and minimize weapons proliferation potential compared to the nuclear designs that have defined the industry for half a century with solid fuel, water-cooled uranium reactors.
  • Because many of these inventive reactors operate at much higher temperatures than today’s reactors (a factor that contributes to their efficiency), and because they are well suited for small sizes, they open up whole new areas of nuclear use. For instance, they can provide process heat to for many industries that today use CO2-belching fossil fuel furnaces in operations including oil processing and extractions, steelmaking, cement making and in petrochemical production. They can also be used to produce other fuels, such as hydrogen, methanol and liquefied coal. Another key potential use: These reactors are well suited to power water desalination processes, which will be vital if the world is to avoid a catastrophic water crisis.

In fact, as I reported a year ago, Indonesia has already been contemplating at least one other novel reactor: A small thorium-fueled machine under development by a small Toronto-based firm called Thorium Power Canada (TPC). The company’s vice president Paul Hardy told me in an email this week that TPC could land financing by October to build a small reactor to power water desalination on Kalimantan. Despite the country’s substantial tropical rainfall, many Indonesians have poor access to clean drinking water, as the World Bank notes.

A SOLID ALTERNATIVE

The TPC reactor is gas cooled, graphite moderated, low temperature, and solid uranium fueled. It is based on designs that TPC acquired in January, 2012 from DBI/Century Fuels, a San Leandro, Calif. company founded decades ago by Chilean-born Hector D’Auvergne, who becameTPC’s chief scientist after the technology transfer. TPC wants to build reactors in the 10-megawatt to 100-megawatt range to appeal to the desalination market and to make them affordable as electricity generators to buyers who could add on capacity incrementally as they need it.

Its reactor seems well suited to the needs of an electricity starved, fast growing, water-challenged place like Indonesia and many other countries facing similar challenges.

So too, do other alternative nuclear designs, a fact not lost on TerraPower. The Gates-chaired company has been considering developing additional reactor types including a molten salt reactor. Perhaps it is casting about because it has faced considerable design challenges on the TWR, which it has had to significantly modify (see here for details). Whatever the reason for its interest in MSRs and others, the company says it remains focused on the traveling wave approach.

“We are fully committed to commercializing our TWR technology, and look forward to seeing it deployed around the globe, as we think nuclear energy plays an essential role in the future of the world’s energy security,” Gilleland said.

Combine “energy security” with “water supply”, and pretty soon you’re talking about a must-have role for nuclear in the planet’s survival. It’s time to bring on the alternative reactors. And not just in Indonesia, although that is indeed one country where it makes a lot of sense.

Photo of Kalimantan from ESCapade via Wikimeda

Photo of Bill Gates from Indonesian Art Gallery blog

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