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Bill Gates-backed fast-reactor effort joined by Japan heavyweights

  • January 27, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:02 a.m.
  • English Press

JUNTARO ARAI, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — The Japan Atomic Energy Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said Wednesday they will participate in building a cutting-edge nuclear project led by a U.S. startup that was co-founded by Bill Gates, who serves as the company chairman.


The Japanese players have signed a memorandum of understanding with TerraPower to help construct a 345-megawatt prototype plant in the American state of Wyoming subsidized by the U.S. Energy Department. It is slated to come online in 2028. 


Like Japan’s experimental Monju fast-breeder reactor — now being decommissioned — TerraPower’s technology uses liquid sodium as a coolant. Mitsubishi Heavy will help develop technology for swapping out fuel and equipment to detect fuel failures.


Fast reactors use neutrons that move at higher speeds than in other types of reactors to sustain fission chain reactions. This process consumes plutonium fuel more efficiently and also transforms long-lived nuclear waste into elements with shorter half-lives. Unlike fast-breeder reactors, designs like TerraPower’s do not produce more plutonium, a key component of nuclear weapons, than they consume.


A Terrapower engineer uses a glove box for processing sodium at a company development site.   © AP

While it can take 8,000 years for the radioactivity of fuel used in standard reactors to decay to levels found in natural uranium, according to Japan’s industry ministry, a fast reactor could cut this time to 300 years.


Japan’s progress on restarting nuclear plants after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster has been slow, and the country has largely avoided discussion of building new facilities or replacing existing ones.


With the number of companies in the industry dwindling, overseas projects like the TerraPower collaboration provide an opportunity for Japan to maintain technical capabilities that could be lost.


Commercialization of fast-reactor technology remains a long way off. After scrapping Monju, Japan’s government pivoted to working with France on its planned Astrid fast-breeder reactor, but Paris has frozen that project.


Small modular reactors are emerging as a leading candidate for the next generation of nuclear power facilities, with about 70 under development worldwide. U.S.-based NuScale Power looks to begin bringing reactors that can produce 77 MW online in 2029.

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