New Age Nuclear Plants and Foreign Policy - Gökberk Bilgin

Many people perceive nuclear energy as a risky energy production method that can generate more harm than good. After the Chernobyl and Fukushima plants’ incidents, governments also disregarded it as an option in their energy policies. However, there is still room for nuclear plants to improve and become safer. The technology used in nuclear plants is rather old compared to other energy production mechanisms. Most of them belong to 1950s to 1970s technology. Technological improvements require expensive investments, and due to its popularity level, not many companies are interested in the nuclear energy sector.

Bill Gates, on the other hand, works on safer nuclear energy for nearly a decade. His initiative, TerraPower, tries to eliminate the risks that older technologies have by improving the plant’s system. In the documentary series Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, Bill Gates explains how the new design of nuclear reactor can minimize human errors resulting in massive catastrophes.

In traditional nuclear plants, electricity outages create enormous risks. After disposing of the fuel from the reactor, it continues to get heated. To cool them, they are transferring to the water pools. However, the system can only pump the cooling water if there is power. In these cases, when the electricity is out, the facilities use fuel-based power generators. In natural disaster cases safety of these generations also become vital. When the earthquake happened near the Fukushima nuclear plant, the generators were mistakingly locating near the shore, and the following tsunami hit them, so they could not work. Eventually, they could not cool down the disposed of fuel, and an explosion happened. With a better design of the facility, Japan could avoid the accident.

To fix the previous model’s problems, the TerraPower team created a new design named Travelling-Wave Reactor, which does not use water for cooling. Instead, it uses liquid metal, which has a very high boiling temperature than the heat in the reactor and airflow to cool down. Bill Gates claims that, in this model, the worst-case scenario can be halting electricity production. The company also uses depleted uranium stocks to power the reactors that used to be carefully stored and indisposable. This amount of uranium is enough for the United States to cover 125 years of its energy consumption.

Even though the idea seems very promising, TerraPower faces problems with realizing it. After the Fukushima incident, public opinion on nuclear energy completely turned negative, and investment opportunities disappeared in the Western countries. TerraPower then began negotiations with China. After several years of discussions, there was a deal between the two parties. However, the diplomatic problems between the two states led to trade wars, and all operations stopped.

If they do not explode, nuclear energy provides many advantages for the environment and economy. After the facility’s initial cost, the price is relatively very cheap to an alternative option. It provides zero-carbon emissions, which means they do not contribute the global warming. With nuclear, you can generate energy 24 hours when there is no maintenance that happens every two years.

According to the Straits Times, the Chinese governments want to benefit from these advantages by investing in nuclear energy. Since China has a zero-emission target for 2060, having nuclear energy can help them achieve the goal. According to the reports, China wants to add five times more nuclear power to its production capacity. Cooperation with the TerraPower can help them build these plants if they can resolve the diplomatic problems with the United States.

Nowadays, the United States and China are also competing in the technology sector. China is investing billions of dollars in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and 5G technologies to challenge the hegemony of Silicon Valley, which is the center of the Western tech firms with four companies now worth more than $1 trillion and many others. By doing hacking activities China also tries to steal the intellectual properties. Under such envioronment, many U.S. tech companies are shutting down their businesses in China and moving to other Asian countries or United States.

In these circumstances, sharing technical information on each other seems impossible, especially for the nuclear energy sector. I expect the Biden administration’s policies to be similar to the Trump administration with a more cautious approach in the technology sector. They will try to avoid intellectual property theft and limit Chinese technological developments while supporting their companies to remain dominant.

Since 2018, the interest in TerraPower and nuclear energy increases in the United States. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program supports TerraPower to improve its reactors and decrease the expenses. Bill Gates willing to invest several billion dollars and raise more from the venture capitalists if the U.S. congress supports nuclear energy more. With these investments, the nuclear power plants will be smaller, safer, and more efficient than the previous ones.

Overall, we see developments in producing nuclear energy ideas in the last decade. We also see that developing good ideas is not enough to materialize if the public is not ready to grasp them. If the Fukushima explosion did not happen, TerraPower would have better chances to receive these funds, yet their model would not be this much safer. Furthermore, diplomatic relations also play a significant role in the development of the energy sector. If the United States diplomatic tension with China, the TerraPower nuclear plant would have already been implemented to the Chinese economy. However, Chinese interest in the project also helped Americans realize its importance, and now they are funding the project.

Now probably, China is also trying to develop similar technology with its nuclear plants. These races can help us discover breakthroughs in our technology. We can achieve our goals of lowering carbon emissions that seem too ambitious at a time can be reachable suddenly.

As a new investor in nuclear technology, Turkey should closely follow these developments and try to participate in the process. We should start training our scientists and provide the funds to develop such technologies for our nuclear technology. Another option can be funding the existing companies that develops these technologies and making arrangements with tem. In the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant, we still will be using the water pools to cooldown our nuclear wastes. However, for future investments, we can consider using newer technologies.

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