What’s next for nuclear power: Nathan Myhrvold

Mar 24, 2011

"The idea that this is a referendum on the use of nuclear energy is wrong."

After 13 years at Microsoft, where he was CTO , Nathan Myhrvold in 2000 founded Intellectual Ventures, which is part venture capital firm and part invention lab. Among its companies is TerraPower, which is developing a nuclear reactor that’s supposed to be safer and cheaper. The plant will run on depleted uranium and go years between refuelings. Bill Gates is convinced. He has invested millions in TerraPower and is chairman of the board. Fortune’s Whitford talked to Myhrvold about the future of nuclear.

You know, with nuclear, you always have to make the distinction between the perceptual and the real. And they’re quite different animals. From a perceptual standpoint, there’s an enormous amount of concern -- I understand why people are concerned -- about the events unfolding in Japan: Could this affect us? Of course it could. But there is no logical reason that this particular incident has to change the way we as a society feel about nuclear power any more than it should change the way we feel about living near the seashore.

“Tsunami” is a Japanese word. Other parts of the world have earthquakes, a lot of earthquakes, but they don’t generate a lot of tsunamis. Anytime you’re living near the ocean, there’s the risk of an earthquake or a meteorite making a splash. In fact there is a small but definitely nonzero probability that Boston could be destroyed by a tsunami. There are rare events that could easily destroy Manhattan. We accept these levels of risk.

The idea that this is a referendum on the use of nuclear energy is wrong. The issue is, a specific set of older plants designed with slide rules many, many years ago -- were they up to the task? And I think the answer is that they were almost up to the task. It’s actually remarkable that the plants survived as well as they did with respect to the earthquake.

With all of the sensational coverage of what’s going on in Japan, it’s tempting for people to say, “Nuclear seems dangerous; let’s turn away from it,” when there’s another whole set of scientists who have informed us that in fact the climate implications of continuing to not have nuclear are perhaps more dangerous. We can’t afford to allow panic from a particular situation, no matter how tragic, to close our eyes to what could be superior technical solutions.

Three Mile Island is an excellent example of the United States making a terrible mistake. We took what actually was a very minor incident and used that as justification to build tons of coal plants, which we now know was a terrible error. Ironically, tons of activism from environmental groups wound up hurting the environment. Those groups allowed the panic of that moment, as well as preexisting concerns and superstitions about nuclear, to turn them away, and they wound up causing material damage to the environment. Lurching from one disaster to another, acting in fear and panic, is a stupid way to run a society.

Another consequence of our response to Three Mile Island was our inability as a country to come up with a spent-fuel strategy. That’s why we had this whole unfortunate fiasco with Yucca Mountain. I don’t care which side of the debate you’re on with Yucca Mountain, no one wanted to go through decades and billions and billions of dollars and have no solution. That’s unfortunate, because it may turn out with these reactors in Japan that the spent fuel ponds are more of a problem than the reactors.

When your kids are afraid of the dark or the bogeyman under the bed, the appropriate thing as a parent is to be sensitive to their fears but also not to panic yourself. And in the same way, society has to draw conclusions based on engineering and science about what actually happened in Japan, what could have been done differently, how serious an issue this would be in other places, and make a rational decision on nuclear power. I am confident that a rational decision would say, “Nuclear power is a super-important part of our future.”

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