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Wednesday, 20 November 2019 11:52

Gates set for a bonanza, but only if US-China trade war ends

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Gates set for a bonanza, but only if US-China trade war ends Courtesy YouTube

The most prominent person to be affected by US President Donald Trump's trade war with China is rarely mentioned in that context. That person is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who stands to make a fortune much bigger than he reaped from his software adventures if the tit-for-tat ends and he is able to go ahead with his plan for a new kind of nuclear power reactor.

The travelling wave reactor was planned under the aegis of a company known as TerraPower which was set up by Gates in 2011. It has drawn in the top available technical talent and the building of a prototype was set to start when Trump threw a spanner in the works.

As nuclear technology was involved, there was a country-to-country agreement and either the US or China had the option of cancelling the deal - which was what Trump did, sending up Gates' dreams in smoke.

Details of Gates' plan have figured in the media sporadically, but are outlined in detail in a Netflix documentary titled Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.

One of the plus points of the reactor it that it uses depleted uranium fuel and would thus consume some of the 700,000 tonnes of waste that are stored in the US.

Building such a reactor is easiest and cheapest in China which has plenty of people who have experience in constructing nuclear reactors. Given this, Gates planned to build in China.

It took a long time for things to move on the China side until Gates managed to get Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Seattle. After that, things moved fast.

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Some may call Gates foolhardy for thinking up a scheme of this kind. Only someone like him has the money to start such a company.

From watching the documentary a couple of times, it is clear that, at 64, he is still keen to make money. But he appears to have mellowed a great deal and lost the hot-headedness that marked his time at Microsoft. His decision-making process appears to be marked with a great deal of caution.

From 2011 onwards, Gates has been getting input from technical people; it took this long to schedule the building of a prototype because there was no computer powerful enough to do a simulation.

Going ahead with the plan would need plenty of guts, especially after the explosion at Fukushima. But as Gates puts it in the film, there is no other way to provide baseload power of the magnitude needed without resorting to nuclear reactors.

The safety aspect of the TWR is that there is no pressure build-up within; at worst, the reactor will shut off if something fails.

It is unlikely that a prototype will be built in the US due to cost concerns and also the fact that American companies will be reluctant to take up the use of such technology; memories of Three Mile Island are still fresh in the US.

Thus one needs to hope that the US and China will sort out their trade issues so Gates can start building his TWR prototype. He is the man who has given the world a mediocre operating system and much misery along with it; it would be fitting if a solution he has devised ends up proving to assist in reducing the greatest danger we face: global warming.

Sketch: courtesy TerraPower

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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