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Nathan Myhrvold: The Wealthy Should Fund Innovation

The former chief technology officer of Microsoft on why he’s backing the nuclear energy startup TerraPower.
September 12, 2012

For some technologists, it’s enough to build something that makes them financially successful. They retire happily. Others stay with the company they founded for years and years, enthralled with the platform it gives them. Think how different the work Steve Jobs did at Apple in 2010 was from the innovative ride he took in the 1970s.

A different kind of challenge is to start something new. Once you’ve made it, a new venture carries some disadvantages. It will be smaller than your last company, and more frustrating. Startups require a level of commitment not everyone is ready for after tasting success. On the other hand, there’s no better time than that to be an entrepreneur. You’re not gambling your family’s entire future on what happens next. That is why many accomplished technologists are out in the trenches, leading and funding startups in unprecedented areas.

Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin, a company that builds spaceships. Elon Musk has Tesla, an electric-car company, and SpaceX, another rocket-ship company. Bill Gates took on big challenges in the developing world—combating malaria, HIV, and poverty. He is also funding inventive new companies at the cutting edge of technology. I’m involved in some of them, including TerraPower, which we formed to commercialize a promising new kind of nuclear reactor.

There are few technologies more daunting to inventors (and investors) than nuclear power. On top of the logistics, science, and engineering, you have to deal with the regulations and politics. In the 1970s, much of the world became afraid of nuclear energy, and last year’s events in Fukushima haven’t exactly assuaged those fears.

So why would any rational group of people create a nuclear power company? Part of the reason is that Bill and I have been primed to think long-term. We have the experience and resources to look for game-changing ideas—and the confidence to act when we think we’ve found one. Other technologists who fund ambitious projects have similar motivations. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are literally reaching for the stars because they believe NASA and its traditional suppliers can’t innovate at the same rate they can.

In the next few decades, we need more technology leaders to reach for some very big advances. If 20 of us were to try to solve energy problems—with carbon capture and storage, or perhaps some other crazy idea—maybe one or two of us would actually succeed. If nobody tries, we’ll all certainly fail.

I believe the world will need to rely on nuclear energy. A looming energy crisis will force us to rework the underpinnings of our energy economy. That happened last in the 19th century, when we moved at an unprecedented scale toward gas and oil. The 20th century didn’t require a big switcheroo, but looking into the 21st century, it’s clear that we have a much bigger challenge.

As China, India, Brazil, and other parts of the developing world raise their standard of living, they’ll want a lifestyle—and therefore a degree of energy consumption—that matches ours in the United States. Meanwhile, our own energy consumption increases. To meet these demands, the world’s energy generation capability will have to multiply by a factor of at least five in this century, and possibly more.

What about renewable energy? Unfortunately, no such technology can completely replace fossil fuels, which provide base-load power all day and night, regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. There is no carbon-free base-load power source except nuclear energy.

Let’s be clear: conventional nuclear energy has drawbacks, principally that it relies on enriched uranium. That’s problematic for several reasons. In the first place, there’s not that much uranium: if you tried to scale conventional nuclear energy to meet the world’s energy needs, you’d run out. And the enrichment process required to use natural uranium in today’s light-water reactors is complicated, expensive, and wasteful. In the U.S., more than 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium—the by-product of enrichment—sits in storage.

TerraPower’s technology is designed to use that depleted uranium as fuel, turning the cheap by-product of today’s reactors into enough electricity to power every home in America for 1,000 years. The technology would also virtually eliminate the need for new enrichment facilities, which is important because enriched uranium is a proliferation risk. It can be used to make bombs, and so can plutonium, another by-product of the nuclear fuel cycles in use today.

TerraPower offers a path to zero-carbon, proliferation-resistant energy. Yes, there are a lot of challenges—scientific, engineering, and above all, political. The time it takes to develop a nuclear reactor and get it licensed is so daunting that it would be a crazy proposition for any ordinary entrepreneur.

But we are not going it alone or starting from a blank slate. TerraPower is building on decades of research at the U.S. national labs, and some of those labs are now doing important contract work to help us perfect the designs. We’re also working with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and similar agencies in other countries, to help governments understand the details of new types of reactors so that they can regulate them when the technology is ready for commercial deployment.

Though we believe there’s a lot of good TerraPower can do for the world, it’s a for-profit venture. It has to be: competing commercially is the only way any energy option can become sustainable. That said, TerraPower’s investors, which include Khosla Ventures and Charles River Ventures, share the long-term view of its founders. They recognize that the biggest returns come from the biggest advances, and those take time. That long-term view makes it possible to invest in innovation that could revolutionize our energy infrastructure.

Like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, I was once a little boy who played with model rockets and aspired to learn nuclear physics. Back then, the idea of science as a dynamic thing that can change lives was captivating. It still is. Our challenge now, especially for those of us whose financial success is the greatest, is to think big. 

At Technology Review’s annual EmTech MIT conference this October, Nathan Myhrvold will speak about nuclear energy and his company, TerraPower.

Register today for EmTech 2012, October 24–25, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nathan Myhrvold is a founder and vice chairman of TerraPower, a founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures, and former chief technology officer of Microsoft.

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