Toshiba, the world's No. 3 chipmaker and owner of U.S. nuclear firm Westinghouse, said it was in preliminary talks with the Gates-backed firm TerraPower to develop traveling-wave nuclear reactors, which are designed to use depleted uranium as fuel.
Conventional light-water reactors require refueling once every several years. In contrast, TWRs can run for up to 100 years without refueling.
Small TWRs could be used in emerging markets, where overcapacity can be an issue.
Gates himself could invest several billion dollars of his own money in the project. Terrapower is a spin-off of Intellectual Ventures, a think tank created by former Microsoft chief scientist Nathan Myhrvold.
For now, the talks with TerraPower are only that: talks. But Toshiba has been developing its own miniature nuclear reactors that can operate continuously for 30 years, and believes that the technology used in those reactors could be applied to traveling-wave reactors.
One problem with TWRs: finding materials that can withstand nuclear reactions for such long periods of time. Commercializing the technology could take more than 10 years.
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