Highlights from TED 2010, Friday: "Using nuclear waste to power next generation's reactors"

Here's my round up of highlights from the second day of the TED 2010 presentations. I especially enjoyed Bill Gates' talk about a zero-carbon future, and Temple Grandin's talk about the valuable contributions autistic people make. (Here's Thursday's round up. Here's Wednesday's round up)

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Bill Gates at TED2010, Session 8, "Boldness," Friday, February 12, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Bill Gates said a changing climate is especially bad for developing nations, mainly because it hurts crop yields. Temperature increase has effects on weather, ecosystems can't adjust and collapse. There is uncertainty about how bad the effects of increases in atmospheric CO2 are but they will be bad. Until we get to near zero, the temperature will go up. "We have to get to zero."

Currently, 26 billions tons of CO2 are released each year. Americans are responsible for 20 tons per person. The global average is 5 tons per person.

He showed this equation:

Total CO2 = World population x Services x Energy of each service x CO2 per unit of energy

The neat thing about an equation that uses only multiplication is that if any of the four factors can be reduced to zero, then you don't have to worry about the other three factors. The total CO2 output will be zero. So which one can we make zero?

The first factor, Population, is headed to 9 billion people, an increase of 1.3. (We don't want this to go to zero, unless you belong to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.)

The second factor, Services delivered per person, means things like food, electricity, heat. It's a great thing for this number to go up for most people. Gates showed a slide of kids reading their homework under street lamps in India because their homes have no electricity.

The third factor, Energy of each service, has been going down, because we are getting better at making fertilizer, transportation, designing buildings. We could see a reduction of a factor of three to six.

So far, we've gone from 26 billon tons of CO2 to 13 billion tons. That's not good enough. We need zero.

Now, the last factor, CO2 per unit of energy. We have to create a new system. We need an energy miracle. He doesn't mean we need to achieve the impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle, The Internet is a miracle. We need an energy miracle along the lines of the Internet. But here's the added challenge: "Usually we don't need a miracle before a certain date. This one is on a tight timeline."

We need energy solutions with unbelievable scale and reliability. Tide, geothermal, fusion, biofuels, are cool, but they just won't do it. Gates has a list of five other types of fuels that aren't out of the running:

1. Burning fossil fuels -- You need to take all CO2, convert it to liquid and store it and hope it stays there. It will be tricky. Who is going to guarantee something billions of times larger than nuclear waste won't get out?

2. Nuclear energy -- the concerns are cost, safety, making sure the fuel is not used for weapons, and the waste problem.

3, 4, and 5. Solar thermal, solar voltaic, and wind -- all three of these have dramatically less energy density than fossil fuels or nuclear energy, and are intermittent sources. Wind and sun aren't constant. So you need to get energy when there is no sun or wind. Do you store it in batteries? He looked at batteries. All the batteries we make now could store less than ten minutes of all the energy we consume. The battery problem is not impossible but it's not easy. "You need an incredible miracle battery."

So Gates is looking at nuclear as the most likely miracle. "A molecule of uranium has a million times more energy than a molecule of coal." He and Nathan "Mosquito Zapper" Myrhvold are backing a nuclear approach. It's called Terrapower, and it's different from a standard nuclear reactor. Instead of burning the 1% of uranium-235 found in natural uranium, this reactor burns the other 99%, called uranium-238. You can use all the leftover waste from today's reactors as fuel. "In terms of fuel this really solves the problem." He showed a photo of depleted waste uranium in steel cylinders at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky -- the waste at this plant could supply the US energy needs for 200 years (woah!), and filtering seawater for uranium could supply energy for much longer than that.

TED's Chris Anderson asked: If this doesn't work, then what?

Gates: If you get in that situation - there is a line of research on geoengineering that could give us 20 additional years to get our act together. But that's a last resort. Gates wants to solve the problem without geoengineering.

Temple-Grandin Temple Grandin has a sense of humor! She said she feels right at home at TED because "there's a lot of autism genetics" here. She got right into one of her passions, which is designing livestock handling facilities. One facility had nervous cattle and was about to tear the place down and start over. She went there and saw the American flag on the pole and told them to take it down. "Cows don't like flag waving." The rapid movement and contrast bugs them. She goes into chutes and is able to think like a cow, looking for things that will agitate it.

"I see movies in my imagination." When you ask a "normal person" about church steeples they imagine generalized generic steeples. She sees "Google for pictures." A slide show of all the steeples she's ever seen runs through her imagination. She can stop at any one of the mental photos and turn it into a video. This turns out to be a "tremendous asset into making cattle handling facilities. I can run a piece of test equipment in my mind."

There's a reason for her super visual powers. She showed her brain scan compared to a "normal brain" (her term). The visual part of her brain is much larger! "I have a huge internet trunk line for graphics." (The trade-off, she said, is few social circuits). Her gift of highly visual thinking gives her a lot of insight into animal minds. Animals thinks in images, sounds, smells, not words. "The world needs different kinds of minds to work together." She sees nerdy kids who aren't social, not being led towards science. "We need to get these geeky nerdy kids turned on." She says in the middle of the country, outside Silicon Valley and other geek meccas, the teachers don't know what to do with these kids. It was a huge mistake for schools to take out auto shop, art, and drafting class in school.

There are three kinds of autistics, and each kind can excel in certain fields:

Visual thinkers: art, design, industrial design, photography

Pattern thinker: mathematicians, programmers

Verbal thinkers: journalists, stage actors

"I had to learn social skills like being in a play."

Anderson asks her, "What are you most passionate about?" Her answer: "The things I do that are going to make the world a better place. I get satisfaction about seeing things that make a real change in the real world. We have too much abstract stuff."

(Prolonged standing ovation)


  1. Total CO2 = World population x Services x Energy of each service x CO2 per unit of energy… The neat thing about an equation that uses only multiplication is that if any of the four factors can be reduced to zero, then you don’t have to worry about the other three factors.

    If Bill Gates is half the supervillain that the world thinks he is then the factor he’ll try to reduce to zero is “World Population.”

  2. Here’s an unexpected impression I’ve been getting, albeit without much in the way of substantiating evidence…It’s looking like history will be far kinder to Bill Gates than it will be to, say, Steve Jobs.

  3. Well, when has Bill Gates ever been wrong before?

    But on the other hand, the Intellectual Ventures site that apparently owns patents on this technology is pretty uninformative.

    LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) seem to me to hold remarkable promise — and as the material on them points out, they seem to be developing their ideas in an open source-ish kind of way.

    Google talk (1 hr long, tons of detail):

    1. A LFTR can also burn nuclear waste at the similar high rate.

      Another amazing techtalk about LFTR burning nuclear waste

      One problem with U238 is that it is very rare in nature. You have to process Uranium from rocks to get rid of some U235 so the Uranium can work in a reactor.
      Thorium used in a LFTR doesn’t need any preprocessing.
      You can burn close to 100% of it.

      1. This is wrong about throwing away u235. The author is trying to describe uranium enrichment for the current u235 fuel “cycle” :), which in a sense “throws away” u238. I am a huge fan of thorium and just want to point this out so that thorium supporters aren’t viewed as ignorant. What Gates is talking about also does not throw away u238.

        The key concept, which is not stated clearly above, is that by using a type of reactor that can convert non-fissile u238 or th232 to fissile isotopes Pu239 or U233, you make available approximately 500 times as much energy as in u235 based nuclear energy (the current type). This would increase the energy ROI of harvesting uranium from seawater to the point that it appears feasible. That energy source is practically limitless, we will kill ourselves some other way before that runs out. This conversion of isotopes to being fissile has the unfortunately sorta-scary name of “breeding”. Whether we breed u238 or th232, either way can be made to work, though thorium is preferred by many for reasons too technical to get into here.

        Don’t take my word for it, take Alvin Weinberg’s, former head of Oak Ridge National Lab. He pretty much called the whole coal/nuclear/GHG thing back in 1974 after inventing the light water (u235) reactor. He was “let go” while attempting to get thorium breeder work funded to completion.

        The waste issue is a complicated but if we stop pretending that reprocessing spent fuel causes people elsewhere to build bombs, then totally game-changing options come up. There is so much nonsense surrounding this issue, it makes me want to cry. To get an idea of this, learn about the radioactivity of potassium.

        Also Mackay’s excellent book Without Hot Air is available for free. It is excellent and also notes that a fleet a breeder reactors, if safe/etc. would be said miracle.

  4. Temple Grandin is just awesome. Meanwhile, I’m pretty averse (read: paranoid) to using any nuclear energy unless a cold fusion reactor is invented anytime soon…

  5. There used to be a show on Bravo that was curated by Errol Morris and one of the episodes featured Temple Grandin. It was absolutely fascinating… It was the first time I had heard of her, and I had never heard of autism at all so her descriptions of the constrictive cattle handling designs (to calm them) where amazing, totally alien, and totally logical. I wish I could remember the name of the show! Anyone know what I am talking about? It would have been over 10 years ago, I think…

  6. Oh, found it! If anyone is interested the show was called “First Person” and the Temple Grandin episode (the premiere episode) was “Stairway to Heaven.” Awesome awesome show about some fascinating personalities… check it out if you can find it (its on Netflix).

  7. Meeting humanity’s energy needs is THE most important problem right now. If Gate’s helps solve it, founding Microsoft will be a minor line-note on his resume. Beyond risks to our climate, energy solutions will solve such things as the “clash of civilizations” which is really the competition for oil (The West would not have interfered in the evolution of the Middle East if it were not for oil. and the Islamic Monarchies could not fund their wars without oil either), it would solve fresh water problems and allow the standard of living to continue to grow to the point where the mass of humanity can afford to be environmentalists. I’m all for LFTR, but also hope on traveling wave reactors. Even fast breeders. Whatever works and can scale.

    1. “…the Islamic Monarchies could not fund their wars without oil either…”

      Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Who is spending ONE TRILLION DOLLARS a year of our last remaining life savings, that we’ll never see again, on Global Wars of Oil Terror?

      Not the Saudis! AfghanistanPetroleum.com

      Gosh, I sure hope they find a way to make nuclear powered B-2 bombers, so we don’t run out of ways to subjugate the 3W, once US:EU burns up all the oil.

  8. I love Bill Gates new philantropic career! That said, I think there is an extreme risk that some go for only tech solutions and wait with social solutions. A massive switch from meat and milk to a veg diet will lessen our climate impact like no other single measure. And almost everyone can do that change in their life very quickly, most can do it RIGHT NOW. After learning some new tasty recipes and products to buy the change will take no time or money away from other important climate change mitigation activities. So, what Bill Gates and people like him really should do is start EVERY SINGLE TALK of this sort by saying: “first and most importantly, switch to a veg diet. Now after you’ve committed to that let’s talk some neat complementary tech improvements!”

    1. Yes, really. We can discuss which among the veg options that are optimal. But meat and milk is clearly out.
      “A widely cited 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, estimates that 18 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and poultry. But recent analysis by Goodland and Anhang finds that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions. “

      1. It so simple, it’s brilliant! Wonder why it’s getting no traction.

        I think we should kill all the cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and poultry; then people would have to be vegans…sorry, meant to say that we’d reduce the CO2 emmisions by 18%.

        Hmmmm, I wonder how many tons of CO2 each human produces; if we got rid of the humans…strike that, bad idea.

        1. I note you have no real objections. Maybe the lessened traction is due to people like you blocking the change without any good reason?

      2. BTW…I went with 18% instead of 51% in my previous reply because I’m conservative by nature and just a TAD skeptical about the higher number. Lord knows “scientists” never have a personal agenda (or funding sponsors) when they conduct this “research”.

  9. “The second factor, Services delivered per person, means things like food, electricity, heat.”

    Have to object to the wording there. A service is something you order to the back door when you feel like it. Something that you can do without if you can’t afford it. Food, water and heat are in a category of things called “life support”, because you need a constant supply, and you die if the line breaks.

  10. As an ecologist who has spent most of his life studying and contemplating the environmental “issue”, I have to agree with Bill Gates, reluctantly, as I despise the man for what he has done to the world of computing and digital media.

    Only a miracle will sustain our hungry civilisation.

    Nuclear energy of some sort is the only immediately viable solution.

    The alternative is radical social and political change, such as the collapse of the military-industrial complex, after massive devastation, and basically a forced change in lifestyle, which means no more hi-tech gadgets and no more of many of the technological comforts us here in the west have grown used to. It won’t be pretty.

    We are in a situation of an artificially induced overpopulation. The vast majority of people will not remove themselves from the planet voluntarily, nor do they seem willing to relinquish things like cheap electricity.

    Alternative energy simply doesn’t cut it for our massive consumption levels, solar panels take a lot of energy and materials to manufacture, etc etc…

    This leaves us with either waiting for a miracle or going for an improved nuclear technology.

    PS: Bill has got that Windoze XP aesthetic down to a T, check the mic taped to his cheek, which patch is this?

  11. “It was a huge mistake for schools to take out auto shop, art, and drafting class in school.”

    For everyone, amen. More “Shop Class as Soulcraft”. Puts all kinds of learning in a practical and powerful context.

    I am a huge fan of Grandin’s philosophy and wise advocacy for the non-neurotypical, but I wish she would stop making everyone all soft-eyed and romantic about CAFOs. It’s as if we all conveniently forgot that CAFOs are the epicenters of myriad ethical issues with food because Grandin’s work a chance to see someone we’d otherwise consider an underdog succeed. Just because the cow doesn’t mind being fed down the chute anymore doesn’t make CAFOs part of a the better world she wishes to create, and for all her work, I’ve never heard her address those other problems.

    Now having Grandin work with a rancher like Joel Salatin, there’s a recipe for raising the best meat possible!

  12. For information on the Terrapower, you can hit up the thinktank laboratory website here, which has a helpful video. They also have cool videos of mosquitos in flight… sans burning!

  13. “Bill Gates said a changing climate is especially bad for developing nations, mainly because it hurts crop yields.”

    Fucking socialist.

  14. Mr Gates is using what’s known as the “technology, technology, blah blah blah” argument. You might recognize it. The Bush administration used it for years while promoting the magic “hydrogen economy”. We all know how well that worked out.

    We already have the means to reduce our carbon emissions to zero, and we don’t need any magic “energy miracle”.

    1) Smart grid, to move power where we need it
    2) Plug-in hybrids & full electric cars, to buffer the power system’s demands
    3) Oodles of concentrating solar (aka “solar base load”) in the southwest, providing 24 hours of carbon-free power
    4) Oodles of wind in the midwest, and pretty much everywhere else
    5) Efficiency! We waste power all over the place. Insulating and air sealing homes saves tons of carbon, and doesn’t change our lifestyles. Switching to CFLs is simple. Sealing & insulating air ducts saves 30% of your heat/AC.

    We already have all of the ingredients we need to get to a sustainable energy economy. We just need to implement it. Call your senators, tell them you support cap & trade!

    1. Skrap is using what’s known as the “technology, technology, blah blah blah” argument. You might recognize it.

      1. Re: Mark’s reply


        My argument is NOT “all we need to do is invent non-existant technology X, and we’ll all be fine.”

        My argument is: “We already have the technology. Science says that the longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes. We should implement the technology, and now!”

      2. It’s a little short-sighted to say ‘non-existent’ technology.

        First and foremost – your technological saviors (like hybrids) are hardly the solution as they are now…so we are pending more (wait for it) technological improvements in that area.

        Also, how is thorium nuclear energy a non-existent technology? It’s ready, the 1960s era anti-nuke people aren’t. I don’t mean to imply that the paranoia is 100% unwarranted, but since nuclear is clearly where we’re going – the sooner the better.

    2. Skrap, your list omitted step number zero: stop being so godsdamn soft and lazy; walk your ass to the store for a beer, ride a bike to work, turn off the a/c and open some windows, etc. and so forth.

      1. Yeah, absolutely… I don’t pretend that we can get everyone biking or walking to work, but where possible we should absolutely provide incentives to make it financially attractive.

        Something like a full economy cap & trade will provide appropriate incentives, which is why I support that strategy. We won’t undo 60 years of poor urban planning with one law, but it does put us on the right path.

  15. Nobody has commented on Bill Gates mention of geoengineering. If geoengineering is so cheap and can be done with existing technology, then why isn’t it being done? Or is it?

  16. IIRC, Craig Venter’s talk about the geoengineering solutions was previously on BB. Also, I really hope Bill didn’t use the phrase “molecule of coal”.

  17. “Nobody has commented on Bill Gates mention of geoengineering. If geoengineering is so cheap and can be done with existing technology, then why isn’t it being done? Or is it?”

    This is addressed in the final chapter of Super Freak Economics. The best idea the guys at IV came up with is to pump a bunch of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere (a la a giant volcanoe eruption).

  18. I second Skrap’s (message #22)support for going solar now. The technology exists, and a mix of wind, concentrated solar power and photovoltaics with a smart grid will do the job (see Jacobson and Delucchi, November 2009, Scientific American). But we will not prevent catastrophic global warming (“C3”) unless there are massive investments very soon. Cap and trade is a sham, and the Senate bill is pathetically weak. Only big cuts in the military budget and end of the Imperial program of the military industrial complex will free up the necessary resource fast enough for the world to have a chance. Jeffrey Sachs and Lester Brown have called for cuts in the bloated $1 trillion a year military budget. Why not Bill Gates? There will be no climate security without peace, and surely no peace without climate security.

    1. Thanks, I’ll try to find the article and read it. Does CSP require a lot of water to clean the mirrors or cool them?

      1. Sorry, just found your comment. Yes, apparently CSP does need water to operate efficiently, but this challenge is also an opportunity: use the power to desalinate and you have water for agriculture too.

  19. It seems lost in this conversation that plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere, so a lot could be accomplished by increasing the amount of plant life in the world.

  20. Bill Gates what a horrible guy I mean come on who makes a bunch of money, retires, and then just wants to spend his time helping people through philanthropic ventures. Lets give him some credit okay and lets remember that he is someone who has many friends and capital to make things happen. The man has done his homework and understands what will and will not work. The thorium cycle is a good one that proved to work and will work; after some issues such as internal cladding corrosion are addressed. Hot molten salts are a little caustic. Both India and China are pushing for plants as we speak. What Mr. Gates is proposing is to use the 800,000 tons of depleted uranium and 70,000 tons of fissile material that we already have lying around. Why dig things up and invest in a process that isn’t 100% concrete when we can “recycle” what we already have. Create energy, create jobs, create hydrogen as a byproduct, reduce CO2… One begins to see the direction that we are trying to go in. I was actually surprised to see so many people behind the idea. Looks like education is on the rise.

  21. Great to see that he’s come to realize the threat.

    The nuke thing is interesting. Stewart Brand has also been pushing nuclear. The main problem, however, seems to that building up nuclear takes a long time and is amazingly expensive. Every decade or so someone comes along and says this one will really work – it’s different!, we mean it this time. (The latest edition of that is in Finland – it’s a couple years late and a couple billion over budget. Bummer, that.)

    Here’s Amory Lovin’s take on the issue:


    To repeat – nukes would be great if they were cheaper and more scalable. But they’re not. And there’s all this other stuff that is – right now.

    (Ask yourselves the following question – if wind and solar aren’t the next big thing, why is China so determined to own the market?)

    And one thing you don’t mention is what he said (if anything) about cap & trade or carbon taxes? The way to tell the difference between people peddling tech as a distraction from actually doing anything is what they say about market incentives. No incentives = no sincerity. (The whole hydrogen economy scam, for example, was a massively expensive delaying action against fuel efficiency that nearly resulted in the destruction of the US auto industry. Ooops.)

  22. You get to choose: war, famine, plague, or birth control.

    Humans are the problem in that equation. Its not CO2
    (which has been recently so low that c-4 grasses
    evolved, look them up) that will run out. Its
    energy or food or medicine or water.

    Ammo, there’s plenty of.

  23. Mark – the difference between Skrap’s technology argument (#22) and the one Bill is pushing, is that we haven’t tried Skrap’s yet.

    We’ve had nuclear fission for 50 years, had massive government investment in it in some big countries, and it’s still an expensive, dangerous, failure.

    It also doesn’t sound like a global solution. (Will this work in Iran, for example? Would we want it to?)

    Better to invest in technologies that have been steadily proving themselves over the past 20 years (ie. wind, solar and efficiency).

    Still, it’s good to see the people like Gates starting to think serriously about this stuff.

  24. First step is educating women.

    What follows naturally is population DECLINE. That’s a move in the right direction. Do I want or need it to be 0 population, no. But increasing population is destined for failure and that’s the path we are on right now.

    Unfortunately economic growth is predicated on population growth. At least in the resource constrained worlds of food and energy. And businesses have developed lots of methods to keep you consuming. Advertising works. In fact look at it – even though we are at 100% satiation, we are encouraged to eat several times more calories than we need. If this were not true we would not be overweight.

    That said who cares – just educate women. And get rid of religion (this comes from educating women, ps) – we don’t need 7 babies per woman.


  25. It’s too late. Even if you change every mind here in the U.S., what about China, India, Brazil. For a century, countries like these have watched us wallow in our free and easy, life styles. But now that they’re on the cusp of matching, even surpassing, our achievements, they are suppose to give that up for the greater good?—It’s too late. We should instead leave some sort of orbiting “time capsule”. So that future visitors to our planet can lol at our folly.

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