Bill Gates’ dumb climate idea

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Bill Gates’ dumb climate idea

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A legendary nuclear whistleblower’s open letter to Bill Gates over dangerous nuclear solution

Dear Mr. Gates,

I am writing this letter to you because with your dangerous nuclear solution, I believe you have crossed the line by leveraging your fortune to maneuver state governments and, indeed, the U.S. Government to siphon precious taxpayer funds supporting your latest atomic contrivance in Wyoming. Of course, how you spend your fortune is your decision. 

Recently, the media and governors in western states have become enthralled by you and your team at Natrium to build a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a so-called molten salt-based energy storage system. As a result, you are now asking state and national governments for billions of dollars to bankroll a “fast reactor” concept cooled by liquid sodium. 

Your latest “brainchild” ignores 70 years of liquid-sodium-based nuclear failure.

I question your zeal to leverage that fortune by securing additional public funds for an unproductive techno-solution that claims to solve the climate crisis! Your latest technofix will not mitigate the climate crisis. 

The fuel is made only in Russia 

On the contrary, Mr. Gates, the marketing hype associated with your latest “brainchild” ignores more than 70 years of failures using liquid-sodium-based atomic reactor coolant. It may also unleash a new era of unproductive nuclear spending, increase the risk of nuclear proliferation and put America at risk of becoming dependent on Russia to fuel the reactor. Currently, Russia is the only country in the world that can fabricate this odd high-enrichment fuel. Therefore, your design, if ever built, would make these reactors beholding to Russia for their peculiar fuel unless taxpayers subsidize another massive investment in fuel fabrication facilities. More significantly, the special fuel the Natrium reactor uses is only one-half of one percent below bomb-grade and is called High-Assay Low-Enrichment Uranium, or HALEU. According to the American Nuclear Society in 2021, “The only uranium enrichment company producing a commercial supply of HALEU anywhere in the world today is Russia’s Tenex.”  

Mr. Gates, atomic power is not your skillset.

Mr. Gates, no one doubts that you were a software genius. However, atomic power is not part of your skillset, but it is mine. The many facets of nuclear energy have been areas of my professional focus for the last 50 years. Beginning in 1971 with two nuclear engineering degrees, a Reactor Operator’s license, a corporate Senior Vice President position for an atomic licensee, a nuclear safety patent, three peer-reviewed papers on radiation, as well as a best-selling book on Fukushima, nuclear power is in my wheelhouse, not yours.

Based on my experience, I fear that you have made an enormous mistake by proposing to build a sodium-cooled Small Modular Reactor (SMR) in Wyoming. Mr. Gates, your atomic power company Natrium (the Latin word for sodium), is following in the footsteps of a seventy-year-long record of sodium-cooled nuclear technological failures. Your plan to recycle those failures and resurrect liquid sodium again will siphon valuable public funds and research from inexpensive and proven renewable energy alternatives. Moreover, spending public funds on Natrium will worsen the global climate crisis when there is no time to spare.

Why Natrium is doomed

As you probably have already been told, all present-day U.S. atomic reactors are water-cooled Light Water Reactors (LWRs). Similarly, all U.S. coal, oil and gas-fired electric plants heat water, not exotic coolants. While some Small Modular Reactor (SMR) concepts retain water cooling, Natrium’s proposed design deviates from this pattern by using a strange and unsuccessful coolant and specially designed steam generators to cool the atomic chain reaction and remove the atomic heat. Nuclear power concepts that do not use water for cooling are called Non-Light Water Reactors (or NLWRs). Natrium claims cooling with liquid sodium is safer and more reliable than traditional water-cooled reactors. What evidence exists to support your assertion?  

World-renowned energy economist Mycle Schneider calls Natrium and the other proposed conceptual reactors “PowerPoint Reactors,” as none are close to being fully designed. Yet, Natrium and other potential vendors market these reactors as if the successful and safe operation were a fait accompli.  According to Mycle Schneider, as reported in Politico E.U.:

“All they have right now are basically PowerPoint reactors — it looks nice on the slide, but they’re far from an operating pilot plant. We are more than a decade away from anything on the ground.”

“All they have right now are basically PowerPoint reactors — it looks nice on the slide, but they’re far from an operating pilot plant. We are more than a decade away from anything on the ground.”

Edwin Lyman of The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently completed an exhaustive, 140-page study of the supposed safety improvements claimed by NLWR (SMR) manufacturers like Natrium. Entitled “Advanced Isn’t Always Better,” UCS concludes:

“But a fundamental question remains: Is different actually better? The short answer is no. Nearly all of the NLWRs currently on the drawing board fail to provide significant enough improvements over LWRs to justify their considerable risks.” 

The Monumental failures of sodium-based nuclear power plants

The history of a sodium-based atomic coolant does not support your grandiose claims of success. Let me detail just a few of the monumental failures created by attempting to develop liquid-sodium reactors. Unfortunately, I do not believe you have adequately studied any of these alarming failures before pressing for government funds to pursue your idea.

“Sodium has significant disadvantages. On contact with air, it burns; plunged into water, it explodes.”

According to Scientific American, liquid sodium “is no mere novelty; as dangerous as it is captivating…  Sodium has significant disadvantages. On contact with air, it burns; plunged into water, it explodes.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists goes even further, stating:

“Unfortunately, this pitch glossed over stubborn facts … because plutonium fast-breeder reactors use liquid metal coolants, such as liquid sodium, operating them safely is far more challenging and expensive than conventional reactors. When private industry tried in the early 1960s to operate its own commercial-sized fast-breeder, Fermi I, the benefits were negative. Barely three years after Fermi 1 came online, a partial fuel meltdown in 1966 brought it down. … These facts, however, are rarely emphasized.”

We almost lost Detroit

In addition to the meltdown at Fermi 1, highlighted in the book We Almost Lost Detroit, other sodium-cooled reactors have failed in the United States and worldwide. The first meltdown in the U.S. of an atomic reactor occurred in 1959 at the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) near Los Angeles, California. The nuclear reactor that melted down at SSFL was sodium-cooled. Today, the 1959 meltdown at the SSFL site still contaminates the nearby heavily-residential area, as the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity published. This peer-reviewed journal article, “Radioactive Microparticles Related to the Woolsey Fire in Simi Valley, CA,” explains how radioactivity continues to migrate into the surrounding communities on the winds of the 2018 Woolsey Wildfire.

Beginning in 1950, the Navy attempted to develop a sodium-cooled reactor for the Seawolf submarine. According to the American Nuclear Society, Admiral Rickover, the founder of the nuclear Navy, testified to Congress in 1957, stating:

“We went to full power on the Seawolf alongside the dock on August 20 of last year. Shortly thereafter, she developed a small leak. It took us three months, working 24 hours a day, to locate and correct the leak. This is one of the serious difficulties in sodium plants.”

Admiral Hyman Rickover killed the Navy’s sodium-cooled reactor program

Rickover killed the Navy’s sodium-powered reactor due to its leaks, volatility, sodium-reactor repairs taking too long and radiation exposure to workers too high. The problem of high radiation exposures to maintenance personnel while repairing inevitable sodium leaks was also highlighted by Rickover in that same 1957 testimony when he stated:

Making rapid repairs in a sodium-cooled reactor is impossible because the sodium becomes highly radioactive as it flows through the reactor core.

“Sodium becomes 30,000 times as radioactive as water. Furthermore, sodium has a half-life of 14.7 hours, while water has a half-life of about 8 seconds.”

Making rapid repairs in a sodium-cooled reactor is impossible because the sodium becomes highly radioactive as it flows through the reactor core. In addition, it stays radioactive for weeks after shutdown. In contrast, water used to cool conventional reactors is highly radioactive for about one minute.

The Clinch River fiasco

After failed attempts to use liquid sodium on the Seawolf, SSFL and Fermi 1, nuclear zealots convinced the U.S. Congress to subsidize another sodium-cooled reactor at Clinch River in Tennessee. The concept of a sodium-cooled reactor at Clinch River originated well before the meltdown at Fermi 1, yet, Clinch River continued receiving extensive government subsidies until 1984. Therefore, overcoming the safety issues presented by cooling atoms with liquid sodium led to delays and cost overruns that were significant factors when Congress finally killed the project. However, severe, game-changing safety concerns also affected the project’s cancelation. According to “The Rise and Demise of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor” in Scientific American:

“In 1982 … the Energy Department videotaped safety tests it had conducted of how molten sodium might react once it came in contact with the reactor’s concrete containment structure. Concrete contains water crystals. Molten sodium reacts explosively when it comes in contact with oxygen, including oxygen contained in water. What the test demonstrated and the video showed was concrete exploding when it came in contact with liquid sodium.”

Even after the cancelation of the Clinch River fiasco, those same nuclear zealots continued to pursue the fantasy of a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor at the Monju site in Fukui Prefecture, Japan. As a result, the construction of the Monju liquid sodium reactor began in 1985, with the sodium-cooled reactor finally operational ten years later. It did not operate long. However, after running for only 4-months, plagued by the inevitable sodium leak and sodium fire, the Monju reactor had an emergency shutdown!

The short life of the Monju reactor

According to a report issued by the Monju Construction Office entitled “Sodium Leak at Monju-Causes and Consequences,” Monju’s designers did not anticipate the failure mode that caused the leak.

The Monju sodium reactor took ten years to construct, ran intermittently for one year and failed to operate for twenty years.

After ten years of construction, Monju had four months of operation, followed by a fifteen-year shutdown. Monju was restarted in 2010 and operated for less than one year when the equipment used for refueling fell into the reactor while refueling was in progress. It never restarted. The simple fact is that the Monju sodium reactor took ten years to construct, ran intermittently for one year and failed to operate for twenty years. And then, there is the matter of Japan’s government-subsidized costs, which ultimately exceeded $11 billion. 

A half a world away from Japan, France generates 75% of its electricity from light water-cooled atomic reactors. France also considered sodium reactors. However, given the repeated failures of sodium-cooled technology in Japan and the U.S., and with the falling price of renewable power, in 2019, France chose not to pursue the path you and Natrium are trying to follow. According to Reuters, France has decided to cancel its sodium-cooled reactor designs for at least half a century!

There are other significant local issues with Natrium.

Crowding out wind power

Natrium plans to use the old coal plant’s transmission lines, crowding out much cheaper and ready-to-use now wind power. In addition, using old transmission lines is a significant part of the paradigm shift from central station power to distributed generation.

Natrium is making a political pitch that using its reactor will save the jobs of the people in the coal plants, which are being closed. But farmers who lease their land to wind turbines would make considerable income from the wind turbines. And the wind installation and maintenance jobs would be exceptionally better for employees rather than exposing former coal employees and the local communities to the extreme hazards of nuclear power and nuclear waste.

Mr. Gates, why put your legacy at risk with this doomed concept? 

History shows a legacy of failures in pursuing the sodium reactor fantasy. Admiral Rickover said almost 70 years ago that sodium reactors are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”

Mr. Gates, it’s time to face the music (and the facts) – your supposedly foolproof, sodium-cooled Natrium brainchild will encounter those same obstacles.

During my fifty years of developing nuclear power expertise, I have learned that sooner or later, in any foolproof system, the fools will exceed the proofs. So now is the time to stop the Natrium marketing hype and free up those precious public funds to pursue low-cost and dependable renewable energy during the time frame necessary to help prevent catastrophic climate crises!


Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer, Fairewinds Energy Education

Written by

Arnie Gundersen

Arnie Gundersen has more than 50 years of nuclear power oversight and engineering experience. He has two nuclear engineering degrees, a Reactor Operator’s license, was a corporate Senior Vice President for an atomic licensee, has a nuclear safety patent, three peer-reviewed papers on radiation, and authored a best-selling book in Japanese about the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. In addition to teaching reactor physics to graduate students and undergrads, Mr. Gundersen has given presentations at universities and government agencies and testified as an expert witness worldwide. He is also a founding director of the board of Fairewinds Energy Education Nonprofit [].