The Rich and Their Reactors

Branson, Gates, and Bezos are pushing for nuclear reactors of one sort or another

2 min read
Illustration of a reactor.
IEEE

Many countries are backing away from nuclear power, but some of the world’s most visible entrepreneurs are throwing their weight behind one version of the technology or another. Here are the nuclear ambitions of a triumvirate with a collective fortune of US $83.6 billion.

Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson

The Virgin Group chairman is known for some extravagant investments, perhaps most notably Virgin Galactic, which plans to send you—yes, you—into space. Branson recently sent a letter to U.S. president Barack Obama asking for a meeting and urging him to reopen government research into integral fast reactors (IFR), although he apparently has not yet thrown any money into the idea. Also known as fast breeders, IFRs can burn the waste uranium and plutonium generated by standard fission reactors, potentially solving the ongoing nuclear waste question and reducing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Still, there is plenty of controversy surrounding these reactors—enough for Obama to decline the request.

Bill Gates

Photo: Nelson Ching/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images

Bill Gates

The world’s second-richest person is actually spending some dough on nuclear power, as a significant investor in a company called TerraPower, based in Bellevue, Wash. The company is working on a design called a traveling-wave reactor (TWR). These reactors need a small amount of enriched uranium to start up, but once on line, they can sustain themselves using spent uranium from standard reactors. In a TWR, a slow-moving wave of neutrons converts adjacent waste products into fissile isotopes. It would, theoretically, require far less fuel and maintenance than today’s reactors. Gates has reportedly invested tens of millions of dollars.

Jeff Bezos

Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Jeff Bezos

Amazon’s founder is throwing his money further into the reaches of science fiction than his cobillionaires. His investment company, Bezos Expeditions, contributed in 2011 some unknown portion of $19.5 million raised by the Canadian company General Fusion. As the name suggests, General Fusion is going for the sun-in-a-bottle approach to nuclear power, focusing on a technique known as magnetized target fusion. It’s a hybrid of the magnetic fusion scientists are working on at ITER, in France, and the inertial confinement fusion research at the National Ignition Facility, in California. The Bezos-backed scheme may seem like pie in the sky, but...well, it probably is.

This story originally appeared online as “Branson, Gates, Bezos: Ultrarich Visions for Nuclear Power.”

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