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Gates’ Nuclear Folly: the Breakthrough We Really Need is Fast Implementation of Renewables

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The first question that crossed my mind when reading about the latest Bill Gates investment venture was “is this a cover to divert yet more money into nuclear energy?”  Gates unveiled his Breakthrough Energy Coalition at the start of the COP21 climate talks in Paris with much fanfare but few details, including the size of the financial commitment.

My suspicions were triggered not only by Gates’ already public commitment to nuclear energy research, but by the name selected for this collection of 28 of the world’s richest people (mainly men.)  The Breakthrough Institute, after all, is the name of the pseudo-green nuclear energy front group whose people promoted and starred in the 2013 nuclear power propaganda film, Pandora’s Promise.  But so far the Breakthrough Institute is lying low on the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, although I suspect not for long.

At first glance, the mission of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, whose collective wealth is three hundred and fifty billion dollars, sounds reasonable enough, even if it takes a while to get ones head around that kind of disposable income.  “The world needs widely available energy that is reliable, affordable and does not produce carbon,”   the group states.  The investors aim to provide “early-stage capital for technologies that offer promise in bringing affordable clean energy to billions of people, especially in the developing world.”  All quite noble.  But the madness is in the method.

“The only way to accomplish that goal is by developing new tools to power the world. That innovation will result from a dramatically scaled up public research pipeline linked to truly patient, flexible investments committed to developing the technologies that will create a new energy mix,” the Coalition website states.

Salesforce.com founder, Marc Benioff, a Coalition member, opined in a Washington Post article by Joby Warrick that: “We’re facing the rising danger of climate change, and it has become clear to me that the solution will require significant innovation.”

More research?  More innovation?  Why?  The chump change of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition members could, on a massive scale, deploy wind, solar and geothermal energy, technologies that are not waiting to be invented.  They are ready now and lack only the political willpower to implement.  And it’s deployment we so desperately need.  Why throw more money into “patient” research?  Surely they understand we no longer have the luxury of time?

So who are these guys and what are they really up to?  A review of Coalition members yields a mixed bag full of red flags proudly flying the radiation symbol.  Gates is already squandering part of his wealth on Terra Power LLC,  a nuclear design and engineering company seeking an elusive, expensive and futile so-called Generation IV traveling wave reactor that can never deliver electricity in time.

Mukesh Ambani is an investor in Terra Power.  Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, is betting his money on the perpetually-40-years-away nuclear fusion dream, which, even if it were ever to work, will be far too expensive to apply to developing countries.

Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson, publicly touts nuclear energy and put his name on Pandora’s Promise as executive producer.  “We should continue to develop advanced nuclear power to add to the mix,” he said in promoting the film via the Breakthrough Institute’s website.  (See our debunk of the film’s numerous errors of fact and omission.)

Chris Hohn’s TCI hedge fund invested in J-Power, a Japanese utility company whose assets included nuclear power stations.  In 2008, the Japanese government barred TCI from increasing its stake in J-Power and the hedge fund withdrew.

Vinod Khosla loves nuclear power and is on record blaming environmentalists rather than nuclear energy’s obviously disastrous economics, for its failure.   “Most new power plants in this country are coal, because the environmentalists opposed nuclear,” Khosla said in a 2008 interview.

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma of Alibaba, was recently brought onto British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group, probably not coincidentally one day before a state visit by the Chinese president to seal a deal involving China’s investment in the UK’s planned Hinkley-C nuclear power plant.

Ratan Tata’s eponymous corporation leapt at the chance of investing in nuclear energy in India with the passage of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty-violating U.S.-India deal.

Others in the group have less obvious connections with energy or climate change and there is one clear nuclear opponent in Japan’s Masayoshi Son, founder, chairman and CeO of SoftBank Group Corp., whose epiphany after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster prompted him to become an outspoken critic of nuclear power and an advocate for renewable energy.  Others in the group appear to share interests in renewable energy.

Perhaps the Breakthrough Billionaires Club will yet come to the realization that from a clean energy generation perspective we have already broken through.  The innovations needed are not in abstract research but in deployment.  The Breakthrough Energy Coalition must tear itself away from the fascination of tinkering in a laboratory and instead do something real, practical and hands-on with their money.   However, the group’s assertion that “the foundation of this program must be large funding commitments for basic and applied research,” does not provide much reason for optimism.

A tennis coach I used to know would tell his team after a loss that “breakdowns come before breakthroughs.”  We’ve caused the climate breakdown and we’ve made the energy breakthroughs.  Now we just need to start winning.  The Breakthrough Energy Coalition could and should be on that team.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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