A nuclear reactor company cofounded by Bill Gates signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates to explore building advanced reactors in the Gulf country.
On Monday, TerraPower and the UAE’s state-owned nuclear company Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding to collaborate on developing new nuclear power plants that would combat climate change. The preliminary deal comes as nuclear power increasingly takes center stage at the United Nations’ COP28 conference in Dubai, which started last week.
Nuclear power is considered a promising alternative to fossil fuels because it can generate large amounts of energy without carbon emissions. However, it also creates nuclear waste that must be properly stored.
The amount of waste per decade from a single plant “is less than the size of a big room,” Gates told CBS in a July interview. “So the technology for waste disposal—we’ve had an advance so that shouldn’t be a limiting factor anymore.”
Gates has long been a leader in the call to use technological innovation to address climate change. Since leaving Microsoft, the company he cofounded, Gates has dedicated himself to a variety of business and charitable ventures to fight climate change including investing in green startups and donating billions to philanthropic causes via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he cochairs with his ex-wife. His projects have made him a top spokesperson on the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, the UAE, the oil-rich country of about 10 million on the Arabian Peninsula, has joined a group of over 20 countries that, at the COP28 conference, pledged to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050. ENEC, which oversees the UAE’s one nuclear power plant, is an important player in the country’s push for sustainable energy. Its commitment to those efforts came into question after recent reports about COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber claiming there was “no science” supporting the need to phase out fossil fuels in order to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures..
ENEC did not respond to a request for comment; representatives from TerraPower directed Fortune to a press release announcing its agreement in the UAE.
The UAE’s partnership with TerraPower would allow the country to “collaborate across a range of areas including technical design and commercial viability” related to nuclear power, according to a press release. The UAE will have access to TerraPower’s Natrium technology, which uses sodium instead of water to cool nuclear reactors, making them more efficient. The technology will be used to generate clean electricity and to speed up the decarbonization of energy intensive sectors by providing them carbon-free electricity, the press release says.
One of nuclear power’s greatest promises is how it can complement renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. It can help supplement those power sources when there is no sun or wind, ensuring green power grids have enough electricity in any weather or time of day.
“Solar and wind, which will play a gigantic role, trying to use those alone, without a miracle in storage, that we don’t expect at all, it just doesn’t create the solution,” Gates said in an interview with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2022. “So having a non-weather dependent, completely green, reliable form of energy generation that can be cheap enough, means that there will really have to be some nuclear [energy] in that equation.”
The new partnership could also mean that Emirati engineers will be dispatched to TerraPower’s U.S. headquarters to learn about its work. “Our new agreement with TerraPower will facilitate cooperation in taking nuclear energy technology to the next level, by accelerating its deployment and its use for innovating new solutions including the production of clean molecules and hydrogen,” ENEC CEO Mohamed Ibrahim Al Hammadi said in a statement.
At COP28, nuclear power is a much talked about alternative to fossil fuels. The United States led the coalition of countries that pledged to triple the world’s nuclear power capabilities by 2050. Other major countries to sign on include France, which has long been at the vanguard of nuclear power; Japan, which suffered a devastating nuclear meltdown in 2011 after an earthquake struck a plant in Fukushima; and South Korea, whose second-largest company SK Group, is an investor in TerraPower. In the U.S, TerraPower has plans to transform a coal plant in Wyoming into its first Natrium-powered nuclear plant by 2030.
Gates, is chairman of TerraPower, was also an active participant at COP28, telling CNBC he was “definitely glass half-full” when it came to addressing climate change. His “big hope” for the conference was that the plethora of innovative technologies that could help address climate change would get funded by companies and governments. “Now, we need to take what looks very promising and scale it up, build the pilot plants, and prove those out,” Gates said on Friday.