Building the World

ENERGY: Traveling Wave of the Future


“Prometheus bringt der Menschheit das Feuer,” by Heinrich Fuger, 1817. Image: Wikimedia.

Ever since Prometheus gave fire to humankind, energy has changed civilization. But energy has now become what some believe the critical challenge of the future, growing increasingly critical due to climate change. We must solve energy in this century; some say in the next decade. What if there were a form of energy that was cleaner, safer, with very low carbon emissions, and used – to power itself – some of the most toxic, undisposable waste on earth? Sounds good, but will it happen? Traveling Wave is the term given to this form of nuclear reactor, or TRW for short. It’s a fission reactor that, theoretically, could run decades, self-sustained by its own internal processes, because it uses spent fuel. Traveling wave reactors were once called “breed and burn” dating back to Saveli Feinberg in 1958, followed by advances by Michael Driscoll, Lev Feoktistov, Edward Teller and Lowell Wood, Hugo van Dam, and Hiroshi Sekimoto, among others. It was the world of Teller and Wood that attracted notice by Bill Gates, Intellectual Ventures, and TerraPower. TerraPower’s scientists applied for patent EP 2324480 A1, following WO201009199A1 “Heat pipe nuclear fission deflagration wave reactor cooling.” Plans for TerraPower to partner with CNNC, in a 2015 MoU, are perhaps in development after being on hold due to international trade issues recently in the news. While some may say nuclear energy is too dangerous to develop, others state that the world may not be able to make a climate-driven energy transition to renewables and non-carbon-emitting sources unless nuclear stays in the energy mix. ITER, in France, is working on fusion energy; TerraPower, in the USA, is working on better ways to do fission.

Alert Einstein, 1921. Image: wikimedia

Powerful enough to light and heat the world, yet yielding very few carbon emissions, a form of energy that is 70 years old this year may be due for a remake. It was in August of 1939 that physicist Albert Einstein wrote a letter to then United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the work of Fermi and Szilard proving “the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy.” What followed was the development of atomic power through the Manhattan Project, revealing the danger and destruction that led Los Alamos Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer to quote the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death,/ The destroyer of worlds.” While the Atomic Energy Act go 1946 reversed the purpose of developing nuclear power, turning the energy into productive and peaceful uses, there still remained dangers.

Nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, Russia and Fukushima, Japan are among tragic occurrences that have plagued the use of fission energy.

Fukushima nuclear disaster: Image, wikimedia.

Another problem has grown to considerable proportion: toxic radioactive waste. Presently, the United States has 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that needs disposal; the substance is often called “spent” fuel. Disposal is controversial, and unwanted: case in point: Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Worldwide, the picture is even more troubling. With nuclear waste building up, and old power plants breaking down, the nuclear energy question looms: where should we head in the future? Four problems are often cited: 1) danger of radioactivity from a reactor accident like Chernobyl or Fukushima; 2) limited supply of fuels U-235 and Pu-239, as presently obtained; nuclear energy is expensive; threat of misuse for military purposes. And then there is all that spent fuel.

Bill Gates. “Climate change solutions.” Image: wikimedia

But what if all that spent fuel could power future nuclear reactors capable of transforming and eliminating the world’s toxic nuclear waste, while providing enough clean energy to power the future AND stop climate change? Should we rethink nuclear energy? At 70 years of age, nuclear power may be ready for a makeover. Want to know more? Hear some ideas in Bill Gates’ TED Talk.

Ahlheld, Charles E, John Rogers Gilleland, Roderick A. Hyde, Muriel Y. Isikawa, David G. Mcalees, Nathan P. Myhrvold, Thomas Allan Weaver, Charles Whitmer, Lowell L. Wood Jr. “Heat pipe nuclear fission deflagration wave reactor cooling.”

Bobin, Jean Louis. Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion. World Scientific Publishing, 2014. ISBN: 9789814590686.

Gates, Bill. “Innovating to Zero.” TED Talk.

Gates, Bill. “Inside Bill’s Brain.” Episode Three: “The Search for Climate Change Solutions.”, 2019.

Einstein, Albert. “Letter of August 2nd 1939 from Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.” and Building the World (2006), pages 488-490.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Waste and Environment Safety Section, Vienna, Austria. “Estimation of Global Inventories of Radioactive Waste and Other Radioactive Materials. June 2007. IAEA-TECDOC-1591. ISBN: 9789201056085.

Oppenheimer, Robert. On the Manhattan Project:

Teller, Edward. “Nuclear energy for the third millennium.” Office of Scientific and Technical Information, Department of Energy, United States of America, 1 October 1997.

Transatomic Power.

United States Congress. “Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.” and

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unporte


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