WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Pentagon's top arms provider and firms partly funded by Silicon Valley billionaires Bill Gates and Paul Allen are among dozens of companies collectively betting more than US$1.3 billion (S$1.75 billion) that a new wave of nuclear power can be a force to fight climate change.
Advanced nuclear power plants, which will employ techniques such as using fuels other than uranium and coolants other than water, have attracted private investments from more than 40 companies from Florida to Washington state, the Third Way think tank says in the first report specifying the number of firms and total money invested in the technologies.
The reactors, which could come into development in 10 to 15 years, can help curb US carbon emissions and make investments in electricity generation less costly, researchers at Washington, DC-based Third Way said in a report and to be released as soon as Monday.
Companies expressing faith in advanced nuclear power range from Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's largest supplier, to Holtec International, which is building a US$260 million technology campus in economically depressed Camden, New Jersey.
Gates has partially funded TerraPower, a company which aims to build reactors fuelled by liquid metal, and Allen has partially funded TriAlpha, a company that plans to make nuclear fusion plants.
Investors "realise cost competitiveness is the name of the game", said Josh Freed, who directs the clean energy program at Third Way. The reactors are "designed to be scalable so that they can produce energy at a per megawatt hour cost that's competitive not just with existing nuclear, but importantly with fossil fuels and renewable energy". Advanced nuclear reactors should be smaller than today's reactors, and construction should take one to five years, rather than five to six.
Critics of advanced nuclear say companies have yet to make small reactors economically viable despite decades of development by energy companies and the U.S. military. Advanced reactors using new fuels, such as thorium, and new cooling systems, such as molten salt, are also difficult to make economically viable, they say.
The nuclear industry has also been weakened by a political backlash following radioactive leaks at Japan's Fukushima power plant in 2011. And the US natural gas boom has slashed the cost of that fuel, making it harder for nuclear power to compete.
The Third Way report was not funded by the nuclear industry. But the think tank has received financial support from The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobby group, and Babcock & Wilcox, a company hoping to build small nuclear reactors.
Late last year, Lockheed said it made a breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion. The company said the first reactors for this new technology, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready in a decade.
The companies say they are exploiting advances in material science and computer-assisted manufacturing that could help breakthroughs become realities before 2030.