The Future of Energy: Bill Gates' Vision for Nuclear Power and AI

In a bold move towards sustainable energy solutions, Bill Gates has invested a billion dollars in a pioneering nuclear power project, aiming to reshape both the energy landscape and the role of artificial intelligence in powering our future

by Sededin Dedovic
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The Future of Energy: Bill Gates' Vision for Nuclear Power and AI
© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Artificial Intelligence (AI) may one day take over our jobs, but before that happens, the data centers it relies on will require a lot of power. How do we power them, along with millions of homes and businesses, without generating additional greenhouse gases that warm the climate? Microsoft founder, billionaire philanthropist, and investor Bill Gates believes that nuclear energy is the key to meeting this need—and he's investing his own funds to make it happen.

Bill Gates has invested a billion dollars in a nuclear power plant that began construction this week in Kemmerer, Wyoming. The new plant, designed by the company TerraPower founded by Bill Gates, will be smaller than traditional fission nuclear power plants and, theoretically, safer because it will use sodium instead of water to cool the reactor core.

TerraPower estimates the facility could be built for up to $4 billion, which is favorable compared to other nuclear projects recently completed in the U.S. Two nuclear reactors built from scratch in Georgia cost nearly $35 billion, according to the Associated Press.

Bill Gates gave an interview at NPR headquarters with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to discuss his major investment in nuclear energy—and how he sees the benefits and challenges of artificial intelligence, which the supported plant may one day power.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Steve Inskeep: Let me ask about a few constituencies you have to convince, and one of them is longtime skeptics of nuclear safety, including environmental groups, people who will pressure some of the political leaders you've met here in Washington.

Are you confident you can make the argument? Bill Gates: Well, absolutely. The safety case for this design is extremely strong because of passive mechanisms involved in it. People have been talking for 60 years that these things should work this way.

There's no high-pressure vessel. There's nothing trying to get out. Water, when heated, creates high pressure. We don't have high pressure, and we don't have complex systems required to ensure safety. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the best in the world and they will be examining us and challenging us.

And, you know, that's fantastic. That's a big part of what's going to happen in the next six years. Let me ask about someone else you have to convince, which is markets—showing them that this makes financial sense. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, is promoting and investing in nuclear energy and is associated with a company that listed its shares on the market and immediately saw them fall.

Other projects that started to look too expensive have been canceled in recent years. Can you convince the markets? Well, current reactors are too expensive. There are companies working on fission and companies working on fusion.

Fusion is far off. I hope it succeeds. I hope in the long run, it's a big competitor to this TerraPower nuclear fission. Unlike past reactors, we're not asking the user in a specific geography to guarantee costs. So, this reactor, all the construction costs are on the private company TerraPower, where I'm the largest investor.

And for strategic reasons, the U.S. government is helping with first-of-a-kind costs. I wonder if you can approach the average investor and say, "This is a good risk. It will pay off in a reasonable timeframe?" You know, we're not deciding to list this company on the stock exchange, because understanding all these issues is very complex.

Many of our investors will be strategic investors who want to deliver components, or come from countries like Japan and Korea, where renewable energy sources are not as straightforward due to geography. And so they want to be completely green.

They, even more than the U.S., will need nuclear energy to achieve that. What's the connection between AI and nuclear energy? Well, I guess people want innovations to bring even cheaper electricity while still being clean.

People who are optimistic about software innovation and AI bring that optimism to other things they do. There's also a more direct connection, which is that the additional data centers we'll be building look like they'll add up to 10% additional power load.

The U.S. hasn't needed much new power—but with the increase of various things, from electric cars and buses to electric heat pumps for home heating, the demand for electricity will rise significantly. And now those data centers are adding to the load.

So, big tech companies are looking at how they can help facilitate greater power to serve the growing demand for AI. I'm interested in whether you see artificial intelligence as potentially exacerbating income inequality, something you as a philanthropist would think about.

Well, I think the two areas where I'm most involved in looking at how AI can help are health and education. I was recently in Newark, New Jersey, where I saw an AI Khan Academy called Khanmigo being used in math classes, and I was impressed by how teachers use it to look at data, divide students to have personalized lessons for a child who is lagging behind or advanced.

Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft, speaks at the Health Day Opening Session© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Whenever I get a medical bill or a diagnosis, I enter it into AI and get an explanation. You know, AI is incredible at that.

And if we look at countries like those in Africa where the shortage of doctors is even more dramatic than in the United States, the idea that we can provide more medical advice to pregnant women or anyone suffering from malaria, really excites me.

So, moving forward in those two areas I see as completely beneficial. Did you understand what I asked about, concentration of power? Absolutely. This is a very, very competitive field. I mean, Google is doing great. Meta. Amazon.

And it's not like there's a limited amount of money for new startups in this area. I mean, Elon Musk just raised $6 billion. It's like the internet in 2000. The barriers to entry are very low, which means we're moving fast. And the other question about concentration of power… Do you worry about, you know, more money for investors and fewer jobs for regular people? Like, they can get this great AI technology, but they don't have a job? I worry about that.

Essentially, if you increase productivity, it should give you more options. We don't let robots play baseball. We just will never be interested in that. If robots become really good, and AI becomes really good, are we going to somehow, in terms of job creation, want to put limits on that or tax those things? I've raised that before.

They're not good enough yet to raise those questions. But, you know, say three to five years from now, they could be good enough. But for now, your hope is that AI doesn't replace my job—it makes me more productive in the job I already have.

Well, there are some jobs that will replace you, just as computers have done. In most things today, AI is a copilot, increasing your productivity. But if you're a support person, you take support calls and become twice as productive, some companies will take that productivity and answer more calls and have better answers.

Some companies will need fewer people, now freeing up the workforce to do other things. Are they going and helping to reduce class sizes in schools, or helping the disabled or elderly? If we can produce more, then the reward is greater.

But are we smart about tax policies or how we distribute it, so that we actually use the freed-up workforce for things we would want to have? Source: kpbs.

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