Reliance to fund new generation nuclear reactor along with Gates, Vinod Khosla, ex MS Honcho

Reliance Industries has joined hands with Bill Gates, Vinod Khosla and Nathan Myrvhold – the former Microsoft tech honcho, maths whiz and master French chef – to fund the development of a nuclear reactor with the potential to revolutionise power generation.

The Mukesh Ambani-promoted company has bought a minority stake in Terra Power LLC, based in Washington, US, and founded by Myrvhold’s Intellectual Ventures. Gates is the primary investor and chairman in the company, and Khosla and Charles River Ventures are investors.

Terra Power is developing an ultra-modern reactor using the ‘traveling wave’ technology. Traditional reactors need to be refueled every few years, generate enormous amounts of waste and feed on enriched uranium. Traveling wave reactors, on the other hand, use depleted uranium and don’t need to be refueled for at least 40-60 years.

“Reliance Industries, through one of its subsidiaries, has made a minority investment in Terra Power LLC. This is one of the various investments Reliance makes in the broader energy sector. Terra Power is a nuclear design and engineering firm,” a Reliance Industries spokesperson told ET. He declined to give details.

“Mr Ambani has been personally invited by Bill Gates to join the company. He is on the board,” said a person familiar with the matter.

Last March’s horrific nuclear accident off Japan’s west coast triggered worldwide concerns over the safety of nuclear plants in general and the role played by nuclear reactors, many of which were developed more than 20 years ago. Germany became the first big country to scrap plans for nuclear power plants while some other countries did extensive safety reviews.

The Kudankulam nuclear power plant on the eastern coast in Tamil Nadu – the first nuclear project to come up after the Fukushima accident – has been hobbled by strident protests from local villagers. All this has come at a time of worsening global power shortages.

With coal being shunned due to its impact on climate and gas not available in abundance, N-power is one of the few alternatives that could ensure steady electricity supply, experts said.

As an energy player with global ambitions, Reliance has been eager to understand and capitalise on new energy technologies being developed around the world. In the past one year, it has agreed to invest $3 billion in shale gas joint ventures in the US. The new technologies of fracking and horizontal drilling have completely changed the global energy dynamics, turning America into the world’s biggest producer of natural gas with potential geopolitical implications.

“Everything depends on how nuclear energy capacity grows in India. If it comes back on track, in the longterm perspective, the acquisition is a good idea,” said Amol Kotwal, deputy director, energy and power systems practice at Frost & Sullivan.

Terra Power, if successful, will enable Reliance to understand and get access to fourth-generation nuclear reactor technology. But it will have to wait quite a bit as the prototype is expected to be built only after 2015 and commercial generation may happen by 2020.

“It is too far off,” said Sudhinder Thakur, executive director, corporate planning, Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL). “I don’t see it making much of an impact as far as India is concerned,” he added. NPCIL runs some of its plants using the fast breeder reactor technology, which relies on thorium instead of uranium.

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