March 23, 2010 11:49 pm

Toshiba in talks with TerraPower

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Toshiba is talking to a company backed by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates about joint development of a nuclear reactor with the potential to run for 100 years without refuelling.

If Toshiba reaches an agreement with TerraPower it will boost the chances of creating a “travelling-wave reactor” – an entirely new design that TerraPower says could supply the world’s energy needs for thousands of years given known uranium reserves.

Toshiba emphasised that the discussions were preliminary and have so far involved only an exchange of information.

The travelling-wave design is very different from the “4S” reactor that Toshiba is working on.

In November, Mr Gates visited Toshiba’s nuclear research centre in Yokohama on behalf of TerraPower.

The company is a spin-off from Intellectual Ventures, the “invention company” founded by Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft chief technology officer.

TerraPower is a venture company with a handful of employees. Backing from one of the three leaders of the global nuclear industry – Toshiba, Areva of France, or General Electric of the US – would be a huge boost for its technology.

A travelling-wave reactor is a form of breeder reactor – one that creates new fuel for a fission reaction even as it burns it up. As a result it can use up much more of the available energy in a rod of uranium fuel than a conventional reactor.

Such a reactor could also burn depleted uranium, which is discarded by enrichment plants, and could run for decades without the need for refuelling.

As a result it would generate much less waste than existing designs.

No such reactor has ever been built, however, and Toshiba is focusing on its 4S “nuclear battery”, which is much closer to realisation. 4S stands for “super-safe, small and simple”.

It is capable of running for several decades without refuelling and is smaller than current reactors.

The 4S has been proposed as the design for a nuclear project in Alaska.

Separately, Toshiba said on Tuesday that it would start to build a new flash memory plant in July in one of the first big investments by a Japanese technology company since the economic downturn began in 2008.

Flash memory is used for storage in devices such as digital cameras and mobile phones. Toshiba’s market share of 33 per cent is second to Samsung of Korea’s 39 per cent share.

A slump in flash memory prices was the single biggest cause of Toshiba’s Y344bn ($3.8bn) net loss in the year to March 2009.

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