Exclusive: Bill Gates on the future of nuclear energy, AI

"Nuclear energy, if we do it right, will help us solve our climate goals."

ByWilliam Kim ABCNews logo
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Bill Gates talks to ABC's Rebecca Jarvis about the future of nuclear energy, during a visit the site of a new TerraPower nuclear plant near Kemmerer, Wyoming, May 5, 2023.

KEMMERER, Wy. -- TerraPower, founded by billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in 2008, is opening a new nuclear power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming. The plant will be the first of its kind, with the company hoping to revolutionize the nuclear energy industry in the U.S. to help fight climate change and support American energy independence.

"Nuclear energy, if we do it right, will help us solve our climate goals," Gates told ABC News. "That is, get rid of the greenhouse gas emissions without making the electricity system far more expensive or less reliable."

Gates met with ABC News' chief business, economics, and technology correspondent Rebecca Jarvis in Kemmerer to talk about the project.

"Nuclear has some incredible pluses," Gates said. "It's not weather dependent, you can build a plant, but the amount of energy coming out of a very small plant is gigantic."

While nuclear energy is well known for having a lot of potential, the safety risks associated with it have historically concerned some investors; however, Gates said he's confident TerraPower can build an innovative nuclear reactor that is safe and practical for the future.

Most nuclear reactors in the U.S. use water to cool the system, but water is not the best at absorbing heat, and there are pressure risks associated with overheating, which could eventually lead to a meltdown. This new reactor, which is set to open in 2030, will use liquid sodium instead of water to cool it. Sodium's boiling point is eight times higher than water, and, unlike water, liquid sodium does not need to be continually pumped back into the system.

"We've solved all the areas where there have been safety challenges. And we have dramatically less waste," Gates said. "A great thing is that the regulator in the United States is the best in the world and they do a very good job. So part of the process between now and 2030 is an immensely detailed review with that safety commission about how this design is far safer than anything that came before."

The new plant, which has been in the works for 15 years, faced delays at the end of 2022 after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February of that year resulted in the loss of a special fuel source made in Russia. But Gates assured these issues are temporary.

"A lot of uranium mines and processing factories got shut down because people expected Russia to stay as a supplier. We do need to build that up domestically," Gates said. "But we have uranium domestically. We have the ability to do the processing domestically... In the long run, because of our uranium deposits here, because of the efficiency of the reactor, this thing can have a completely domestic supply chain."

Kemmerer, once the site of a booming coal industry, has since seen a decline in recent years, with the coal plant scheduled to shut down after operating for almost 60 years. Gates emphasized the importance of reintegrating older energy industries of the U.S. into future energy industries as a way of revitalizing communities. The nuclear plant plans to employ hundreds of construction workers and previous employees from the coal plant where skills overlap, while providing energy to hundreds of thousands of homes, the TerraPower said in a recent press release.

Gates on artificial intelligence

Gates also spoke with ABC News about his opinions on AI and what it means for the future of the world. He said he views the technology as game-changing, saying "It's pretty fundamental."

"We're often surprised how good it is. Sometimes we're surprised at what it can't do right. Early days, but revolutionary," Gates said.

He said he sees big potential for AI to create shockwaves in all industries where it will change the way we think about things.

"In health and education, used properly, it will be fantastic," Gates said. "That's a big deal. Improving education, you know, making sure students who are not in private schools or even suburban schools, that they have this way of getting great feedback. You know, I'm excited."

Gates also said how impressed he was at OpenAI's ChatGPT software and the leaps it had made within the last year, telling ABC News: "I was surprised last year that going from GPT-3 to GPT-4, it improved so much."

The risk of AI safety has also been on Gates' mind, he said, and he voiced some of his concerns regarding the rapid advance of the technology and the negative consequences if it were to be used with bad intentions.

"We're all scared a bad guy could grab it," Gates said, adding: "If you just pause the good guys, and you don't pause everyone else, you're probably hurting yourself."

And while Gates said he doesn't believe government regulators are up to speed about the technology and prepared to make big decisions yet, he does believe that the pros of AI outweigh the cons and that the conversation around it is headed in the right direction.

"The field, more than any field I know, is actually putting in a lot of the smart people into, OK, what comes next and how do we make sure that's beneficial," Gates said. "I see the AI, used properly, is providing a lot of benefits that, no, I wouldn't want to throw those away."