HomeTop StoriesTranscript: Bill Gates on "Face the Nation," June 16, 2024

Transcript: Bill Gates on “Face the Nation,” June 16, 2024

The following is the full transcript of an interview with Bill Gates on “Face the Nation” that aired in part on June 16, 2024.


MARGARET BRENNAN: So this is the first time, as I understand it, in four decades that a company has tried to get an advanced reactor up and running as part of commercial power in the United States. So exactly what have you broken ground on in Wyoming?

BILL GATES: Well, we have a new reactor design that achieves even better safety through simplifying by not using water cooling, and that’s an advance people have talked about, that it would reduce the costs and make a better product, but it’s- it’s new. We picked a site in Wyoming where a coal plant is closing down, the community’s been super supportive. And so we- we- the preliminary construction started this week.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what advantage do these new reactors have versus the, you know, thousands of reactors around the world?

BILL GATES: Most reactors are cooled by water and that means that it gets very hot, and you get high pressure and so keeping the nuclear waste in the reactor is very difficult. You need a lot of cement and a lot of complex systems, particularly when the reactor shuts down, it’s still putting out heat and that’s led to some problems. So as they went from first to second and second to third generation, they dealt with that issue by making it a lot more complex. Now, unfortunately, that meant that the construction cost went up and so the cost of power from nuclear was not competitive, even though it’s a great energy source. It’s completely clean. It’s not weather dependent. You can put it right where the demand is, but the costs actually drove some of the companies in the industry out of business, and so we started way back in 2008 saying let’s do something very different to simplify the reactor and make the electricity far less expensive.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when you say clean, you mean, because it’s not carbon-emitting.

BILL GATES: Exactly.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Not the greenhouse gases that are linked to climate change.

BILL GATES: Exactly. So a coal plant, a natural gas plant, they inherently meant a lot of CO2, greenhouse gas.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you are a big advocate of green energy, obviously, you’re putting money to work through this company, TerraPower, but it’s still expensive. In this country, Georgia just had those two power plants, that- the first two scratch-built U.S. reactors in a generation is how they were billed. So how do you take something like that and what you’re doing and make this commercially viable if it’s expensive to start in the first place?

BILL GATES: Well, you need investors who are willing to believe that you’re going to build a lot of units and so you can take the cost of design and spread them over a lot of units. You know, the two big backers of this project are the TerraPower investors, of which I’m the largest. I put in over a billion, and I’ll put in billions more. And then the federal government who is helping because of the strategic benefits of having energy security. And so we’re not asking any of the utility customers to take any risk and have to pay high electricity prices, all of that risk is on TerraPower and the- the U.S. government.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It was $35 billion for those two plants in Georgia. What is this one in Wyoming gonna cost?

BILL GATES: Well, if you count all the first of a kind costs, you know, where we’ve been working for many years designing this thing, you could get a number close to 10 billion. But the key number to look at is, as you’re building more and more units and you’re getting all the components or your suppliers are bringing their costs down, the payoff for the investors is if we build a lot. Nobody’s ever built a lot of the same design. So you’ve got to get it right. You have to design a reactor that can coexist with renewable energy because we have a lot of that. So this reactor only makes electricity when the renewables aren’t- aren’t super cheap. It just makes heat 24 hours a day and then electricity when it’s needed. And you can just look at the amount of cement, the size of the reactor building, it’s, you know, dramatically less complicated. And so that’s- the belief is that nuclear can once again, compete to provide low cost electricity. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: You talked about the federal government being essentially a partner in- in some of this and the energy secretary said there need- the U.S. has to at least triple our current nuclear capacity. So that’s a lot of work ahead. How many more of these do you have planned? And what is that gonna depend on?

BILL GATES: We- we have discussions with utilities about building tens of these, but, you know, we really only have huge impact and success if we get past 100. What’s–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Wyoming has to open before you do these, or– 

BILL GATES: We can start four or five in parallel. You know, you- the final, final approval from the regulatory commission is out there in 2030 and so that then gives you the green light to turn the others on, but you can start the construction. The demand for electricity in the United States for the first time in a long time is going to go up quite a bit. It’s electric cars, buses. Some people use electric heat pumps in their homes and just in the last year, with these artificial intelligence breakthroughs, all the big AI companies are saying, okay, we need to build lots of data centers, and so if we don’t have nuclear to complement the wind and sun, the country will fall behind the demand for electricity. 

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MARGARET BRENNAN: So this, what you’re arguing, though, is for America’s leadership and technology to continue, you need more energy, our demand for power is going up.

BILL GATES: That’s right, we- for a long time, the total electricity use didn’t go up a lot, so this is kind of a new thing to remember, long time ago, we were raising our, our electricity, and here, for a lot of reasons, things are being electrified, you know, electric cars are getting cheaper, electric buses are gonna out compete, other buses, even other forms of transportation will move to electricity. And so you know, it, it takes desire to build, desire to invest in innovative new approaches. And, you know, the- the cost requirements is what lets us say, if this can compete with natural gas electricity in the United States, then it’s very competitive around the world, because most parts of the world don’t have that very cheap natural gas, which is the cheapest way to make electricity today.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, and President Biden has said, even he, with all of this money being invested in green energy that the United States still will need fossil fuels for some time. I mean, that that’s the reality of what you’re sketching out here. It’s not either or.

BILL GATES: Right, well, the growth will be in the clean sources: sun, wind, and nuclear. But we won’t get there to be 100% green, you know, the goal is to get rid of all emissions by 2050. Even that’s pretty ambitious. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah. 

BILL GATES: All of the clean sources will have to do a great job of getting their costs down. And you’ve got to get permits, you’ve got to get transmission permission. The nuclear plant we’re building in Wyoming has an advantage that there’s a coal plant right there that’s been shut down. And so the connection to the grid, we’re just using that connection that was already there for the the closed coal plant.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The energy supply is already there, you’re saying.

BILL GATES: The- the lines to take and transmit the power from that location where the coal plant was, to the electricity customers, we don’t have to build new transmission, we just connect up to the lines that they- they’ve been using for decades. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And Wyoming is a huge coal producer, as I understand it, the plant you’re talking about shuts down in 2026. If you don’t have the permits to open until possibly 2023- or 2030. What happens to those folks? Do you hire them? Do they lose their jobs and wait?–

BILL GATES: Well the good news is the the time that we create the most jobs is actually between now and 2030, you know, during the construction phase, we have a lot of jobs. In fact, we’ll have to, you know, have temporary housing for people coming into the community and certainly we can use all of those coal plant workers as part of the workforce.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The skills can transfer? 

BILL GATES: Yeah, we have training programs, actually a lot of the skills already match pretty well. Then the workforce to operate the nuclear plant is just a little bit bigger than the workforce that was operating the coal plant so for Kemmerer, you know, they know they’re say 60 year asset that’s in their community and extremely valuable.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when you’re talking about Kemmerer, Wyoming, where where you are are planning to build this, when the public hears about nuclear energy, though they think of some of the worst cases that- and mistakes: Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, Chernobyl and the former Soviet Union, they think of Japan even just after Fukushima in 2011. And after that Japan’s government reacted pretty strongly, they shut down many of their plants, they’re starting to put them back online. But there was a very sharp reaction, then. So how do you respond to people who say, Well, I don’t really want this in my backyard?

BILL GATES: Well, nuclear, you know, they- this after heat problem that when you shut a reactor down, it still has heat. That’s why Chernobyl was a problem and Fukushima, our design, that it goes away, because since we use this sodium to cool everything, it can absorb all that heat. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: This is the Natrium.

BILL GATES: Right and so those accidents were both first generation second generation reactors. The third generation reactors dealt with that with a lot of complexity. So those reactors are quite safe. But the cost overruns meant that the electricity will be very, very expensive. We solved the safety problem with a much simpler approach. But we have to start from scratch. And so we’ve used computer simulation and talked to the regulators. And- it simplicity in this case, is is very beneficial. But you know, we’re an innovation company, you know, we’re the ones who are, together with the government taking the risk here. And, you know, we’re quite confident that, you know, this will inaugurate a- a new generation, where you won’t have these huge electricity costs.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So one of the things with your reactor, as I understand it, and I’m- and I’m learning this, so correct me on the language, but for people at home to understand your reactor and most advanced reactors require this new high-assay low-enriched uranium. So that supply is really very much owned by Russia. How does your company navigate that? How does America get that fuel without putting money in the pocket of Vladimir Putin?

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BILL GATES: Yeah, so the U.S. Congress recently passed a bill that we supported, that says none of the fuel will come out of Russia. And so the U.S. won’t be a customer of that any longer–

MARGARET BRENNAN: But that’s not immediate, right? 

BILL GATES: That’s right, but the- the money in the bill will get the supply base going in the United States, we also have a supplier in the UK, we’ve got a supplier in South Africa, and so we can go to the free world and meet our fuel requirements. The reason we had to delay our schedule from 2028 to 2030 was because of this fuel problem. And we didn’t anticipate a war in Ukraine- that changed that completely. And so now building up the alternate plan, with the federal government helping us figure that out, that’s now completely in place. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you do have a supply of this fuel– 

BILL GATES: Of non-Russian fuel–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Of non-russian fuel– 

BILL GATES: That’s right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So how long before the U.S. can rely on its own fuel for these nuclear reactors? Can America become completely energy independent if it’s actually switching to nuclear?

BILL GATES: Yeah, so the U.S. is very lucky that between the U.S. and Canada, there’s quite a bit of uranium, even in Wyoming. And specifically, there are good uranium mines there.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you have to mine for it–

(CROSSTALK)

BILL GATES: We have to mine it–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –and there are environmental concerns around that.

(CROSSTALK ENDS)

BILL GATES: –and you have to have the manufacturers. And that’s the congressional $2.8 billion that they just passed is to get a- a North America supply chain going. And it was great that the Congress took care of that problem, because they’re the ones who said, “we don’t want you to buy fuel from Russia.” But they want to keep the nuclear industry- which has a lot of plants still operating today that are very valuable- they want to support the existing nuclear and the new nuclear, so that’s what the bill provided, the resources to build in- in the United States. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And as an environmentalist, you don’t have concerns about this kind of mining within the United States? 

BILL GATES: Well all mining, you know, is subject to, in the case of the U.S., a lot of environmental review to make sure that, you know, as you’re pulling stuff out, as the tailings are- where are you putting those and how do those get used? So, you know, I feel very comfortable that the U.S. is going to make sure that there’s no environmental concerns about U.S. and Canadian mining.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you have acknowledged, you don’t have all the permits yet. But you’re on track to start producing power by 2030. We may have a big political change in this country- in the Congress and at the White House. Are you confident that you can continue this project regardless of who wins the majority or the White House?

BILL GATES: Yes, I’m quite confident. I mean, I’m- you know, I meet with lots of Republicans, I meet with lots of Democrats. I’d say that the- their support for nuclear power is very impressive in both parties. The reasons they support nuclear power may not be identical. The Republicans may emphasize the security issues, you know, energy security, exporting these power things to the entire world. The Democrats value those things, but they also value that it’s a clean source of energy. And that it’s- because it’s not weather-dependent, it can fill in in the periods where the renewables are-are not producing. And so of all the climate-related work I’m doing, I’d say the one that has the most bipartisan energy behind it is actually this- this nuclear work. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s interesting. I read in an interview, you said, ‘Republicans for climate change action are gold, that’s got to be a number that somehow we manage to increase over time.’ You’re saying at least with this issue, you’ve increased it, but can you– 

BILL GATES: Well, nuclear has benefits beyond climate. So if you have another technology, say, you know, green hydrogen or something, or direct air capture, the main benefits of that are climate-related. And, you know, so if we have a new administration, the, you know, tax benefits and the project financing for some of these climate projects could change, you know, that’s in the hands of the Congress. What they did, they did several bills that were bipartisan, one called the Infrastructure Act, one called the CHIPS Act, and then there was one called the Inflation Reduction Act. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes. 

BILL GATES: That was purely passed on Democrat party votes. And so the first two are probably secure- anything that relates to those. The third one, depending on how the election comes out, there could be changes to those- those tax benefits.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, Donald Trump talks about renewable energy quite a lot on the campaign trail. But when he was president, he did sign bills that encouraged nuclear– 

BILL GATES: Yes, nuclear really is a special– 

MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s its own category of green energy? 

BILL GATES: Because- because- not because it’s green, there are people who don’t value that part of it all, I wish they would. They value it because of the US leadership. And you really don’t want the nuclear reactors around the world, made by our adversaries, because it’s economically a huge job creator. And because the materials involved in these reactors possibly could be diverted, you want your eye on in making sure that it’s not feeding into some military related activity. And so the U.S. leadership in this space has a lot of strategic benefits.

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MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s an interesting connection. And it connects, you’re saying to staying competitive in technology– 

BILL GATES: — Right–  

MARGARET BRENNAN: — Its- because demand is going up.  We’re just going

BILL GATES: You know, job creation, where the US likes to stay in the lead.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you do take it seriously, though, I hear you saying when on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump has talked about repealing the Inflation Reduction Act, the IRA. He said that’s one of the first things he wants to do.

BILL GATES: Yeah, I mean, it takes both houses of Congress. And, you know, I think a lot of the provisions in there would be preserved, you know, a lot of projects have started, they’re creating jobs. A lot of those jobs are in, you know, red states. And so it’ll be interesting. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why- why doesn’t the administration talk more about that? A lot of those jobs are in red states. 

BILL GATES: Yeah. Because those states, you know, move faster. They have a lighter regulatory load in West Virginia, Wyoming, Texas, a lot of them are where the pilot plants are being built. And the more that happens, the more that you’ll probably see bipartisan support. I’m not a good predictor of elections, but I think a lot of those credits probably will survive. It’s possible some of them won’t. And you know, we’ll just have to make the case again, as we did when the bill first got passed, that this is good for the country. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: The US created, right, the nuclear space really with the Manhattan Project. Do you think we can get back as a country to really leading on the innovation on this front?

BILL GATES: Well, there is competition, you know, the country that’s building the most nuclear reactors today is China. And, you know, they’re serious about diversifying their energy sources and getting rid of their greenhouse emissions. The US just tends to be more innovative, whether it’s artificial intelligence or new medicines, if we unleash the the innovation power of this country, we tend to lead and I feel great about the support we’re getting from the federal government in this nuclear space, to take our history of excellence, and solve the problem, that our current reactors are just way too expensive. And so let’s make the changes, you know, be willing to innovate- out innovate our foreign competitors, to maintain that lead.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On China, people know you because of your work with Microsoft and your founding of that company, you remain one of the top shareholders there. And you know, the company’s under federal scrutiny now, because of some of the hacking that was discovered, particularly last year when the commerce secretary’s accounts were hacked and the ambassador to China’s account was hacked. And President Biden mandated the Cyber Review Board. And they mentioned something you said in it as a recommendation. It said Microsoft should overhaul security and he, Bill Gates’s, past advice to hold off on new features until it fixes the security issues. Do you agree with that, if you urge Microsoft’s leaders now to follow the advice you gave when you were in there running that company?

BILL GATES: You know, I’m an advisor to the company. I’m very proud that the leadership people like Satya Nadella, Brad Smith are just doing a great job there. Security is constantly a challenge. That’s, I think, a quote from a memo of about 25 years ago, the first time that– 

MARGARET BRENNAN: — Yes- back when, you know–  

BILL GATES: — I was saying, hey, these security issues are going to have to be fundamental to how we do the design. And, you know, sadly, 

MARGARET BRENNAN: — But the principle–  

BILL GATES: — But in the security area, you’re always innovating. You know, then the bad guys try and catch up. You know Microsoft’s got a great record of working with the government on these issues. And we have some amazing security products. So you know, that dialogue of how, even as the bad guys get smarter, how do we stay ahead is an important dialogue.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I’m being told we are out of time. But thank you for your time. Is there anything I didn’t get to hear that you think we should?

BILL GATES: No, I mean, I touched on the demand for electricity, even in the last couple of years. All of us are going wow. Partly because of this new ace- AI stuff, that demand is going to be higher than we expected. And the- a lot of companies wish our project could get done before 2030. Because they’re very– 

MARGARET BRENNAN: — Is there a chance it does?

BILL GATES: — I’m sorry? 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think it can? 

BILL GATES: No- no, the regulatory review process, which is very strict. You know, we have a little bit of contingency in that schedule but it- that’s very wise. So we just need to make sure we stay on that schedule.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I saw Amazon was opening a facility near a nuclear power plant that there’s planning being done by some of these tech companies with that in mind. 

BILL GATES: Right, so the plant we’re talking about will be America’s next nuclear plant. But there’s a lot of existing plants, so people in between now and 2030 they can go and use existing nuclear but that’s not really adding to our supply of green energy, and we need new builds, which nothing will get completed between now and 2030. So this is America’s next- next reactor.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Gates, thank you for your time. 

BILL GATES: Thank you

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