Bill Gates, head of charity, is every bit as brilliant and hyperrational as Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, ever was. The cochair of the world’s biggest foundation can hold forth on the impact of polio in India, the challenges of fixing American high schools, and the necessity of distributing better seeds to small farms in Africa. But he really gets amped up about the future of energy. “If you gave me the choice between picking the next 10 presidents or ensuring that energy is environmentally friendly and a quarter as costly, I’d pick the energy thing,” he told the audience at the Wired Business Conference in May. Gates fielded questions from Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson (and some audience members), geeking out on energy technology, policy, and economics. In these highlights from the hourlong session, Gates argues that nuclear power is still safer than all other energy options, rich countries aren’t spending enough on R&D, and installing solar panels on your roof is not helping to reduce CO2 emissions. It’s merely “cute.”
Chris Anderson: How has Fukushima changed your perspective on nuclear power?
Bill Gates: What happened in Japan is terrible, and there are many reasons it should have been avoided. It’s a 1960s plant design, generation two, put into service in the early 1970s. Emergency planning and execution were quite weak. The environmental and human damage is clearly very negative, but if you compare that to the number of people that coal or natural gas have killed per kilowatt-hour generated, it’s way, way less. The nuclear industry has this amazing record, even equipment from generations one and two. But nuclear mishaps tend to come in these big events—Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and now Fukushima—so it’s more visible. Coal and natural gas have much lower capital costs, and they tend to kill only a few at a time, which is highly preferred by politicians.
Anderson: Do you think that it’s possible for a leader to overcome the political opposition to nuclear, post-Fukushima?