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Toshiba eyes nuke alliance with Gates start-up

Company is in talks with TerraPower, which is backed by Microsoft's chairman, to jointly develop advanced nuclear reactors.

Toshiba is in talks with a company backed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to jointly develop advanced nuclear reactors, the Japanese electronics maker said Tuesday.

The Japanese electronics maker, which is also the world's No. 3 chipmaker behind Intel and Samsung Electronics, added it will restart plans to build a factory to make NAND flash memory chips as the global economy recovers.

Toshiba, which owns U.S. nuclear firm Westinghouse, said it was in preliminary talks with the Gates-backed firm TerraPower to develop so-called traveling-wave reactors, which are designed to use depleted uranium as fuel and thought to hold the promise of running up to 100 years without refueling.

That compares with conventional light-water reactors, which require refueling once every several years.

Small reactors like traveling-wave reactor would make a good fit for emerging markets, Deutsche Securities analyst Takeo Miyamoto said.

"If you put a regular reactor like the one used in Japan in some emerging nations, that could sometimes create overcapacity and make it difficult to back that reactor up when you take the unit off line for maintenance," Miyamoto said. "There would be demand for this type of reactor in newly developing countries."

The Nikkei daily, which first reported the news earlier Tuesday, said Gates could invest several billion dollars of his own money in the project, with commercialization likely to take more than 10 years.

Toshiba spokesman Keisuke Ohmori said the talks with TerraPower are at an early stage and nothing has been decided.

Toshiba, which is developing its own mini nuclear reactors designed to operate continuously for 30 years, anticipates that about 80 percent of the technologies used in the reactor under development can be applied to traveling-wave reactors, the Nikkei said.

One hurdle for commercialization of traveling-wave reactors is the development of materials that can withstand nuclear reactions for such long periods of time, the newspaper said.

Separately, Toshiba said it had decided to start construction of its fifth NAND flash memory plant in July in reaction to a recovery in demand, driven in part by the growing popularity of smartphones. Production is slated for early 2011.

Toshiba had originally planned to start building the factory in Mie in central Japan last spring and to complete it this year, but it put the project on hold due to the industrywide slump.