A number of universities are experimenting with micro nuclear power

A number of universities are experimenting with micro nuclear power

If your picture of nuclear power is huge, cylindrical concrete cooling towers pouring steam over a site that covers hundreds of acres, there will soon be an alternative: tiny nuclear reactors that produce only one-hundredth the power and can even be delivered in a truck. is

Small but meaningful amounts of electricity — about enough to run a small campus, a hospital or a military complex, for example — will pulse from a new generation of micronuclear reactors. Now some universities are taking interest.

“What we see is that these advanced reactor technologies have a real future in decarbonizing the energy landscape in the United States and around the world,” said Caleb Brooks, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Small reactors carry the same challenges as large-scale nuclear, such as how to dispose of radioactive waste and how to ensure that it is protected. Proponents say these problems can be managed and the benefits outweigh any risks.

Universities are interested in seeing how far it can go in not only powering their buildings but replacing coal and gas-fired power as a cause of climate change. The University of Illinois hopes to advance the technology as part of a clean energy future, Brooks said. The school plans to apply for a construction permit for a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor built by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation and aims to begin operating in early 2028. Brooks heads the project.

Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said microreactors would be “transformational” because they could be built in factories and connected on-site in a plug-and-play way. Buongiorno studies the role of nuclear power in a clean energy world.

“That’s what we want to see, on-demand nuclear power as a product, not as a big mega project,” he said.

Both Buongiorno and Mark Nicol, senior director of new reactors at the Nuclear Energy Institute, see the schools’ interest as the start of a trend.

Last year, Penn State University signed a memorandum of understanding with Westinghouse to collaborate on microreactor technology. Universities are “going to be one of our primary early adopters for this technology,” said Mike Shacko, the company’s senior vice president for advanced reactor programs.

Penn State wants to prove the technology so that Appalachian industries like steel and cement makers might be able to use it, said Jean Paul Allen, professor of nuclear engineering. Both these industries tend to burn dirty fuels and have very high emissions. Using a microreactor could be one of several options to help the university use less natural gas and meet long-term carbon emissions goals, he said.

“I think that microreactors can be a game-changer and revolutionize the way we think about energy,” Allen said.

For Allen, microreactors can complement renewable energy by providing large amounts of energy without taking up much land. A 10-megawatt microreactor can operate on less than an acre, whereas a windmill or a solar farm would need much more space to produce 10 megawatts, he added. The goal is to have one at Penn State by the end of the decade.

Indiana’s Purdue University is working with Duke Energy on the feasibility of using advanced nuclear power to meet its long-term energy needs.

Nuclear reactors used for research are nothing new on campus. About two dozen US universities have them. But using them as an energy source is new.

Back at the University of Illinois, Brooks explained that the microreactor would generate heat to create steam. While excess heat from burning coal and gas to generate electricity is often wasted, Brooks sees steam production from nuclear microreactors as a plus, as it’s a carbon-free way to deliver steam to building radiators through the campus district heating system, a major benefit in the Midwest and Northeast. A simple heating method for The campus has more than a hundred buildings.

The 10-megawatt microreactor won’t meet all demand, Brooks said, but it will serve to demonstrate the technology, as other communities and campuses look to move away from fossil fuels.

One company building the microreactors that the public can see today is Last Energy, based in Washington, D.C. It has built a model reactor in Brookshire, Texas, housed in an Ag cube covered in reflective metal.

Now taking it apart to check how the unit can be transported. A convoy of trucks is making its way to Austin, where company founder Brett Kugelmus will be speaking at the South by Southwest conference and festival.

Kugelmus, a technology entrepreneur and mechanical engineer, is talking to some universities, but his primary focus is on industrial customers. He is working with licensing authorities in the UK, Poland and Romania to try to operate his first reactor in Europe by 2025.

The urgency of the climate crisis means zero-carbon nuclear power should be ramped up soon, he said.

“It has to be a small, finished product as opposed to a large, custom construction project,” he said.

Traditional nuclear power costs billions of dollars. An example is two additional reactors at a plant in Georgia that would cost more than $30 billion.

The total cost of Last Energy’s microreactor, including module fabrication, assembly and site prep work, is under $100 million, the company says.

Westinghouse, a mainstay of the nuclear industry for more than 70 years, is developing its “Evinci” microreactor, Shacko said, and aims to license the technology by 2027.

The Defense Department is also working on a microreactor. Project Pele is a DOD prototype mobile nuclear reactor under design at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Abilene Christian University in Texas is leading a group of three other universities along with Natura Resources Co. to design and build a research microreactor cooled by molten salt to allow high-temperature operation at low pressure to help train the next generation of the nuclear workforce.

But not everyone shares the enthusiasm. Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear energy safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called it “absolutely unfair.”

In general, microreactors will require much more uranium to mine and enrich per unit of electricity than conventional reactors, he said. He said he expects fuel costs to be substantially higher and to produce more depleted uranium waste than conventional reactors.

“I think people who are hoping that microreactors are going to be the silver bullet for solving the climate change crisis are just betting on the wrong horse,” he said.

Lyman also said he fears that microreactors could be targets for terrorist attacks and that some designs would use fuel that could be attractive to terrorists seeking to build crude nuclear weapons. UCS is not opposed to using nuclear power, but wants to make sure it is safe.

The United States does not have a national storage facility to store spent nuclear fuel, and it is accumulating. Microreactors will only compound the problem and spread radioactive waste around, Lyman said.

A 2022 Stanford-led study found that small modular reactors — ranging in size from micro — would produce more waste than conventional reactors. Lead author Lindsay Krall said this week that the design of the microreactors would make them subject to the same problem.

Kugelmas only sees promise. Nuclear, he said, had been “totally misunderstood and under-facilitated”. It will be “the cornerstone of our energy transition.”

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