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Potential Energy: The Future of Nuclear Microreactors

Rows of wind turbines line the mountain ridges atop remote villages in Alaska, where diesel-powered electricity is so expensive that local communities have been driven toward renewables out of financial necessity. In off-grid communities, however, shipping diesel fuel via planes or barges is still commonplace. If the goal is to ultimately reach 100% renewable energy, a small Arctic community relying only on wind and solar would require a huge amount of batteries and wind turbines. Because renewables cannot yet be cost-effectively stored as fuel, an all-renewable system requires overgeneration, or generation of more power than is actually consumed, in order to meet critical demand.

The overgeneration issue changes the conversation around nuclear power, one of the problem’s potential solutions. The key question on nuclear energy is no longer ‘Are wind and solar cheaper than nuclear?’ but ‘Where can we find a relatively cheap, low carbon source of energy that can load balance wind and solar in a world without fossil fuels?’ With a new generation of scientists and innovators disrupting the nuclear realm, which has remained stagnant in the US for several decades, including nuclear in the discussion can make decarbonization faster, cheaper, and easier.

Of the advanced nuclear technologies currently being researched, one that actually has potential market entry points by the mid-2020s is microreactors. Over 20 US companies are now working on these small but mighty reactors, which are scalable, versatile, and transportable—a complete game-changer for the industry. One traditional nuclear reactor generates around 1000 megawatts of electricity, while each microreactor generates only 1 to 10 megawatts. This allows production companies to take advantage of economies of scale and distribute nuclear reactors as a commercial product rather than a large infrastructure project. Because microreactors are up to 1000 times smaller than conventional reactors, they are portable by design and transportable by semi tractor-trailers, ships, or planes. Not only does portability allow mass production, it also reduces the need for giant systems which are more prone to failure, as in the now infamous examples of Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Microreactors are first looking to become cost-competitive in off grid communities such as rural Alaskan towns, where energy is exorbitantly expensive and solar has failed to provide a solution in cold, dark winters. These devices can be transported and installed in less than a month, and provide access to clean, reliable electricity generated on-site for at least 10 years without refueling. The federal government has already started investing significantly in microreactors as a resilient energy source in case of emergency at remote military bases. Three companies have been awarded contracts for the engineering design phase of a program known as Project Pele, a US Department of Defense program “which aims to fit forward-deploying units with cutting-edge microreactors.”

Local governments should seriously consider integrating microreactors into their energy strategies. Because microreactors can operate “as part of the electric grid, independently from the electric grid, or as part of a microgrid,” they have the potential to serve as emergency backup generators for cities. They can run continuously alongside the existing grid in normal times, and take over critical systems such as police stations, fire stations, hospitals, and communication networks in case of a natural disaster. In fact, any organization that has its own grid, needs reliable power, and has the upfront capital to make long-term decisions should consider microreactors. The upfront investment of $10 million and minimal maintenance costs can be comfortably integrated into the budgets of most college campuses and hospital complexes, which  often raise and deploy capital funds on this scale and already have a central grid in place to harness the energy.

Another potential benefit of the versatility of microreactors is their potential contribution to renewable heating. New microreactor designs aim to harness excess heat for such applications as waste water recycling or fertilizer production.[1] In fact, a scenario in which microreactors are used primarily for heat is already easy to imagine, especially where centralized heating infrastructure already exists, such as in European cities or college campuses, with clean electricity as a side benefit.

Eventually, if microreactors prove to be successful in one market, economies of scale dictate that costs will further decrease, giving rise to more and more potential markets. Currently, nuclear demand policy is largely nonexistent and can make a huge difference in viability. Wind and solar both enjoy federal production tax credits, state renewable portfolio standards, and tax incentives, all of which drive innovation and demand. To help nuclear succeed, new climate-focused regulations should push to reduce carbon while allowing for flexibility in meeting that goal. Examples include New York’s zero-carbon energy credits, or California’s goal to achieve 100% clean (not renewable) energy by 2045.

Once a potential market is established, then comes the safety question—a nuclear reactor in the middle of campus, after all, sounds off-putting if not downright alarming. However, this is an irrational public psyche and a problem that effective public leadership could address. Even traditional nuclear reactors are extremely safe: just three major accidents have occurred globally in nuclear power’s 60-year history, killing in total around the same number of people who die from coal emissions every day. Microreactors also use natural processes for cooling rather than pumps. Redundant pumping systems can potentially fail in a power outage, but microreactors rely on physics for a self-regulating design that naturally prevents overheating and reactor meltdown. Convincing public messaging, coupled with short-term intensive safety research, can solve the feasibility and public relations problems currently plaguing microreactors.

All this being said, microreactors are still a hypothetical engineering and business problem—so the government desperately needs to invest in advanced nuclear R&D. Government support has been proven to be “extraordinarily effective” and “absolutely crucial to the development of new clean technologies,” and even Bill Gates is trying to sell Congress on the promise of advanced nuclear technology. Additionally, nuclear licensing must be reformed. Current licensing pathways within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are prescriptive and outdated. The 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act is a good first step that acknowledges the need for renewed licensing practices. Rather than the traditional process wherein each power plant must undergo piece by piece approval, new, streamlined licensing should treat microreactors as a commercial product, regulated by standard design, inspections, and factory fabrication rules. To spur innovation, the industry desperately needs supportive regulation—currently, a company proposing a new design faces “the prospect of having to spend a billion dollars or more on an open-ended, all-or-nothing licensing process without any certainty of outcomes or even clear milestones along the way.” Treating microreactors as an imminent commercial product with immeasurable benefits to the public will attract the brightest scientific minds into the industry, hastening a time when microreactors become commercially viable sources of energy.

Finally, the issue of waste handling, while an unresolved political controversy, is not an irresolvable one. Nuclear waste is extremely compact and can be buried in canisters deep underground, where it becomes less radioactive over time. France already reprocesses the waste to be reused as fuel, and continued ingenuity in this area can allow nuclear waste to be recycled over and over again, squeezing out every drop of energy and reducing the amount of radioactive waste.

Ultimately, the process of weaning the world off of fossil fuels is not as simple as transitioning our current electricity to renewable energy sources. Rather, if we’re serious about decarbonization, clean solutions must be found for transportation and heating, which currently rely almost completely on fossil fuels. If activists, politicians, and regulators lend their support, and if the public’s irrational panic can be overcome, nuclear microreactors may be one of the most critical energy innovations of the decade.