If your image of nuclear power is to be giant, cylindrical, concrete cooling towers spewing out steam on a site occupying hundreds of acres of land, there will soon be an alternative: tiny nuclear reactors that produce, and can produce, only one-hundredth the electricity on one truck delivered.
Small but significant amounts of electricity – almost enough to power, say, a small campus, hospital or military complex – will pulse from a new generation of micronuclear reactors. Now some universities are interested in it.
“What we’re seeing 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.
The tiny reactors present some of the same challenges as large nuclear reactors, such as managing radioactive waste and ensuring its safety. Proponents say these problems can be managed and the benefits outweigh any risks.
Universities are interested not only in the technology to power their buildings, but to see how far it can go in replacing the coal and gas-fired energy that is causing 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 building permit for a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor developed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation and intends to commission it in early 2028. Brooks is the project leader.
Microreactors are becoming “transformative” because they can be built in factories and plug-and-play connected in the field, said Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Buongiorno examines the role of nuclear energy in a clean energy world.
“We want to see that, on-demand nuclear power as a product, not as a big mega-project,” he said.
Both Buongiorno and Marc Nichol, senior director for new reactors at the Nuclear Energy Institute, see the beginning of a trend in the interests of schools.
Last year, Penn State University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Westinghouse to collaborate on microreactor technology. Mike Shaqqo, the company’s senior vice president of advanced reactor programs, said universities will be “one of our key early adopters of this technology.”
Penn State wants to test the technology so Appalachian industries like steel and cement makers can potentially use it, said Professor Jean Paul Allain, chief of the nuclear engineering division. Both of these industries tend to burn dirty fuels and have very high emissions. Using a microreactor could also be one of several options to help the university use less natural gas and meet its long-term CO2 emissions goals, he said.
“I think microreactors can be a game changer and revolutionize the way we think about energy,” Allain said.
For Allain, microreactors can complement renewable energy by providing a large amount of electricity without taking up a lot of land. A 10-megawatt microreactor could be less than an acre, while windmills 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.
Purdue University in Indiana 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 explains that the microreactor would generate heat to create steam. While the excess heat from burning coal and gas to generate electricity is often wasted, Brooks sees the generation of steam from the nuclear microreactor as an advantage as it is a carbon-free way to deliver steam to radiators in buildings via the campus district heating system. a common heating method for large facilities in the Midwest and Northeast. The campus has hundreds of buildings.
The 10-megawatt microreactor wouldn’t meet all of the demand, but it would serve to demonstrate the technology as other communities and campuses try to move away from fossil fuels, Brooks said.
One company building microreactors that the public can see today is Washington, DC-based Last Energy. It built a model reactor in Brookshire, Texas housed in an angular cube covered in reflective metal.
Now it is disassembled to test how to transport the device. A caravan of trucks takes them to Austin, where company founder Bret Kugelmass is scheduled to speak at the South by Southwest conference and festival.
Kugelmass, a technology entrepreneur and mechanical engineer, is in talks with a few universities, but his main focus is on industrial customers. It is working with permitting agencies in the UK, Poland and Romania to try to get its first reactor up and running in Europe in 2025.
The urgency of the climate crisis means that zero-carbon nuclear power must be expanded soon, he said.
“It has to be a small, manufactured product, as opposed to a large, bespoke construction project,” he said.
Conventional nuclear power costs billions of dollars. One example is two additional reactors at a Georgia facility that will end up costing more than $30 billion.
The total cost of Last Energy’s microreactor, including module fabrication, assembly and site preparation work, is under $100 million, according to the company.
Westinghouse, which has been a mainstay of the nuclear industry for over 70 years, is developing its “eVinci” microreactor, Shaqqo said, and aims to license the technology by 2027.
The Ministry of Defense is also working on a microreactor. Project Pele is a DOD prototype mobile nuclear reactor being developed at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Abilene Christian University in Texas is leading a group of three other universities with company Natura Resources to design and build a research microreactor cooled by molten salt to enable high-temperature, low-pressure operation, in part to help next-generation education to support nuclear workers.
But not everyone shares the enthusiasm. Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called it “completely unwarranted”.
Microreactors in general require far more uranium to be mined and enriched per unit of electricity produced than conventional reactors, he said. He also expects that fuel costs will be significantly higher and that more waste could be generated with depleted uranium compared to conventional reactors.
“I think those who hope that microreactors will be the silver bullet to solve the climate crisis are just backing the wrong horse,” he said.
Lyman also said he was concerned microreactors could be the target of a terrorist attack, and that some designs would use fuels that could be attractive to terrorists trying to build crude nuclear weapons. The UCS is not against the use of nuclear energy, but wants to ensure that it is safe.
The United States does not have a national spent nuclear fuel storage facility, and they are piling up. Microreactors would only make the problem worse and disperse the radioactive waste, Lyman said.
A 2022 Stanford-led study found that smaller modular reactors — the next size up of microreactors — generate more waste than conventional reactors. Lead author Lindsay Krall said this week that microreactor design would expose them to the same problem.
Kugelmass only sees promises. Nuclear power, he said, has been “completely misunderstood and underutilized.” It will be “the central pillar of our progressive energy transition”.
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