Looking to the future: Data centers have become a major industry, but many of them are not very environmentally friendly due to the huge energy needs that are often met by burning fossil fuels. One of the proposed answers to this problem is for facilities to use their own sustainable energy sources in the form of miniature nuclear reactors.
The Register highlights a report by Omdia analysts Alan Howard and Vladimir Galabov, which notes that data center operators were among the first to use renewable energy sources — Google and Microsoft recently announced plans to purchase more energy to make their data centers more environmentally friendly — but they are still not available in many markets. That’s where nuclear power with small modular reactors (MMRs) can help.
Unlike standard nuclear plants that produce gigawatts of electricity, MMRs typically generate 300-500 megawatts (MW) of electricity, although some of them produce less than 100 MW.
Any mention of nuclear reactors, as a rule, raises concerns about such disasters as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, but analysts write that MMRs pose a much lower risk due to their scale, simple design and inherent safety characteristics of the reactor. They also rely on natural circulation, convection, gravity, and self-injection.
In addition, a technology similar to SMR is used on 83 nuclear-powered ships of the US Navy, including 72 submarines, 10 aircraft carriers and one research vessel, many of which are located near large settlements, and there have never been incidents with nuclear power in the fleet. history.
But, despite its advantages, nuclear waste remains a big problem for MMR, since it takes from three decades to 24,000 years for spent fuel material to reach a safe level of radiation. However, unlike conventional nuclear power plants, which require refueling every year or two, MMR suppliers strive for this every three to seven years – it is estimated that some designs can operate without refueling for 40 years. It is noted that nuclear submarines require refueling only every 10 or more years, and new active zones are designed for a service life of 30 to 40 years. The warning is that MMRs produce 35 times more waste compared to larger reactor designs.
Currently, there are no MMRs in the USA yet, but in Russia there are two MMRs with a capacity of 35 MW each installed on a floating power plant (above) off the Arctic coast. New MMRs are currently being built or undergoing the licensing process in Argentina, Canada, China, France, South Korea and the USA.
SMRs are likely to be suitable for large data center campuses with a capacity of more than 100 MW, rather than for individual data centers, although smaller locations may share excess capacity with other industrial enterprises.
Don’t expect this technology to become commonplace anytime soon. It’s likely to be another seven years before we see SMRs in the US, and it could be 10 to 15 years before they power the data center campus.