The Alaska Center for Energy and Power at UAF and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center will be co-hosting an information session and Q&A on micronuclear reactors at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, at the Fairbanks North Star Borough Noel Wien Public Library. We invite you to join us and learn more about this emerging category of small nuclear reactors.
On paper, advanced nuclear micro or modular reactors appear to be the solution to a lot of the problems that have historically plagued the nuclear power industry. Microreactors are less complex than their larger counterparts, making them easier and cheaper to build as modular, smaller units with less nuclear material in any one location. Most don’t require water for cooling, meaning their location isn’t tethered to a water source, and there are fewer potential vectors for environmental contamination.
Another compelling feature is built-in passive safety features — sometimes called “walk away safe.” This means that if all power is lost and coolant leaks and the operators flee the scene, there will be no meltdown of the core, no fire in the spent fuel rods, and no bursts of radioactive steam into the atmosphere.
This all sounds great in theory, but although these advanced reactors have been in the design phase for decades, none have progressed past the conceptual stage. In other words, they are “paper reactors” not actual operating equipment that could inform major energy supply decisions and capital investment.
The day these reactors become real is approaching quickly and Alaska is at the center of some of that development. Why Alaska? Alaska is huge and has people and communities that do not have access to the grid or are insufficiently grid-connected. This, combined with the need for power and the high cost of energy makes Alaska a potential market for this technology. A planned ~5MW microreactor project at Eielson Air Force Base, to be completed in 2027, would be the first commercial project in the United States, although earlier demonstrations are planned — for example, at the National Reactor Innovation Center at Idaho National Laboratory.
There are still many questions to answer, including the cost associated with deploying these systems and whether the public will accept these newer nuclear technologies. This in turn depends on the public’s ability to discern the difference between legacy nuclear and next generation technologies. Finally, siting for long term disposal of waste fuel remains another unknown at the national level.
Alaska has the opportunity to get it right from the beginning, and that starts with asking the right questions. The information session on Sept. 21 is meant to provide science-based, factual, and vetted research on the potential of micronuclear reactors in Alaska. We hope the community will come with an open mind.
Gwen Holdmann is the associate vice chancellor for research, innovation and industry partnerships at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and founder of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.
Elisabeth Balster Dabney is the interim executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.