home Nuclear Attitude, Nuclear Technology, U White House Backs Nuclear Energy for Data Centers

White House Backs Nuclear Energy for Data Centers

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is backing nuclear power – including SMRs – as a reliable and sustainable energy source for data centers.

About two years ago, nuclear energy was unwelcome at the energy table. How things have changed. One of the keynotes at Data Center World 2024 was delivered by Rian Bahran, Ph.D., Assistant Director of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He offered a broadening of the definition of clean energy to include nuclear. This has opened the door to a reversal of the long-term trend of closing nuclear power facilities— as well as heightened advocacy for onsite nuclear power in large data centers.

Bahran began on familiar ground – data centers consuming one to two percent of annual US energy consumption. In key metros, he said, it is much higher. Coupled with pressure on the grid and the hefty power demands occasioned by AI, new ways need to be found to power data centers efficiently and sustainably.

Enter nuclear power. One option is to site a new data center beside a nuclear power plant. Amazon Web Services (AWS), for example, has acquired a 1,200-acre data hub known as the Cumulus data center campus in Berwick, PA. It is directly connected to the 2.5 GW Susquehanna Steam Electric Station (a nuclear plant). An existing 48 MW data center was already operating at the site. AWS intends to eventually extend that to as much as 960 MW. To power it, the company has entered into a 10-year plus energy supply agreement with Talen, the owner of the nuclear plant.

“Wind and solar play a major role in decarbonization but we need a stable and firm nuclear backbone,” said Bahran. “Nuclear and renewables are complementary and nuclear is the only proven clean and firm energy technology.”

As an alternative to huge new nuclear facilities, another way to introduce nuclear is small modular reactors (SMRs). Each SMR can generate an average of 77 MW.

“Hopes are rising about SMRs,” said Britt Burt, an energy analyst at research firm Industrial Info Resources. “About 2 GW of new-build nuclear is scheduled to begin construction over the next five years.”

Data center operator Standard Power plans to deploy up to two dozen SMRs on two data center campuses in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Reactors built by ENTRA1 will use SMR technology from NuScale Power, which already has an SMR design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). NE Edge, too, plans to build a 1.5 million square foot data center campus beside a Dominion Energy nuclear power plant in Waterford, Connecticut.


Office of Nuclear Energysmr size and power comparison

Comparison between a conventional, small modular reactor, and microreactor in terms of their sizes and generated power.

“The latest generation of SMRs have small footprints, greater safety, better seismic capabilities, and provide reliable electricity,” said Bahran. “Small nuclear designs can grow modularly as the data center grows and won’t need to be refueled for up to eight years.”

Recommissioning the Old Fleet

Despite decades of decline, the U.S. nuclear fleet continues to supply 20% of the nation’s electricity. Rather than waiting years for SMRs to be permitted and built, an interim plan is the prevention of further nuclear plant closures and upgrading the plants so they last another few decades.

“The U.S. boasts the highest performing nuclear reactor fleet in the world,” said Lucas Johnson of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “License renewals will ensure that clean energy, that would otherwise be lost if a plant were to shut down at the end of its license, will continue to serve as a foundation.”

The Inflation Reduction Act, along with actions at the state level, has helped nuclear power plants compete economically with other forms of energy. This funding is being used to repower the Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan.

A $1.5 billion commitment was made to Holtec Palisades to recommission the 800 MW Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in Covert Township, Michigan in the name of job creation and emissions reduction. Holtec, the owner of the plant, awaits licensing approval from the NRC and has arranged long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) for the full output of the facility to local utilities.

This plant ceased operation in May 2022 due to lack of funding for extensive upgrades. But the realities of having a stable grid and providing enough power for AI have caused lawmakers to backtrack on what was once a staunch anti-nuclear stance. The current administration is now firmly aboard the nuclear energy train.

“Nuclear power is our single largest source of carbon-free electricity, directly supporting 100,000 jobs across the country and hundreds of thousands more indirectly,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

Palisades will have its equipment upgraded to modern standards with the goal of producing baseload clean power until at least 2051. In addition, Holtec intends to place two SMRs on the site which would add about 800 MW of additional generation capacity. Expect to see plans announced by AWS or another hyperscaler or colocation provider to site data centers nearby.

“There are already many agreements in place for data centers to be located near existing and planned nuclear plants,” said Bahran.

SMRs With Multiple Users

It may be feasible for a large colo or hyperscaler to adopt their own SMR. But the price tag may be beyond most data center operators. Bahran envisions a business model whereby several data centers may group around one SMR to achieve economies of scale.

“With an SMR providing roughly 20 to 30 MW and AI data centers having widely variable energy demands, you could have one SMR in an area with multiple users,” said Bahran.

He touted the safety and security benefits of nuclear technology. In the event of a complete loss of power, for example, modern nuclear facilities are designed to safely shut down on their own. But such large critical infrastructure assets pose cybersecurity concerns. They must be safeguarded against cyber-attack or a physical security breach.

Finally, the supply of uranium needs to be secured. Bahran said there is a need to expand US nuclear fuel sources.

“Investment is being made to ensure we have all the parts of the supply chain for a nuclear future,” he said

Source: Data Center Knowledge