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Small Modular Reactors – a low carbon energy alternative for Data Centres

Whilst the term ’nuclear’ can generate an emotive response, particularly with Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters in recent history, the use of nuclear energy continues to be a low carbon alternative to wind, solar and hydro power. Furthermore, as countries around the world pledge their net-zero commitments, there is a consensus that the targets of 2030 and 2050 will not be reached without the inclusion of nuclear power. Indeed, the Nuclear Energy Agency (as cited in Magwood, 2021) caution that the current nuclear output will need to at least triple to meet these targets.

Data centres can have a significant impact on electricity consumption and, as the population’s demand for data processing continues to increase, so too will this drive electricity consumption, albeit with a high level of uncertainty (The National Grid, 2022) – see fig.1 below. A developing nuclear technology, called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), could be a welcome source of low carbon energy to meet this growing consumption and demand. SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MWe per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. With scope to produce a large amount of low-carbon electricity, they are physically small (a fraction of the size of a conventional nuclear power reactor) and modular, making it possible for systems and components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation (Liou, 2023).

Fig 1. Range of uncertainty of GB data centre electricity demand between today and 2050 (The National Grid, 2022)

There are numerous SMR projects in development globally, most with prototypes planned to be operative by 2030. Currently, Westinghouse in the US is about to begin testing its eVinci Micro Reactor (25Mwe); Rolls-Royce anticipate their SMR test unit (470 Mwe) will be complete by 2030; France has a prototype planned for 2030; and the USA, Russia, and China have numerous developments in design. Canada has a planned SMR to assist its Nuclear Generation station by end of 2028, and Russia have already harnessed a docked ship nuclear reactor to power the remote regions of the Arctic (Pevek, Chukottka). Additional projects in South Africa (HTMR-100 – 35MWe), Canada (Leadir-PS100 – 36MWe) and US (Gen4 Module – 25MWe) are all expected to begin testing on or before 2030.

So, how might SMRs benefit data centre installations?

In November 2021, Ireland forbade any new data centre construction, except for those that could generate their own energy onsite, due to constraints in the energy grid. Subject to cost and local approval, a SMR would resolve this issue. Indeed, a suitably sized SMR placed within, or close to, a technology park containing multiple high-end-user data centres, would supply all the energy needs whilst offering feed back into the local grid. Additionally, its guaranteed energy supply (expected to be 100% for the life of the SMR) is a highly desirable offering for a data centre’s substantial active resilience and availability requirements. Not to mention that the generated heat can be recovered and utilised for a district heating scheme, a welcome low-cost energy saver for the local domestic market. Finally, cost projections suggest that an SMR under 100MWe would probably pay for itself in under 10 years which, given its expected 20–25-year life span, would make it an excellent commercial decision.

As legal issues continue to be addressed, such as verification and compliance, the UK has begun to establish frameworks along with the International Nuclear energy community for performance-based standards and minimum required safety parameters. Other than the SMR technology itself, the specifics of plant staffing, security requirements and decommissioning are still to be effectively drafted and may be adjusted through feedback from early installations within international projects. As previously mentioned, a significant drawback, remains public perception and potentially any backlash from certain community or activist groups. This may need to be addressed before any SMR is installed on a UK site, and local councils may have input on the matter – however, the energy crisis and projected low carbon payback may sway most.

As we seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst fulfilling our ever-expanding need for energy production, SMR generated low carbon energy could be an obvious and cost-effective choice, particularly with future hyperscale data centres. If you would like to discuss your current and future data centre system requirements, please get in touch. Our multi-disciplined Mission Critical team draw on over 22 years of knowledge and expertise in this specialist field.

References

Liou (2023, September 13). What are Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)? International Atomic Energy Agency. https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/what-are-small-modular-reactors-smrs

Magwood, W. D. (2021, November 4). The Role of Nuclear Energy in Mitigating Climate Change. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. https://www.oecd-forum.org/posts/the-role-of-nuclear-energy-in-mitigating-climate-change

National Grid (2022, March). Data Centres – What are data centres and how will they influence the future energy system? https://www.nationalgrideso.com/document/246446/download