Nuclear Energy and the Role of UAF in Raising Awareness through Public Engagement

This story was originally published on the University of Alaska Fairbanks News website as part of the Friday Focus series.

Nuclear energy is not a new concept. After all, it makes up about 20% of our base-load energy supply in the U.S. To put this in context, this is roughly equivalent to all renewable energy generation combined, including hydroelectric. But with the vast majority of our fleet of nuclear reactors commissioned in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, nuclear energy can feel like a technology of the past, especially when countries like Japan and Germany are actively working to decommission their own nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy is also a technology most people have strong – and sometimes quite visceral – reactions to. Proponents often see nuclear energy as a critical path to decarbonizing our global energy supply, while others legitimately worry about the environmental costs ranging from the potential of a nuclear accident to long-term management of spent fuel.

Over the past few weeks, I have had an opportunity to engage the community of Fairbanks in discussions about nuclear energy through two Town Hall-style meetings, held at the Noel Wein Library and the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center. These meetings were organized in collaboration with our partners at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation, who share our commitment to unbiased, science-based information dissemination. These meetings were prompted by news that Eielson Air Force Base will be home to one of the first commercial deployments of a very small, advanced microreactor that is part of a new generation of nuclear technology. A system very different from conventional systems. Together with colleagues at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, I have been tracking the evolution of this technology for over a decade at the request of the Alaska State Legislature. This has resulted in two reports, published ten years apart in 2011 and 2021, which address the question: are small nuclear reactors an option for Alaska? The answer to this is not yet clear, but what is certain is that these new reactors are coming. And quickly. The first reactors are expected to be deployed at the Idaho National Laboratory National Reactor Innovation Center in 2024. And, the Eielson project is currently projected to be brought online in 2027.

These advanced reactors are very different from the designs of the past – in fact, they are about as different as a cargo ship and a Maserati – both use internal combustion engines for propulsion, but that is about where the similarity ends. Advanced microreactors are similarly far smaller and more nimble – in most cases, they are two orders of magnitude smaller than legacy reactor technology. For example, the reactor planned for Eielson will produce 1-5 MWe of power. In comparison, the UAF Power Plant is capable of generating 17 MWe. They also have inherent or intrinsic safety features which means they are walk-away safe. In other words, they can’t melt down because they are cooled through natural processes that are governed by the laws of physics rather than active systems that rely on human intervention and electric power to operate. They also don’t require water for cooling, meaning they can be deployed almost anywhere. And, they are designed to be factory assembled and delivered to a site as a module. Essentially, they are designed to be a nuclear battery pre-charged for years of operation without refueling, and once expended the entire reactor assembly is removed and returned to the factory. And – of significant value in Alaska – they can provide heat as well as electric power. It is easy to envision applications in Alaska should these become widely available, cost competitive, and proven to be safe.   

We have a way to go before any community or utility in Alaska is going to be placing an order for a microreactor. But in the meantime, I believe UAF can play an important role as a conduit for accurate, science-based information about this emerging technology, and exploring potential use cases in Alaska. This stakeholder awareness includes the two Town Hall meetings mentioned previously, the reports and informational briefings we have produced, initiating an Alaska State Nuclear Working Group that any interested parties are welcome to join, and developing an Alaska State Roadmap for nuclear energy, which Alaska Center for Energy and Power will lead as part of a broader state energy planning effort organized under the newly formed State of Alaska Office of Energy Innovation.

As a state university, I believe it is our duty to create space to explore new opportunities for the state, but sometimes this requires challenging conventional wisdom and facilitating difficult discussions. Nuclear is only one example; there are many others. To this end, ACEP is dedicated to its role as convener, bringing together topic and industry experts to openly discuss (and debate) with community members and leaders the merits and criticisms of deploying micronuclear technology in Alaska and elsewhere.

But with that comes a responsibility to be good conveners; to foster respectful public discourse that can incorporate diverse perspectives, and to avoid advocacy that is not fact based. Universities are not infallible to bias; in fact, UAF has made missteps related to nuclear energy in the past, such as in advocating for Project Chariot and punishing faculty members who criticized it. I believe we can learn from these lessons and help Alaska in charting a strategic path that includes taking advantage of new technologies that offer the promise of stably priced, reliable energy supply for Alaskans today, and in the future.