Universities across the country are looking to the future of energy with a new generation of micro nuclear reactors. These tiny reactors, which produce only one-hundredth the energy of traditional nuclear power plants, are being designed for small-scale applications such as powering a small campus, hospital, or military complex.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is leading the way in this area, with plans to apply for a construction permit for a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor developed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation. The school hopes to have it operational by early 2028.
“What we see is these advanced reactor technologies having a real future in decarbonizing the energy landscape in the U.S. and around the world,” said Caleb Brooks, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Illinois and the project lead.
Microreactors are “transformative” because they can be built in factories and hooked up on-site in a plug-and-play way, according to Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have the potential to replace fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.
Penn State University has signed a memorandum of understanding with Westinghouse to collaborate on microreactor technology, and Purdue University in Indiana is working with Duke Energy on the feasibility of using advanced nuclear energy to meet its long-term energy needs.
Last Energy, based in Washington D.C., has developed a model reactor in Brookshire, Texas that is housed in an edgy cube covered in reflective metal. The company plans to transport it to Austin for the South by Southwest conference and festival.
The Department of Defense is also working on a mobile microreactor prototype being designed at the Idaho National Laboratory. Abilene Christian University in Texas is leading a group of three other universities with the company Natura Resources to design and build a research microreactor cooled by molten salt to allow for high-temperature operations at low pressure.
While there is enthusiasm for this new technology, some have raised concerns about radioactive waste disposal and security issues. Edwin Lyman, director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called it “completely unjustified” and noted that microreactors would require more uranium to be mined and enriched per unit of electricity generated than conventional reactors