A variety of industries are looking at nuclear power as a way to reduce their carbon footprint and provide a reliable source of electricity. Technology companies, along with industries such as mining and shipping, are exploring the use of nuclear energy as a way to cut emissions and electrify their operations.
Tech companies such as Microsoft are exploring the use of nuclear power to serve data centers; Standard Power recently chose NuScale to provide small modular reactors (SMRs) at data centers in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mining companies, needing a source of power for their remote work sites, are looking at SMRs and microreactors as a way to reduce or eliminate the need for diesel fuel for their equipment.
The maritime industry is studying whether nuclear energy can be used to power commercial ships. The transportation industry is a leading source of carbon emissions, and some shipping companies are under pressure from investors and environmentalists to find cleaner fuel solutions. The shipping industry at present accounts for almost 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Maritime Organization.
NANO Nuclear Energy, based in New York City, is an emerging, early-stage microreactor technology company. NANO is led by a nuclear engineering team that is developing what it calls “smaller, cheaper, and safer advanced portable carbon-free energy solutions utilizing proprietary novel reactor designs.” Those include portable microreactors.
Jay Jiang Yu is founder and executive chairman of NANO. The company’s CEO is James Walker, a nuclear physicist and engineer who serves as NANO’s head of reactor development. Yu is a serial entrepreneur, with years of capital markets experience on Wall Street. He is a private investor in several companies, and also advises private and public company executives with business development services such as capital funding, mergers and acquisitions, and structured financing.
Walker was previously the UK Ministry of Defense project lead and manager for constructing the Rolls-Royce Nuclear Chemical Plant. He also has served as the subject matter expert for the UK Nuclear Material Recovery Capabilities group, and was a technical project manager for constructing the country’s reactor core manufacturing facilities. Walker’s professional engineering experience includes nuclear reactors, mines, submarines, chemical plants, factories, mine processing facilities, infrastructure, automotive machinery, and testing rigs.
NANO Nuclear was started after executives looked at ways to provide power to serve industries operating in remote locations. SMRs have been examined, and NANO’s team believes a market with larger potential is in deployable energy systems to more readily serve remote sites locations—specifically, microreactors, which operate at high-capacity factors.
Yu and Walker recently provided POWER with insight into their company’s work and the emerging markets for SMRs and microreactors to serve various industries.
POWER: What types of industries should look at nuclear as a way to power their operations?
Yu: The market has exceedingly large potential, with tens of thousands of mining operations running on diesel fuel, which could financially benefit from a steady source of clean and portable energy over a 20-year period. We identified a large potential customer base for deployable mobile reactors, for remote industrial and manufacturing projects, current and previously uneconomic mining sites, oil and gas projects, military bases, remote towns and communities, islands or emergency sites (post-earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, etc.) to re-establish electrical power during the absence of electric grid availability.
Additionally, tens of thousands of mine sites that are not currently economically viable could suddenly be made viable with inexpensive, clean energy, creating the potential to free up huge deposits of mineral wealth. This possibility can be applied most notably to Africa, where mineral wealth exists but is often inaccessible due to the power demands of modern mining operations. Similarly, all remote industrial projects could potentially benefit from microreactors. Wherever diesel generators are deployed, microreactors could provide a power source with fewer inherent logistical challenges, as they do not require daily refueling like diesel generators.
Other large markets identified included remote habitation. We believe based on market research that over a hundred remote settlements in Canada run exclusively on diesel. This observation was complemented by the observation that countries with numerous islands, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Sweden, Philippines and others also have large numbers of inhabited islands sustained predominantly by diesel fuel. Catering to this market would open tens of thousands of sales opportunities (for microreactors).
If countries are also serious about electrifying their transportation infrastructure, only microreactors would be able to service charging stations for electric vehicles throughout a country. Wind and solar can only be sited where they can generate sufficient output energy, and batteries cannot be shipped to charging stations on a daily basis, especially outside of cities, or between urban developments. Microreactors could make it possible to actually eliminate the need for fossil-fueled vehicles, which no other energy form can currently claim.
We also believe the shipping industry is a major area of potential growth. The U.S. Navy has already demonstrated decades of successfully powering large oceangoing ships with nuclear fuel without incident, or any carbon emissions. Oil tankers, shipping container vessels and other large ships all use bunker fuel, which is incredibly polluting and bad for the environment. Global focus will eventually shift to substituting this fuel as soon as a candidate is identified. We believe we will have that replacement technology in our nuclear microreactors.
POWER: What nuclear technologies are best suited to power industrial operations? Many people know about small modular reactors, but is there other nuclear tech that can be utilized?
Walker: SMRs (nuclear power systems that provide between 20 MW and 400 MW) are going to be very well-suited to powering cities, processing plants and chemical plants, or mining processing plants. Currently these facilities use enormous amounts of power, largely using power derived from gas or coal, but these processes can be powered using zero-carbon-emission energy which experiences no resource price fluctuations once deployed, and will need no fuel supply logistical considerations, or suffer supply issues. For all the other industrial applications listed in the previous answer, microreactors are going to be the future energy provider to these industries.
POWER: When might we see SMRs (or other nuclear tech) deployed to power industrial operations?
Yu: It’s challenging to pinpoint an exact timeline for when SMRs or other advanced nuclear technologies will be deployed for industrial operations. However, we are likely to see the introduction of nuclear into industrial applications certainly within the next decade as these technologies continue to develop, gain regulatory approval, and demonstrate their viability for various industrial processes and applications. NANO anticipates having a commercially licensed product available for purchase and leasing in the early 2030s, ready to deploy to all the industries mentioned above.
POWER: The U.S. Navy has utilized nuclear-powered submarines for decades. Is there progress being made to use nuclear power for other marine purposes? And what about aviation—is that a possibility?
Walker: Yes, there is progress being made to use nuclear power for other marine purposes beyond nuclear-powered submarines.
- Commercial shipping: Discussions have taken place, and shipping companies have already begun to examine using small modular reactors (SMRs) or other advanced nuclear technologies for commercial shipping. The benefits would include longer operational ranges and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
- Icebreakers: Several countries with Arctic interests, such as Russia and the U.S., have expressed interest in using nuclear power for icebreakers. Nuclear propulsion allows these vessels to operate continuously in challenging ice-covered waters.
- Floating nuclear power plants: Russia has developed and deployed floating nuclear power plants, such as the Akademik Lomonosov. These are designed to provide power to remote coastal regions or to support offshore activities, including oil and gas extraction.
POWER: Should utilities, or other groups, look at deploying SMRs to power not only industrial operations but also communities (areas where nuclear power is not currently available)?
Yu: Small modular reactors have the potential to be a viable option for both powering industrial operations and supplying energy to communities in areas where nuclear power is not currently available. There are several reasons why utilities and other groups are considering deploying SMRs in such locations:
- Scalability: SMRs are smaller and more scalable than traditional large nuclear reactors. This makes them well-suited for supplying power to smaller communities or industrial operations that do not have the demand for a large nuclear plant.
- Remote areas: SMRs can be especially useful for supplying power to remote or off-grid areas where the energy infrastructure is limited. These areas may rely on fossil fuels or other less sustainable energy sources, and SMRs could offer a cleaner and more reliable alternative.
- Stable power supply: SMRs can provide a stable base-load power supply, making them suitable for communities and industries that require consistent and reliable electricity.
- Carbon reduction: Deploying SMRs can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to environmental goals in both communities and industries.
- Grid support: In some cases, SMRs can be used to support and stabilize the local electricity grid, ensuring a more reliable power supply for nearby communities and businesses.
- Economic development: The deployment of SMRs in an area without existing nuclear power infrastructure can promote economic development by creating jobs and attracting new industries.
- Diversification: For utilities, integrating SMRs into their energy portfolio can offer diversification and reduce reliance on a single energy source, enhancing energy security.
POWER: How should governments, and the public, look at nuclear power when it comes to the technology’s role in combating climate change?
Walker: Here’s how governments and the public can approach nuclear power in the context of climate change. Governments should look at:
- Policy frameworks: Develop clear and supportive policies that recognize the role of nuclear power in a low-carbon energy mix. These policies should provide incentives for nuclear development, research, and innovation.
- Regulatory frameworks: Ensure strong and effective regulatory oversight to guarantee the safety and security of nuclear facilities. Regulations should be transparent and based on the best available science.
- Investment and funding: Allocate resources for research and development in nuclear technology, including advanced reactor designs and nuclear fuel cycles.
- Public engagement: Promote informed public dialogue on nuclear energy, addressing safety concerns and benefits. Government agencies should actively engage with the public to build trust and address misconceptions.
- International cooperation: Collaborate with other nations to share best practices, standards, and safety protocols for nuclear energy development.
- Incentives for innovation: Encourage the development of advanced nuclear technologies, such as SMRs and next-generation reactors, which offer improved safety and sustainability features.
- Energy mix planning: Incorporate nuclear power as part of a diverse energy mix, alongside renewables, to balance the need for stable, low-carbon energy with intermittent renewable sources.
The public should consider:
- Informed decision-making: Stay informed about the benefits and risks associated with nuclear power. Seek out credible sources of information to make informed decisions about its role in climate change mitigation.
- Engage in public discourse: Participate in public discussions, attend public meetings, and voice your opinions about nuclear energy to influence government policy and regulation.
- Understand safety: Recognize that advancements in nuclear technology have improved safety features in modern reactors. Learn about the stringent safety protocols in place to protect both the public and the environment.
- Environmental impact: Consider the environmental impact of various energy sources. Nuclear power is a low-carbon option that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Economic factors: Assess the economic costs and benefits of nuclear power in your region, including job creation and energy affordability.
- Local engagement: Engage with your local government and community organizations to discuss the potential role of nuclear power in your region’s energy mix.
- Support research and innovation: Encourage and support research and development in nuclear technology, including advanced reactor designs that address safety and waste concerns.
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).