The Future of AI Is Nuclear

To meet the massive energy demands of artificial intelligence, the world must get over its fear of nuclear energy, our expert explains.

Written by Jay Jiang Yu
Published on Jun. 04, 2024
The Future of AI Is Nuclear
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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Artificial intelligence technology, also known as machine learning, has been growing exponentially, and its worldwide power consumption shows it. Electricity consumption from AI and cryptocurrency data centers could more than double by 2026, according to International Energy Agency data. Two years ago, these data centers consumed an estimated 460 terawatt-hours (TWh) of power annually. Within the next two years, the consumption is expected to reach more than 1,000 TWh of power per year.

The Safest and Cleanest Sources of Energy

  1. Solar
  2. Nuclear energy
  3. Wind
  4. Hydropower
  5. Biomass
  6. Natural gas
  7. Oil
  8. Coal

Source: Hannah Ritchie (2020): “What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?” Published online at Our World In Data

The increase in AI data centers, which employ a large number of people and use tremendous amounts of energy, has led to an urgent need for more forms of green energy throughout the world. Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg is the latest CEO to warn that without additional sources of cheap, reliable and sustainable power, the world won’t be able to provide enough electricity needed to power the AI revolution.

The answer to this problem is simple: We need more power. But the problem is much more complicated than that. For starters, the world is moving to net zero carbon emissions to try to mitigate the effects of climate change. Governments have invested heavily in green energy such as solar and wind to help wean the world off coal, but these alternative sources of energy are simply not enough. On top of this, data centers need a reliable baseload of energy, which solar and wind can’t guarantee, leaving only one real solution — nuclear power. 

Further ReadingWhat Is Green Computing?

3 Reasons Nuclear Power Is the Answer

While it’s the only option that can meet the demand for clean, reliable electricity, nuclear power has its own challenges, including the perception that it is unsafe and expensive to build. When comparing nuclear power with other power sources of energy, though, nuclear power is among the safest and most secure form of electricity in the world. 

Nuclear Power Is Safe

Only two major accidents, Chernobyl and Fukushima, have led to the loss of life over the course of 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 36 countries, according to data from World Nuclear Association, a trade group for the nuclear industry.

In other words, in more than six decades, nuclear power has been a safe means of generating electricity and the risk of accidents is low and declining. 

Nuclear Power Is Clean

From a health perspective, nuclear power is also one of the cleanest. When looking at death rates per terawatt-hour, coal is the most deadly because of the toxic air pollution it emits, according to Our World in Data research.

For example, a town with 150,000 people that consumes one terawatt-hour of electricity per year would lead to at least 25 people dying prematurely every year from air pollution if it were completely powered by coal. 

At a national level, at least 460,000 Americans have died over the past two decades due to the air pollution created by coal-fired power plants,  causing twice as many premature deaths as previously thought, according to a report published in the Journal of Science last year.

Oil is not much better. Using this same example, at least 18 people would die prematurely every year from air pollution. If nuclear power were generating electricity for a town of this size, no one would die. 

Nuclear Power Is Affordable

Opponents of nuclear power also claim that it is too expensive to build and often takes decades to build. Historically this was true, but today, small modular reactors (SMRs) can be built at a fraction of the cost and in a shorter amount of time. 

For example, a SMR costs around $300 million to build, whereas a conventional nuclear reactor costs upwards of $5.5 billion. Looked at another way, the total cost per kW of electricity generated by a 114-MW SMR unit is $2,653, compared with $4,764 per kW for a conventional pressurized water reactor unit of 1,144 MW, according to economic modeling data produced by the Energy Impact Center, located in Washington D.C. 

What Is a Small Modular Reactor?

A small modular reactor (SMR) is an advanced nuclear reactor that is a fraction of the size of conventional nuclear power reactors. An SMR has a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) per unit, about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. They are also modular, making it possible for systems and components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.

Small modular reactors have helped the nuclear industry eliminate the downside risk of conventional nuclear power while still maintaining its benefits — namely the generation of large amounts of cheap, clean and reliable power. SMRs can also be added incrementally as demand for power increases and can provide flexibility for smaller electrical markets, isolated areas, smaller grids, sites with limited water and acreage or unique industrial applications, such as data centers

Related Reading5 Big Advancements We Can Expect in Climate Tech

The Nuclear Power Future: Microreactors

The industry has also begun investing millions of dollars into developing micro nuclear reactors, which don’t use any liquid coolant, thereby eliminating the possibility of a meltdown or leak.

The microreactor is portable in three distinctive ways. The microreactor can be easily moved to locations using standard transportation methods, such as trucks, trains or ships. This mobility allows for deployment in remote or underserved areas where traditional energy infrastructure may be lacking or damaged.

The reactor and turbine systems are all contained within an ISO container. This standardization ensures that the reactor can be transported using existing logistics networks without the need for specialized equipment or modifications. It also simplifies the shipping, handling and storage processes.

The reactor is also plug-and-play. Once delivered, the microreactor can be quickly and easily connected to the local microgrid. This plug-and-play capability means that minimal on-site assembly and technical work are required, allowing for rapid deployment and immediate energy generation.

As the world embraces a clean, high-tech future powered by AI, the world will also need to embrace nuclear power. It is the only viable source of energy that can meet the world’s energy needs in the 21st century.

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