Nuclear power plants evoke images of giant round towers belching steam on hundreds of acres of land. But a new generation of “tiny” reactors could change that. The prospect has some universities embracing the micronuclear movement.
Microreactors produce up to 20 megawatts of electricity. As energy goes, that amount is small. But it’s nearly enough to run a small hospital, military complex, or campus. The devices could also deliver reliable power in remote locales or during power grid downtimes.
Jacopo Buongiorno of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says microreactors can be built in factories and then hooked up on site in a plug-and-play way. “That’s what we want to see: nuclear energy on demand as a product, not as a big mega project,” he says. He views interest by schools as the start of a trend.
Nuclear reactors for research already appear on campuses. About two dozen U.S. universities have them. But harnessing reactors for campus energy is new. The technology could perhaps both power buildings and replace coal and gas-fired energy.
The University of Illinois hopes to promote microreactor technology, says nuclear engineering professor Caleb Brooks. The school plans to start operating a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor by early 2028.
The microreactor wouldn’t meet all of the university’s energy demands. But Brooks sees it as a way to demonstrate the technology and help power the campus heating system in a carbon-free way.
Last year, Pennsylvania State University partnered with Westinghouse for a microreactor. The goal is to have one at Penn State by decade’s end. Westinghouse executive Mike Shaqqo calls universities “key early adopters for this technology.”