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Universities Go Nuclear

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    Engineer and CEO Bret Kugelmass explains how a nuclear microreactor produces power. His company, Last Energy, built this demonstration reactor. (AP/David J. Phillip)
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    Part of a prototype reactor is shown inside Last Energy’s demonstration unit. (AP/David J. Phillip)
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    Last Energy’s demonstration unit is in Brookshire, Texas. (AP/David J. Phillip)
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    Part of Last Energy’s prototype reactor (AP/David J. Phillip)
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    Georgia Power Co.’s Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant is in Waynesboro, Georgia. Microreactors take up much less space than full-sized plants like this one. (AP/John Bazemore)
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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.”

For Penn State professor Jean Paul Allain, microreactors complement renewable energy. That is, they provide lots of power without taking up as much land. A 10-megawatt microreactor could sit on less than an acre. Windmills or a solar farm would need far more space to produce 10 megawatts.

Abilene Christian University is leading a team of four universities to design and build a microreactor cooled by molten salt. The device, to be completed by 2025, would help train the next generation nuclear workforce.

Microreactors have their detractors. After all, small reactors carry some of the same challenges as large ones. Problems include cost, waste disposal, safety, and security.

Supporters insist those issues can be managed. They believe the benefits outweigh any risks.

Entrepreneur and engineer Bret Kugelmass sees only promise for microreactors. Nuclear power, he says, has been “totally misunderstood and under leveraged.” He predicts it will be “the key pillar of our energy transformation moving forward.”

Why? Nuclear energy has the potential to provide vast amounts of power. But it must be handled with great care by fallible humans—a risk worth weighing thoughtfully and cautiously.