Are Nuclear Powered Data Centers Possible?

Could new miniature nuclear reactors be a workable solution for the data center industry? The reactors are set to be commercially available in 2013 and generate 27 megawatts of power.

A New Mexico company has announced plans to begin selling compact nuclear power "modules" for commercial use, which are projected to generate about 27 megawatts of energy. The announcement by Hyperion Power Generation of Santa Fe has prompted some tech watchers to wonder whether these mini-nuke installations could be a workable solution for the data center industry.

Hyperion licensed the original reactor design from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The Hyperion Power Module is a hydride reactor that is approximately the size of a hot tub and can drive a steam turbine for seven to 10 years. The reactor uses a uranium hydride core, surrounded by hydrogen gas, and the fuel is not enriched to weapons-grade, meaning it can't be used for building a nuclear device.

The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, have no moving parts and be encased in concrete and buried underground, making them difficult to steal. Each module is expected to cost $25 to $30 million, and Hyperion says it has about 100 orders already. Toshiba is said to be developing a similar product that may have a lower price point.

Would the Hyperion devices be practical or economical for data center operators? This is the kind of solution that might interest companies building huge cloud computing data centers with massive power requirements and a commitment to renewable energy - which at the moment means Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG).

Even these "nuclear hot tubs" would be controversial in a populated environment, as the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) factor has been a major stumbling block for nuclear power in the US.

If the economics work out, this is a scenario in which data center containers could be a game changer, allowing cloud builders to assemble armadas of containers atop buried mini-reactors in remote areas.

Sound crazy? Just a few years ago it would have seemed odd for data centers to be moving to rural areas to find cheap power. Five years ago, places like Quincy, Washington and Lenoir, North Carolina didn't strike anyone as data center hubs, either. Who knows what 2013 will look like?

For more on Hyperion, see coverage in  The GuardianDaily Tech and Security and The Net.

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