Big Tech Wants Nuclear Power but Doesn’t See Role as Investor

The world’s biggest tech firms want nuclear power for their data centers but aren’t keen on investing in reactor development, experts say.

Bloomberg News

June 18, 2024

2 Min Read
Nuclear-powered data center illustration
Image: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Big technology companies including Microsoft and Google are eager to see more nuclear energy feeding their power-hungry data centers, but are far less willing to provide the capital needed to pay for a growing interest in reactors. 

While artificial intelligence and data centers are expected to boost power consumption in the US for the first time in a generation, the companies that need the energy told attendees at the American Nuclear Society’s annual conference that they’re poorly positioned to help develop new reactors. 

Building reactors, especially plants using new technologies, comes with high costs and high risk, according to Briana Kobor, head of energy market innovation at Alphabet’s Google. The big tech companies may be willing to pay a reasonable premium for clean energy that’s available around the clock, but they’re not willing to invest in the firms building those plants. 

“We are advocates for nuclear power,” Kobor said during a panel discussion Monday at the Las Vegas conference. “The entities best suited to take on timeline risk and construction risk are not the off-takers.” 

The discussion comes a day after billionaire Bill Gates said he’s willing to invest billions in a next-generation nuclear plant in Wyoming. TerraPower, which is backed by the co-founder of Microsoft, broke ground on the facility last week.

Related:US Energy Experts Highlight Potential for Nuclear-Powered Data Centers

Gates’s support will be key, yet the project underscores the risk that comes with nuclear power. TerraPower expects to complete the reactor in 2030, two years behind the schedule the company laid out when it announced its plans in 2021. Meanwhile, in Georgia, Southern Company finished in April the first new US nuclear power projects in decades, seven years behind schedule and about 150% over budget.  

Technology companies should focus on their strength, building data centers, and rely on utilities to deliver the power, said Adrian Anderson, general manager for energy and sustainability at Microsoft. 

If a data center needs clean wind power, the operator should reach out to a utility, not a wind-turbine provider. “The notion that individual buyers should be assessing nuclear technology for risk is a ridiculous concept,” Anderson said during the panel. 

There are dozens of companies developing new reactor designs, but they are going to need significant financial support to move their technologies from the research stage to a commercial power plant. Despite their shared goal of seeing more reactors in service, big tech companies aren’t likely to be big financial backers, according to Peter Freed, who stepped down in June from his post as director of energy strategy at Facebook’s parent Meta Platforms. 

“The notion that technology companies are going to come in to write a check and save the day is misguided,” said Freed. 

 

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