According to the US Department of Energy, data centers are one of the most energy-intensive building types, consuming 10- to 50-times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building. “Collectively,” the agency notes on its website, “these spaces account for approximately 2% of total US electricity use, and as [the] country’s use of information technology grows, data center and server energy use is expected to grow too.”
Like many other IT industry observers Julianne Antrobus, global head of nuclear at professional services firm PA Consulting, believes that the answer to ever growing data center energy needs lies, at least in part, in nuclear power.
A nuclear-powered data center make sense from both a business and environmental perspective, Antrobus states. She notes that global data centers use more electricity than some countries. “It’s estimated that in 2020, data centers accounted for 1-2% of global energy demand.”
The rapid rise of data-hungry services, such as AI, will likely accelerate global data center energy consumption over the next several years. As enterprises increasingly commit themselves to reaching environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets, such as achieving net-zero energy by 2050, they’re looking for practical ways to achieve their goals.
Nuclear power makes sense from an environmental perspective, since it emits almost no local or global air pollution that increases climate risk, says Akshaya Jha, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.
Still, in most cases, a data center’s power source is a local electric utility, which may or may not use nuclear power as well as fossil fuels and various renewable energy sources. “A data center consumes a certain amount of electricity,” notes Jha. “What really matters for its impact on emissions is that the power plant must increase its electricity output to satisfy demand.” Whether or not that power is green is a decision left in the hands of the utility.
The Nuclear Option
Nuclear power’s ability to supply a constant, low-carbon baseload power supply is what data centers need for continued operations, Antrobus says. “It’s also a long-term direct-power purchase that will give data center owners commercial assurance.”
Unlike solar and wind technologies, nuclear is one of the few forms of baseload carbon-free power available that can produce power 24/7, observes Eric Hoegger, director of power and energy at data center construction and management firm CyrusOne.
Given the fact that nuclear power is expensive and highly regulated, installing a reactor at a data center site is generally a time consuming and prohibitively expensive project. A possible solution lies in advanced Small Modular Nuclear (SMR) technology. According to the US Office of Nuclear Energy, advanced SMRs offer multiple advantages over conventional reactors, including relatively small physical footprints, location flexibility, a reduced capital investment, and provisions for incremental power add-ons.
Advanced SMRs also offer strong operational and security safeguards. Nevertheless, new regulations will be needed to deploy SMRs while maintaining the same safety protocols as large-scale utility plants, Hoegger says. “Unfortunately, in the US, we don’t have a good track record of deploying nuclear power on schedule and on budget,” he says. “New small-scale modular reactors open up new possibilities, but safety -- and the regulation that goes along with that safety -- needs to be first and foremost.”
A potential challenge for SMR technology will be gaining social acceptance, particularly in terms of where the reactors can be placed. “Today, commercial nuclear reactors are almost exclusively located in remote locations away from high population densities,” Antrobus observes. “The promise for smaller nuclear plants is that their safety characteristics will enable them to be located in less remote areas, and this is where public acceptance may be a challenge.”
Alternative energy sources include other low-carbon technologies, but each has its own benefits and disadvantages. “Renewables, such as solar and wind, are intermittent and therefore require significant storage capacity to provide the constant baseload data centers need,” Antrobus explains.
Other technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, are often viewed as an option, but present their own challenges. Most carbon capture technologies aim to block at least 90% of the carbon dioxide inside smokestacks from reaching the atmosphere. But as the capture technology approaches 100% efficiency, it gets more expensive and takes more energy to capture smokestack carbon dioxide.
Nuclear power offers additional diversity to our power supply, Hoegger concludes. “Nuclear is really the only form of carbon-free power that’s not reliant on weather conditions.”