Nuclear-powered data centers: Practical or a pipe dream?
Julianne Antrobus, Global Head of Nuclear at PA Consulting, explains how nuclear is a sustainable way to power data centers in an InformationWeek article.
The article notes that 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.”
Julianne believes that the answer to ever growing data center energy needs lies, at least in part, in nuclear power. She said that a nuclear-powered data center make sense from both a business and environmental perspective. Global data centers use more electricity than some countries.
She said: “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.
Julianne says nuclear power’s ability to supply a constant, low-carbon baseload power supply is what data centers need for continued operations. “It’s also a long-term direct-power purchase that will give data center owners commercial assurance.”
A potential challenge for SMR technology will be gaining social acceptance, particularly in terms of where the reactors can be placed.
She said: “Today, commercial nuclear reactors are almost exclusively located in remote locations away from high population densities. 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.
She continues: “Renewables, such as solar and wind, are intermittent and therefore require significant storage capacity to provide the constant baseload data centers need.”