Nuclear Data Centers: Public Perception Improves for Nuclear Power, but Headwinds Persist

5 Min Read

The data center industry is all about power to run compute infrastructure and cool it off before equipment melts down. Data centers are faced with power constrained markets, the high cost of power, and the need for more sustainable power generation. To be fair, the primary operators and builders of data centers have made huge progress improving energy efficiency. Cloud companies like Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft; and colocation providers like Equinix, Digital Realty, and NTT have all stepped up to this challenge to improve sustainability, and in many cases save money.

Data centers are not the scourge of the earth because they eat up so much power. In fact, there is a very real argument that data centers save energy for a population in many different ways. Online banking is just one example where trips to a bank branch are now rare. Over 5,000 bank branches have closed since March 2020 which translates to less gas to drive there, no more deliveries there, no power bills for the building, and fewer new branches being built.

But there is always room to improve. Data center operators have led in establishing sustainable power purchase agreements (PPAs) in locations where this option exists but recent data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that in many countries, sustainable energy output is simply too low. 

We have discussed nuclear power as a low carbon option with Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) enabling high-performance micro grids for data centers. SMRs can deliver modular power capacity up to approximately 300 megawatts, as opposed to the gigawatt scale nuclear power plants that have preceded them. A much deeper dive on this technology is included in the Further Reading section below.

The public perception challenge

One thing data center operators know all too well is the challenge of NIMBYism (not in my back yard), which can easily derail or delay a data center project and only requires one individual to put up a fight. This is not unique to data centers; it could be a theme park, a fast-food restaurant, or a nuclear SMR. In the case of nuclear power technologies, the scars of Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three-mile Island are pervasive and long-lived.

Slowly but surely, as industries work to educate the public about advances in technologies like SMRs, the tide is turning. Bisconti Research has been performing its National Nuclear Public Opinion Survey for four decades and has asked the nuclear favorability question in 87 national surveys since 1983. 

The May 2023 survey found that for the third year in a row, three-quarters of the US public favors nuclear energy, and about seven in ten support building more nuclear power plants. The survey report is available to the public (linked in the Further Reading section below) and includes detailed cross-tabulations based on respondent demographics. 

Of particular interest is the data on respondents that “Feel Very Well Informed” about nuclear energy used to produce electricity. In the very well-informed group, 92% favor nuclear energy and 74% strongly favor nuclear energy.

However, decisions about siting nuclear power plants or SMRs are not made by a distinct group like the very well informed. An additional data point of interest is the number of respondents that felt “Somewhat Favorable” or “Somewhat Opposed” versus the “Strongly Favorable” or “Strongly Opposed.” The study authors referred to the “somewhat” group as fence-sitters which was 66% of all respondents.

An education imperative

Add all this together and it screams lack of education. Not shocking as this is commonly the case where communities or individuals perceive a risk based on either hearsay without factual evidence, past events precipitated by old technologies, or a variety of other factors. The answer, of course, is more thoughtful, honest, and audience sensitive outreach. 

Education that treats all audiences with respect and dignity and appeals to their ability to balance risk versus community benefits. Industries like data centers, nuclear power generation, theme parks, and fast-food restaurants need to assess if they can truly be a community partner and add value to that community. If they cannot, find a community where they can.

In the nuclear energy world, there are many organizations globally working to educate the public and communities on the long-term benefits and increasingly lower risk to nuclear power. The American Nuclear Society (ANS) published an in-depth review of Bisconti Research data and other analysis in their online NuclearNewswire service (link in the Further Reading section) which also highlights the need for further public education. 

There are many reasons to support nuclear energy, but if sustainability is important to you, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said, “Every year, nuclear-generated electricity saves our atmosphere from more than 470 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise come from fossil fuels. That is the same as taking nearly 100 million passenger vehicles off the road”. According to the NEI, “Nuclear energy provides more than half of America’s carbon-free electricity”.

To be clear, nuclear power is not currently renewable but it is sustainable. In other words, nuclear fuel is not at risk of being depleted for future generations, and greenhouse gas emissions are comparatively very low.

Safety and sustainability

There is so much to learn about how nuclear energy technology has evolved, and how it is evolving. Safety and sustainability are the primary themes driving more nuclear power generation. The technical characteristics of nuclear SMRs are complex to the average consumer. Our World in Data, a UK based non-profit, has produced a graphic comparison (link in the Further Reading section) that depicts the safest and cleanest forms of power generation. This represents the type of educational information that the average consumer can get their head around.

Watch this space

At Data Center World 2023 we caught up with Oklo, soon to go public SMR startup. It already works with the US Department of Energy (DOE) on recycling of used nuclear fuel in partnership with the Argonne National Laboratory, Deep Isolation and Case Western Reserve University. The DOE awarded the four partners a $6.1 million contract for this recycling project, putting Oklo’s total US DOE funding to $15 million. We will discuss Oklo’s technology and focus on extending the life of nuclear fuel in a deep drive On the Radar article. Notably, in the conversation with us Oklo indicated it is hopeful legislation enabling SMRs will enable a 2025 deployment, the most aggressive timeline we have heard to date. It has also submitted a licensing project plan for its commercial-scale fuel recycling facility.

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About the Author(s)

Alan Howard

Alan Howard is a principal analyst, colocation and DC building at Omdia.

Vladimir Galabov

Vladimir Galabov is the research director of cloud and data center at Omdia.

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