Nuclear option: Could the future of university energy use reside in reactors?

Purdue officials are looking into the potential of small versions as a clean energy option.
By: | April 29, 2022
Photos courtesy of Purdue University

Nuclear: The mere word can be unsettling, especially given its use in recent threats by Russian leaders. But it is not foreboding for those who can harness and embrace its power for good, including scientists at colleges and universities.

Top research institutions across the nation have had it on the radar for decades, including the University of Michigan, MIT and North Carolina, which all have elite nuclear engineering programs. Texas A&M University has its own Nuclear Power Institute that helps prepare students for careers in the field while also exploring new developments around clean energy.

But perhaps the most recent unique development around nuclear is Purdue University’s quest to bring nuclear energy to campus as a cost-savings measure. That is nuclear power, at some point, could replace other sources to limit energy usage and bring them closer to zero emissions. The university has partnered with national company Duke Energy to begin the process of trying to see if the implementation of small modular reactors—not the imposing monolithic cylinders—would be feasible and worth it.

“No other option holds as much potential to provide reliable, adequate electric power with zero carbon emissions,” Purdue President Mitch Daniels said. “Innovation and new ideas include searching for ways to minimize the use of fossil fuels while still providing carbon-free, reliable, affordable energy. We see enough promise in these new technologies to undertake an exploration of their practicality, and few places are better positioned to do it.”

Like the institutions above, Purdue is one of the national leaders in research around nuclear power and technology. In fact, the university’s Bowen Lab—which tests whether structures can handle large-scale natural disasters or explosions—has been a driving force on steel-plate composite construction for SMRs. “We have the world’s pre-eminent team and facilities to conduct the testing, analysis, design and construction demonstration to actualize the potential of this technology,” said Amit Varma, civil engineering professor and director of the Bowen Lab.

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Of course, setting that plan in motion will take more research and time. Russia has developed an underwater SMR that is operational and several other countries are working on them, including the U.S. Purdue is going to be holding several meetings over the next few months to discuss its potential. It currently has a co-generation system of energy on its main campus in West Lafayette, utilizing steam to produce heat and electric power to make its buildings cooler. Duke Energy, which supplies Purdue with half of its energy, is working with several other institutions and businesses in looking at the possibilities of nuclear power.

“Exploring technologies such as this is important work to help get us to [clean energy],” Duke Energy Indiana President Stan Pinegar said. “Nuclear provides reliable energy and can complement other carbon-free energy sources, such as solar and wind. We can share that experience with one of America’s premier engineering schools to see what this technology could do for its campus as well as the state.”

Purdue’s students learn first-hand about nuclear energy at a reactor called PUR-1, which is one of two dozen on campuses in the country. University officials say they are not capable of powering a campus. However, SMRs might be worthy alternatives for several reasons:

  • They don’t have to be built on-site, which is key for bustling campuses struggling with traffic flow.
  • They are far less expensive than traditional reactors.
  • They can be rooted at smaller-sized locations.
  • They also provide very little strain on a local grid, even in rural areas, and can even be done off-grid in some instances, provided there is enough electrical power to sustain them.
  • Safety is also enhanced because they typically have passive systems—it doesn’t require a physical presence to shut them down but rather they do so automatically.
  • They use less fuel.

Less clear is whether, when scaled up, the long-term pluses outweigh the costs. Though SMRs would be less expensive and provide many other benefits, it is uncertain whether the savings would be that substantial. Purdue’s work will give higher ed more clues.