The United States’ energy production and delivery architecture, developed throughout the 20th century, provided the foundation for dramatic economic and standard of living advances. But the centralised architecture lacks the resilience to withstand known, predictable, and unpredictable 21st century external threats, whether man-made or natural.
In the interest of market growth, the architecture has become significantly more complex and vulnerable since 1995, producing risks, threats, and unintended consequences across multiple systems: information, energy, basic resources, and the atmosphere. The current design of energy production and distribution systems will continue to increase stress in developed nations and will not meet the needs of developing nations. In addition, adaptation to a warming climate is already a clear and present need. Strategically, it is imperative to prepare for worse yet to come, sooner rather than later. Thus, a new type of distributed energy resource is needed that is low-carbon, compact, stable, flexible, and geographically unconstrained.
The United States must de-risk its infrastructure and adapt to climate change simultaneously. Strategies and policies formulated before the turn of the century are insufficient to this need. New rapid development paths are needed to enable flexible energy-industrial systems that produce energy that is both dense enough and cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels and adaptable enough to deal with change. Greater resilience to new and already evident levels of risk must go hand in hand with increased efficiency in the generation and delivery of electric power, heat, goods, and services for all sectors of the economy, from industry to businesses, transportation, buildings, and agriculture.
What resource can address these challenges and power the world’s ever-growing needs for adaptation and resilience? The solution presented in this paper is distributed portable nuclear energy colocated with end users. This solution bypasses the need for massive, low-use centralized infrastructure such as the national grid, energy storage, and fuel distribution networks. And it likely has the flexibility to deal with further unknowns, which have become endemic over the last 20 years and are a certainty over the next 20.
Nuclear batteries: a new way in energy
Advances in embedded intelligence and adaptive manufacturing and materials are enabling the development of new small, flexible, plug-and-play nuclear energy systems that we call nuclear batteries. The nuclear battery (NB), also called a microreactor, is a small but powerful stand-alone energy platform that can be integrated into industrial, manufacturing, and other functions. NB systems – the industrial equivalent of a AAA battery – can operate for up to ten years, after which they are recharged with new nuclear fuel.
The combination of low-enriched fuel, simple design, mass manufacturing, minimal site preparation, and semiautonomous operation can yield an economically competitive system in short order, for installation in various scenarios.
Importantly, NBs are designed with features that achieve the three fundamental nuclear safety functions without operator intervention: (1) rapid shutdown of the fission chain reaction in the event of an anomalous condition, (2) adequate cooling of the nuclear fuel during shutdown, and (3) no uncontrolled release of materials into the biosphere. These features significantly reduce the possibility of accidents like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Because cybersecurity is a potential concern for any autonomous system, the NB’s inherent safety features are such that even a knowledgeable operator would not be able to damage the nuclear fuel or cause a radioactivity release. Most NB designs under consideration make it physically impossible to cause a runaway reaction or use instrumentation and controls to interrupt residual heat removal from the core. Cyberdefence layers are thus aimed primarily at ensuring continuity of service.
Developing and deploying NBs and their new platform architectures, in an innovative global business and policy environment and with unprecedented stakeholder engagement, paints an exciting picture of the new state of US-sourced clean energy innovation. This is not a 15-year exercise in research. NB systems development should start now, to yield a more advanced, productive, democratized form of US-led capitalism and global responsibility for clean energy.
In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash.…”