back to article Nuclear-powered datacenters: What could go wrong?

The growth of electricity-hungry datacenters is causing some operators to fear for their power security and consider the nuclear option. In this week's Kettle The Register discusses how practical this is. As well as tapping into the grid and on-site batteries and generators, depending on the situation, datacenter …

  1. Andy Taylor

    This is going to make one hell of a "who, me?" story. Assuming the column still exists afterwards.

    1. NoneSuch Silver badge
      Alert

      Missed Opportunity With The Sub-title.

      Should have been, "where nothing can "possa-bly" go wrong. Uh, possibly go wrong."

      The Simpsons. An endless supply of apt quotes. Apt, I tell you!

  2. codejunky Silver badge

    Interesting

    Like space flight it will be interesting to see how the private sector better achieve developing and deploying the technology

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Mushroom

      Re: Interesting

      No, i think it's more interesting that the likes of Microsoft and Google are betting hard against the idea of a future grid supported by just renewables and storage. That they are so seriously considering having their own SMRs with all the regulatory headaches that entails, suggests that they are seriously worried that the national grids may have long-duration, severe, perhaps complete outages in the near future. On that worry I would agree with them.

      Local power outages don't normally affect datacentres because they usually have their own substations connected to the national transmission system which rarely goes down except for dire emergencies.

      I would have thought that datacentres are also pretty good at load-shaping. They can be told to scale back demand without affecting software (except for response times, etc) by suspending CPU cores, pausing processes or changing mainboard power budgets.

      Microsoft's recent decision in ireland to colocate with an OCGT gas plant, I thought was more about making a bit of money on the balancing market, and maximising the use of their expensive grid transformer by being able to put it in 'full reverse' by powering their servers from auxiliary Diesel generators and simultaneously running the gas plant, to prop up the grid at times of dire need and juicy balancing prices.

      But to put a nuke in would actually say they are preparing for the potential long-term/permanent downfall of the national grid, which is only likely to happen through war...

      Now where did I put my cold war bunker

      1. codejunky Silver badge

        Re: Interesting

        @cyberdemon

        "But to put a nuke in would actually say they are preparing for the potential long-term/permanent downfall of the national grid, which is only likely to happen through war..."

        Why war? I agree with your comments and renewables and the green madness is definitely a good reason to plan for energy supply failure. This is something plenty of us have been pointing out for a while but we were told about the unicorn free energy that never arrived and is as plausible as the perpetual motion machine. We dont need war to screw up our energy supplies, it is the direction we are going anyway.

        But again this could be the private sector solving for the inefficiency of public sector. To make something that works and offer the excess to people who would prefer to have the lights on.

        1. cyberdemon Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: Interesting

          Well I did say long-term/permanent downfall..

          I think renewables would just mean intermittent and unequal service. I.e. If the wind stops blowing, the lights go out except for those who want to pay extra for their 'smart' meters not to disconnect them.

          We could end up with an auction-style system, whereby however little electricity we have is supplied to the highest bidders. The "free-marketeers" would just love that, and I think the likes of Microsoft would put up with it, IF they thought that a high bid was enough to guarantee service. This SMRs thing suggests that they think the grid might go down completely, for a long time.. Scenarios for that are: 1: low inertia causes a nationwide outage and the "black start" plan fails to restart the grid in an acceptable time, or 2: enemy action.

          Given how reliant we are becoming on subsea interconnectors for example, and the state of geopolitics, i'd say the latter is likely

          1. Lurko

            Re: Interesting

            "Given how reliant we are becoming on subsea interconnectors "

            Never mind the possibility of accident or conflict, interconnectors are based around the fatally flawed assumption that there will be another market that's got surplus power when we need it. With all of Europe falling for similar renewables policies, that's far less certain than when the grids were fossil or nuclear driven and you could just build more despatchable capacity. Granted Norway has a modest excess of hydro power that can be sold, problem is that most of the rest of Europe will be fighting each other for it at the same times.

            1. itzman

              Re: Interesting

              I havbe a relative in Norway. The price of electricity has doubled now they can sell it to the UK

          2. midgepad

            Lights

            ...are so low power that they are unlikely to be loads shed.

            Power equipment, including pumps for petrol stations etc, rather higher

            1. Dimmer Bronze badge

              Re: Lights

              “Power equipment, including pumps”

              In Texas they are about 27% renewables. The last major freeze took out the wind and put the grid in a bad situation. When they went to shed industrial load ( level 2) it shut down the natural gas pump stations that supplied gas to the power plants.

              The way they got in this situation was because they were not allowed to use the natural gas going thur the pipelines to power the pumps any more. By demand of the greenies and bureaucrats they had to go to electric driven pumps. Homes froze, water plants destroyed and people died. This information was not published.

              As a Datacenter owner this is what I fear. People making decisions that have no freaking clue of what they are doing and forcing the ones that do to submit to it.

              When was the last time you were forced to build / change something that you know would lead to a disaster? And when you did, who took the blame?

              1. Lurko

                Re: Lights

                "People making decisions that have no freaking clue of what they are doing and forcing the ones that do to submit to it."

                That describes most Western countries' politicians, especially in the context of energy. I've worked in the energy sector for a good number of years, I can assure you that the politicians who make policy decisions understand NOTHING of the complexity and intricacies of the energy system. And they don't want to. All they want is policies that generate sound-bite press releases about saving the polar bears, before they move on to a different position they know nothing about.

                The current direction of Western energy policy is the most self destructive, unaffordable, mindless lunacy imaginable. I think countries like China understand the importance of keeping energy affordable and reliable, in the West, nope.

            2. cyberdemon Silver badge
              Holmes

              Re: Lights @midgepad

              "Keeping the lights on" is just a phrase meaning keeping the electric grid running. It's also the name of a rather good column on the subject in Private Eye.

              When I said "the lights go out" I meant a loss of supply, nothing to do with lights specifically.

              You must be one of our new American guests, How do you do

          3. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Interesting

            "We could end up with an auction-style system, whereby however little electricity we have is supplied to the highest bidders."

            I'd rather see a grid where pricing is sent out in real time at something like 15 minute intervals and people/companies/systems can choose to draw power of put off usage until prices are in a certain bracket. Build the capability into a car and it will charge when rates are low with all sorts of caveats built in. Home and business storage batteries could absorb energy when prices are low and kick in to offset drawing from the grid when it's expensive. This is going to be one of the only ways to make wind useful. It's so intermittent that usage for it has to be flexible enough for it to work. It's something like a bidding system except users adjust their usage as the form of bids. Yes, you can charge your EV during peak hours in summer, but it's going to be dear.

            1. cyberdemon Silver badge
              Trollface

              Re: Interesting

              Like I said, the "free-marketeers" <spit> would just love this.

              Just take a look at the graphs on "Drax Electric Insights". The price already fluctuates all over the place, from minus the average price to well over four times the average price, but this is rarely reflected in the demand graph. That shows that the "free market" system is a complete failure. People use energy when they need it. You don't say "oh the price is low today, better cook two roast dinners instead of one" and you don't expect your car to be empty in the morning when you need to go to work, because the price was high and it discharged.

              The problem with all this is that it pushes the price well above what people can afford. It's just more pigswill for the electricity companies when they are the only game in town, after we get rid of gas and oil.

              What about the guy who just wants a cup of tea on a miserable cloudy evening? He boils the kettle and sees he's been billed 3 quid for it.

              I have an old style bakolite electricity meter, and a 10kW electric shower. I try to only use it when I know the electric company are making a loss. Feels like value for money to me

              OCGTs running and frequency low... Time to have a shower methinks

              1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

                Re: Interesting

                That shows that the "free market" system is a complete failure. People use energy when they need it. You don't say "oh the price is low today, better cook two roast dinners instead of one"

                But that assumes you can buy 2 joints or birds to roast. We've designed supply chains around a reliable, and ideally affordable energy supply. So we get another blocking high. Those often also extend across into Europe. Suddenly the wind stops, the windmills stop turning. Except they'll still need power to stop brinelling and blades icing up. So supermarket freezers stop working, as do the ones in food distribution centres, and the EV lorries can't be charged anyway. And then water & gas pumping stops, and we're all living in interesting times. So the basic problem of often only having 48-72hrs worth of of stuff handy before TSHTF.

                Energy supply used to be a rather key element to CNI given pretty much everything depends on it, but that concept seems soo last century to the current crop of vegetables in Parliament.

              2. MyffyW Silver badge

                Re: Interesting

                As a social democrat I don't think I could be accused of being a free-enterprise zealot, however the fluctuations in the spot electricity market are a sign of a functioning demand-and-supply market. Price goes up the Aluminum plant decides it can do without leccy today, price goes down electrolyse the crap out of that cryolite. And little me, with an electricity rate set by contract or regulator can boil a kettle knowing that the net cost is pennies. The car on the drive will happily charge overnight, and nothing can persuade it to cede it's charge to the grid because it doesn't support power-to-load, nevermind power-to-grid. And even if it did, that would be something I could set at the car or the charger, not have dictated by the smart meter (I don't have).

                But just to show what a contrarian I am, personally I support nuclear power. And renewables. We need all the low-carbon energy we can get.

                1. cyberdemon Silver badge
                  Flame

                  Re: Interesting

                  > the fluctuations in the spot electricity market are a sign of a functioning demand-and-supply market. Price goes up the Aluminum plant decides it can do without leccy today, price goes down electrolyse the crap out of that cryolite.

                  My point is that you need fluctuations not just in the price but in the demand, to say that it is working. If the market were functioning then you would see the demand drop as the price goes up. But if you take a look, you can see the price goes from -50 to +200, or the opposite, in the space of an hour. Does the demand change? Not a jot.

                  The price has changed sign, the demand stays the same. That does not tell me that the market is functioning.

                  The aluminum plant, for technical reasons, can't just start or stop the plant at the drop of a hat when the sun is or isn't behind a cloud. It has staff to get out of bed, equipment to prep. If a smelting plant stops suddenly mid cycle it could be damaged beyond repair. It is equally daft to assume it is always ready to start up. If the owner wants to maximise the profit of his very expensive plant, he runs it flat out 100% of the time, or at least when the staff are awake. All of this load shifting stuff is utter bollocks.

                  Octopus and NG trumpet that their Demand Flexibility Service saved a whole 3GWh of electricity last year, which sounds a lot, but it is 6 minutes worth of leccy for the country, or about 0.0001℅ of the year

                  1. MyffyW Silver badge

                    Re: Interesting

                    All of this load shifting stuff is utter bollocks.

                    You are entitled to your opinions and beliefs, but a career working in the process industries has informed my knowledge that demand shifting is something that heavy industry users do plan for, and did even before renewables were a significant portion of the energy mix.

            2. Dagg Silver badge

              Re: Interesting

              Yes, you can charge your EV during peak hours in summer, but it's going to be dear

              Nah, I just use the cheap power from my solar panels.

      2. Mark 85

        Re: Interesting

        But to put a nuke in would actually say they are preparing for the potential long-term/permanent downfall of the national grid, which is only likely to happen through war...

        Not just war, add terrorism, civil unrest to the poinbt of extreme violence. And given the climate change and severity and number of storms, etc. seems to be increasing. I can understand their fears about the grid. We've already seen a few attacks on the grid by those seeking to destroy it. I suspect that sea level rise is also a fear as many power plants are on the coasts are near large rivers,

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Interesting

          What they foresee is not paying for the grid.

          Distribution of electricity is a major, and often the biggest part of it's cost. On-site generation has a big cost advantage.

          Add in the fact that the grid in many places was built out a long time ago, and is due for a lot of deferred maintenance and a big expansion of capacity, and any big corporation will be asking "How can I shirk my part of the responsibility?"

      3. JassMan

        Re: Interesting

        "No, i think it's more interesting that the likes of Microsoft and Google are betting hard against the idea of a future grid supported by just renewables and storage."

        Yeah but the good old conservatives in UK have redefined Nuclear as renewable so where will that leave them. They seem to have forgotten that fission only goes one way, and fusion is still 10 years away just like it has been for the last 30.

        1. cyberdemon Silver badge
          Mushroom

          Re: Interesting

          Lol. You really need to take a good look at that old Special Relativity equation that Mr. Einstein rather beautifully came up with.

          Yes, fission goes only one way, but the amount of energy contained therein is so much that it really isn't worth worrying about.

          Fusion has never been 10 years away. It will always be 50 years away.

      4. itzman
        Unhappy

        Re: Interesting

        I think that for commercial organisations running an SMR may have nothing to do with outages, but a simple acknowledgement of the fact that a modern SMR will deliver electricity at less than one third the price of electricity sourced from a 'renewable' grid.

  3. Bruno Buckeye

    Typically, nuclear reactors are truly operational islands wholly disconnected from the Internet. They are not easily hacked. Maybe Newcastle needs to research this before throwing this out as a risk. The major impediment to this technology is the initial cost. Just like any new technology, the economies of scale will not be there at first.

    In the future nuclear waste will be used as fuel within fast neutron reactors. Nuclear waste will still exist, but it will be greatly reduced.

    As far as safety. every new reactor has passive safety systems put in place which ensures that they can be easily shut down if there is a risk of meltdown.

    1. Binraider Silver badge

      Breeder reactors made similar promises for waste disposal for a relatively low-loss of output. In fact, Britain is one of the few countries to successfully build such an arrangement at Dounreay.

      It didn't go commercial, for reasons.

      And on a similar front, if a commercial generator can't make nuke pay without huge government subsidy; then how can a datacentre?

      1. cyberdemon Silver badge
        Devil

        > It didn't go commercial, for reasons.

        Reasons including the flip flopping of Margaret Thatcher.. Same reason we've barely got a railway left but have lots of motorways full of expensive, polluting, coffins on wheels.. And people moan on about the safety of nuclear power!

        But yes, you're right, if they aren't useful for a private power utility, they're not going to be useful to a software company. Unless the software company just wants to do a bit of greenwashing, as mentioned in the webcast

        But I would contest that the reason they're not useful is more to do with politics, fearmongering and overzealous regulation than anything technical.

      2. jmch Silver badge

        "if a commercial generator can't make nuke pay without huge government subsidy; then how can a datacentre?"

        Basically, SMRs, exactly because they are smaller and self-contained, presenting a smaller risk than a large plant, are (since a couple of years, and at least in the US) regulated differently than large plants. Since a large chunk of the cost of 'traditional' nuclear power station are due to over-regulation, I could see how it could work commercially to work SMRs over larger reactors

        1. cyberdemon Silver badge

          So why don't utility companies go for farms of SMRs then?

          Also, nuclear reactors are fairly prone to suddenly tripping offline, due to extremely cautious failsafe systems, and I don't see why SMRs should be any different in that regard..

          Used singly for a datacentre, they would need Diesel back-up, and a very long running tank for the time it takes to re-certify a reactor after it has tripped a safety system. But in a farm of a hundred or so, this could be handled easily without any major outage.

          1. Binraider Silver badge

            Nuclear submarine reactors; which is what the SMR's are; have the benefit of a fastidious crew on call 24/7, with a very strong motivating reasons for looking after them in as perfect a state as they possibly can.

            The moment you go onshore and grid connected the regulation requirements change enormously; for a multitude of reasons that aren't going to magically go away. Not least is that you are putting other non-nuclear workers in proximity to the SMR; and impact on general public is self explanatory.

            In the UK at least, the complication of getting the necessary paperwork tends to favour building big reactors and the handful of locations that are equipped to comply with regulations. The idea of deploying SMR's elsewhere; without a complete overhaul of the regulatory regime, will make little to no sense.

            A reasonable compromise would be to start mounting SMR's (or larger reactors) 100-200km offshore, on sea-mounted platforms.

        2. Lurko

          "Since a large chunk of the cost of 'traditional' nuclear power station are due to over-regulation"

          Why will SMR's be less regulated? Arguably they'll have to follow all the same rules, and spread the costs over lower outputs. We've had enough nuclear accidents to know that careful oversight is necessary. On the other hand we've not yet struck any reasonable balance of how to regulate nuclear at a reasonable cost.

          1. itzman

            Re: Why will SMR's be less regulated

            Because they are small enough to not need active cooling under SCRAM conditions - they can use simple convection, and that removes a huge chunk of regulatory nonsense. You don't need to regulate a triply redundant backup system that you didn't install.

            Because they are small enough to be build in a factory and *type approved*, thus not needing specific regulatory approval at each site, and small enough to be shipped more or less complete to the installation site.

            And in the context of data centres, cheap enough so that you can have two for redundancy, and generate revenue from the second one when the first is operational.

            SMRs are also cheap enough to be fundable by large industrial and IT corporations in a way a 3GW monster is not.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          SMRs, exactly because they are smaller and self-contained, presenting a smaller risk than a large plant,

          Multiplied by the number required (20x using big reactors), multiplied by proliferation to many less protected industrial sites, multiplied by operation and ownership by random businesses who are neither in the nuclear or the electricity business.

          The total risk is not likely to be lower at all.

    2. Clausewitz4.0 Bronze badge
      Black Helicopters

      "Typically, nuclear reactors are truly operational islands wholly disconnected from the Internet. They are not easily hacked."

      Sure not easily hackable. Ask Iran and the NSA. Nowadays people can blow up planes, satellites, or nuclear facilities with a few virus and exploits.

      1. Catkin Silver badge

        Stuxnet was by no means an easy hack. It was based on a number of zero day exploits rolled together (it's rare to use so many because they're valuable and rapidly lose value when revealed and patched) with a high level of developmental sophistication.

      2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

        Operational Islands Wholly Disconnected from the Internet

        Dream on. The system may start out disconnected from the Internet, but how long will it be until some manager has a phoneline and modem installed at the plant, so s/he can monitor a pretty SCADA dashboard or building control system from home? Ta-da! CarbonCopy, PCAnywhere, or an RDP service, to the rescue, running on an out-of-support operating system ("It won't need to be patched because it is wholly-disconnected from the Internet."), with an account name of "manager" and a password of "letmein". How long will it be until something is installed whose vendor demands remote access as requirement of warranty support of some piece of critical equipment therein? How long before some manager who wants to see his ... "football scores ... yeah ... oh, yeah, baby!" at work and demands an Internet connection straight to his office, "to be used for no other purpose"? And some techie realizes he could tie his manager's Internet connection to the LAN so the techie can see his "football scores" right on his desktop? And ...?

        1. FuzzyTheBear
          Pint

          Re: Operational Islands Wholly Disconnected from the Internet

          Anyone with half a brain would not.

          Maybe there's total idiots out there but i don't think they'd pass the interview.

          Ans as for vendors requiring network , they would not pass the first round of suppliers in a nuclear facility.,

          Not everyone's an idiot.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Fast Neutron reactor

      Is this is what used to be called a fast breeder reactor in the UK - which we tried for decades to build and never finished - has anyone successfully built a reliable one yet?

      We also have yet to build an ILW/HLW repository in the UK.

      Nuclear power is also hugely expensive if you include decommissioning costs (for Sellafield site alone in the UK it's a least £96 billion discounted (that will keep rising) and the maintenace plan stretches over 100 years - that cost has quadrupled in the last 25 years - theoretically it should have decreased.

      You're probably right on the passive shut down side of things.

      However I know of an instance in a relevant waste management facility where the operators ignored a warning because it kept going off and they couldn't see anything wrong.

      - It was a plutonium leak.

      I'm not anti nuclear - but you do need to take a very very hard look at the real costs of nuclear build and compare to the cost of renewables combined with alternative methods of energy storage.

      oh and btw in the future is when the ubiquitous commercial fusion reactor was completed.

      Nuclear fuel is also manufactured from ore mined in various distant countries so it still leaves us reliant on overseas supplies (until the future fast breeder arrives and reprocessing is properly sorted - the Thermal Oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield is now shut and being used to store spent fuel - so we'd have to rebuild and recomission a reprocessing plant (they don't come cheap)).

      Its certainly doable - but it would be very very expensive and take a long time.

      1. cyberdemon Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: Fast Neutron reactor

        These costs are caused by the utterly barmy regulations around nuclear (which seem to have been deliberately designed to poison the industry and stunt its growth), and the parasite industries that have grown out of those regulations.

        The real problem with radioactivity is that it is so detectable in tiny amounts, and scary because people think it causes cancer, when really it's not going to cause harm at all in small amounts. Even pretty large amounts such as the dose received by the Fukushima 50, nuclear bomb testing engineers etc. have not caused anywhere near as much harm as we all expected. Why? Because life on earth has evolved to cope with quite a lot of ionising radiation in the background. The radiation was there before life was. Whereas we have NOT evolved to deal with microplastics, nanoparticulate carbon (which ironically exist in modern ULEZ-compliant diesel exhausts but not the old ones..) etc. etc.

        The regulations at Sellafield are so ridiculous that they are measuring single Bequerels outside casks and saying that's too high. Literally if you can detect a single photon of gamma, it can't be shipped out. This I heard from someone who works in safety at the place.

        I knew a project manager from that place too.. He said that the workers there would all conspire to make sure any new project manager would fail at his or her job, and would just get so frustrated that they eventually either quit or let the guys do whatever they want.

        That is why decommissioning is so expensive. It's not just nuclear regs, it's UK Health&Safety legislation too, and in terms of cost the two are multiplicative.

        But without bloody revolution, societal poison just never goes away. So I agree, the age of nuclear is over. Until someone drops a bomb on our heads and suddenly sellafield is the least radioactive place in Britain

        1. Binraider Silver badge

          Re: Fast Neutron reactor

          The OCGT backup generators at Sellafield had to be located outside of the nuclear facility boundaries; because the background level of radioactives in the natural gas supply are were higher than permissible on a nuclear site.

          Nobody ever accused the civil service of joined up thinking.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fission chips?

    1. N0083rp00f

      Funny but accurate

      One nuclear tech is recovering low level contaminated disposables. Gloves, textiles, the usual medical diagnosis crap.

      It recovers the isotope of carbon, 28k halflife, and plates it down as a crystaline film on a metal conductor as part of building a capatory.

      First Gen are the size of a standard microchip package cover slide and put out a few microwatts. More than enough to run a RTC and some nearby circuitry.

      The idea is to eventually have enough power on a circuit board to run the board.

      At that point the only issue is dealing with the waste heat being generated by active circuitry.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Funny but accurate

        C14 has a 5760 year half life. It won't make much power. The whole idea seemed wildly extrapolated...

        I calculate:

        1 Mol (14g) of C14, will produce 550uA of beta current, 0.53W, at 100% efficiency.

        However if our beta convertor has a voltage of 3.5V (e.g a compound semiconductor) and a quantum efficiency of 1, then it is only 2mW

        Lets make that a 1cm cube of diamond (1/4 mol) , and lets assume we can somehow get the beta electrons into the convertor with 50% quantum efficiency.

        I get 500uW of power.

        But my calculations may be wrong. Feel free to check my maths or assumptions.

        Avagadros# / (5760*365*24*3600) = decays/sec /mol

        decays/sec / electrons/amp = Amps/mol

        decays/sec * C14 Beta Energy =Beta energy Watts/mol

    2. matthewdjb

      Tried it. Got atomic ache.

      1. Benegesserict Cumbersomberbatch Silver badge

        Hope you feel beta soon.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Take some heavy water to neutronlise it

    3. spireite Silver badge

      Surprised that nobody has come up with a beta joke to follow.... good job I replied, you could have been waiting for ions.

  5. DJ

    One thing commonly overlooked

    is the process of producing the fuel for the reactors.

    Fairly nasty business.

    No one wants to see the sausages get made, but someone still has to make them.

    Perhaps AI will provide the solar breakthrough we desperately need?

    /s

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: One thing commonly overlooked

      > Perhaps AI will provide the solar breakthrough we desperately need?

      "We don't know who struck first, us or them. But we do know that it was us, who scorched the sky.."

      'The Matrix' wouldn't have been as exciting if the machines could have simply exterminated all the humans and built their own SMRs to power their datacentres, eh?

      Edit: Someone obviously missed the /s on the end of your post. Next time use the Joke icon, for the left-ponders

      Or, perhaps they disagreed with your claim about the 'nasty business' of making fuel rods. Care to enlighten us on that one? Does it involve oompa-loompas?

      1. toejam++

        Re: One thing commonly overlooked

        Supposedly in earlier drafts of the script, humans were described as being nodes within a giant organic computer cluster. They performed tasks faster than silicon processors, which is why they were kept around. It makes a bit more sense than using humans as a power source.

    2. Snake Silver badge

      Re: One thing commonly overlooked

      No, I've mentioned it before

      https://forums.theregister.com/forum/containing/4608161

      but people don't want to talk about what's behind the curtain. It is easier, and more tasteful, to talk about what is in front of us - cooling towers, shielded containment buildings, switching stations, etc - than it is to talk about the dirty part of society.

      Unlike most people, and especially most people HERE, I've BEEN inside the dirty part of society. Ever been inside a chemical plant? I have. Ever been inside a paper mill? I have. Ever been on the mountainside of a logging site? I have. Ever visiting manufacturing plants and shipping ports? I have.

      And that's what people DON'T want to talk about. Hell, the reality of our "recycling" is a hell of a lot uglier than we tell ourselves, but we put the blinders on and pat ourselves on the back on what a "great job!" we're doing for ourselves with our recycling materials. Then we see what really happens to our recycling in Bangladesh... O.O

      1. cyberdemon Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: One thing commonly overlooked

        Interesting post, but it misses the point that the vast, vast majority of the "low-level waste" that you talk about, is just stuff that is "potentially contaminated" so has to be classified as nuclear waste, even if it is not radioactive at all. The disposable plastic and paper overalls, gloves, overshoes that I had to wear when entering any controlled area, for example. These were packed into barrels and presumably buried somewhere.

        On the other end of the scale, your other post mentions the site of the Trinity test, where we took a load of Plutonium and detonated it out in the open, causing incalculable orders of magnitude more contamination than any civil nuclear operation, not even Chernobyl would have come close to that. Yet the people of New Mexico have not turned into 'ghouls'..

        We have daft rules like ALARA/ALARP that say anything that is classified as being part of the nuvlear industry must have emissions targets of zero, while the rest of industry gets away with murder, relatively speaking. Coal power plants chuck up vastly more radioactive material into the environment than the nuclear industry does. The site where I worked had a mass panic because some visiting scientist made a radioactive source out of a box of Gas lamp mantles (which are mildly radioactive) and they were far stronger than any of the sources the site was permitted to use, had to be shipped out at great expense and treated as intermediate level nuclear waste! These are mantles you can buy at a camping shop.

        It really is insanity. The IAEA must be run by a mix of CND fifth columnists and Oil industry vested interests.

        1. NATTtrash

          Re: One thing commonly overlooked

          Interesting post, but it misses the point that the vast, vast majority of the "low-level waste" that you talk about, is just stuff that is "potentially contaminated" so has to be classified as nuclear waste, even if it is not radioactive at all.

          Ah well... That's why we marched and camped in the 80s. To finally end up with nuclear powered TikTok. All just a consideration of essential priorities I suppose...

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: One thing commonly overlooked

            Thank god the nuclear power won't actually heat poor peoples houses. Unless they build their shanties over the cooling water pipes.

    3. Catkin Silver badge

      Re: One thing commonly overlooked

      Fuel manufacture is probably the easiest part (involving radioactive materials) to do safely. It's more of a hassle with MOX or other reprocessed fuels but mined uranium, even after enrichment is not much worse to process than magnesium (flammability) and lead (heavy metal toxicity). In the good old days of Magnox, workers would machine the fuel with just a face mask.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All good...

    just don't let OVH build one given their recent "thermal event" activities.

    1. Christian Berger

      Re: All good...

      I believe the technical term for those "thermal events" is "Cloud migration".

  7. thames

    While nuclear power is undoubtedly at the start of a period of strong growth due to things like electric cars (see for example the huge new announcements in Canada), I have to question the economics of building a small nuclear power plant just for a data centre.

    The small modular reactors announced in Canada are 300 MW and there will be four on a single site. That's 1,200 MW. I'm not aware of a data centre that draws that sort of power. There are economies of scale for civil works for things like cooling which make siting several medium size reactors together much more economic than small isolated ones. There are also issues with respect to making efficient use of skilled personnel which make grouping reactors together more sensible.

    I suspect that relocating the data centres to areas where there is a reliable supply of electricity would make much more sense than building small generating plants just for data centres in areas with unreliable or limited generating capacity.

    1. midgepad

      300MWe

      Is not that small.

      Suggests 600MW of heat.

      Islands need an export. Oversupply seems useful.

    2. Bitsminer Silver badge

      In the early days, SMR meant something around 30MWe. (Depending on how they transform the resulting heat, either photoelectric or steam turbine, the waste heat is that much or more.)

      But I suspect the vendors took a closer look and realized the cost and complexity of licensing, instrumentation, site prep and the reactor parts themselves had a small "variable" component and a large "fixed" component as you vary the size. So they soon scaled up to 300MWe because you can sell more electricity to pay for all those fixed costs.

      Also I suspect it's easier to sell 4 or 5 units at 300MWe than 40 or 50 units at 30MWe. Fewer sales calls and all that.

      It seems likely the companies and regulators will be unable to leave the designs and "modularity" alone, and each subsequent customer will have a distinctly different and therefore most costly version than the first customer. And so the theoretical benefits of standard modules will never appear.

      1. thames

        Canada is looking at very small SMRs for powering things like remote communities or major mines in order to replace diesel generators.

        However, for grid connected utility use, the 300 MW size seems to be favoured. Regardless of the size, you still need site preparation and civil works (e.g. cooling), which have economies of scale.

        The original idea behind SMRs was to have something that would be largely assembled in a factory to a standard design and then shipped to the site with minimal assembly there. This would result in faster design, licensing, and construction and so reduce capital costs. If they can do that with a 300 MW modular design, then there's a big advantage to these over smaller ones in terms of cost. The emphasis after all is on the "modular" part and the "small" is just a means to get there.

        All of the really small SMRs that I have seen designs for use very expensive proprietary fuel assemblies, generally either highly enriched uranium or using plutonium from disassembled weapons. The business model seems to be based on vendor lock-in to proprietary fuel.

        Canada isn't pinning all of it's future plans on SMRs by the way. Future plans are still open to larger reactors similar to those already in use (850 MW or larger), depending on how things work out with the SMR designs.

        All of this suggest though that data centre operators may be biting off more than they can chew if they try to become mini-utilities. They should instead just locate in countries or regions which have reliable sources of electric power.

        1. Dagg Silver badge

          One other big issue with the SMRs is cooling. Here in Aus some have been going on about getting loads of these. The problem that Aus has got is it doesn't have a lot of water. And where the water is people have built cities and towns. So would these good citizens want or like a couple of SMRs in the middle of their city or town?

          1. cyberdemon Silver badge

            Plenty of seawater though, no?

            You don't -have- to evaporate it. But if you do evaporate, you could condense it back and get a free desalination plant

            1. Dagg Silver badge

              Fukushima anyone! The population centres of Australia close to where you would put these seawater cooled nuclear plants are just across the Tasman sea from the west coast of the south island of New Zealand, right by the alpine fault. The west coast has had earthquakes in the past that have raised the coast by 3-5 metres. Just look at the coast around Hokitika. On the east coast of Australia they have found examples of large coastal boulders moved inland by these tsunamis.

              1. cyberdemon Silver badge
                Facepalm

                Fukushima was a very old design of plant that was hit by a terrible natural disaster - the tsunami itself killed about 50,000 people IIRC

                Yet the "nuclear catastrophe" killed no-one. Even the 50 who went in expecting to die have been happily disappointed.

                As I see it, Fukushima was a triumph of nuclear safety.

                1. codejunky Silver badge
                  Thumb Up

                  @cyberdemon

                  "Fukushima was a very old design of plant that was hit by a terrible natural disaster - the tsunami itself killed about 50,000 people IIRC"

                  Hit by an earthquake and tsunami as well as their back up generators being poorly positioned and knocked out of action. Yet still for all the wet dream hopes of a catastrophe by the media and greens there wasnt one.

                  Stunning victory for nuclear which the Germans somehow got confused about.

                2. Dagg Silver badge

                  As I see it, Fukushima was a triumph of nuclear safety.

                  So it is now up and operating? And all the area around it is fully populated... Everything back to normal? Yeah Right.

                  The Fukushima design was not old, it was updated in 2002 for another 5.7m of wave hight so it wasn't that old. The problem was the tsunami was bigger than what they designed for, so even a brand new design would have failed.

                  1. codejunky Silver badge

                    @Dagg

                    "So it is now up and operating? And all the area around it is fully populated... Everything back to normal? Yeah Right."

                    It is safe. After being hit by a tsunami and earthquake that killed many people and caused severe damage the power plant is safe. Why have the goalposts moved to it having to now be operating again?

                    I was amazed at the hassle the nuclear operator got (aside from the diesel generator issue) when the Japanese government didnt consider the risk enough to warrant better protection for the people. For all that died nuclear killed none.

                    On the population note, people were moved away in a moment of over-caution so they wouldnt be in the path of steam which was nothing but steam before it would reach the perimeter of the plant. The forced move causing suicides but showed the gov was 'doing something'.

                    "The problem was the tsunami was bigger than what they designed for, so even a brand new design would have failed."

                    And failed safely, even with the backup generators being knocked out too. And the nuclear plant was an older design.

                    1. Anonymous Coward
                      Anonymous Coward

                      Re: @Dagg

                      You are confusing "fail safe" with "blind chance".

  8. apdxb

    Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

    We've had nuclear powered container ships, desalination plants, hydrogen production...

    Now data centers.

    What's next?

    With an LCOE North of 200$/MWh SMRs simply can't win under inhabitable latitudes.

    Some folks need to get real.

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

      That argument is circular, and unhelpful. The cost of nuclear power comes from the regulations and the parasite industries that have grown out of those regulations.

      What is the LCOE as you put it, of nuclear power in China? Is that not a 'Habitable latitude'?

      1. apdxb

        Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

        Regulations are necessary. Even with regulations you get a trillion dollar disaster like Fukushima.

        Even with regulations no insurance company is willing to ensure civil nuclear in any country.

        Moreover, the cost comes from the complexity. Pointing at regulations is an easy excuse with very little credibility.

        How can an industry relying on so many techniques, with power stations involving so many moving parts, with capital immobilized for so many years, involving so many expensive specialists be commercially competitive against shoot and forget solar farms?

        China sources less than 4% of its electricity from nuclear. Last year it had proportionally less than Germany.

        China's nuclear industry is dual use, harvesting Pu239 for its military program.

        Chinese nuclear industry can hardly be taken as a proof of the viability of its business case.

        1. Conundrum1885

          Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

          Or just build it in secret. It's never been officially confirmed but the White House has a collection of radioisotope generators in its bunker for post apocalyptic power underground.

          Low risk, they were designed for Earth atmospheric re-entry so a nuke wouldn't really bother them. The occupants, not so much.

        2. MJ67

          Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

          Yep Military was the driver behind the UK's initial forays into nuclear - generation was an afterthought.

          1. Binraider Silver badge

            Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

            The Magnox programme was astoundingly successful from the perspective of maximising weapons grade production. Britain has a relatively large stockpile of material as a result, which was the objective.

            If I were an Qinetic hat wearer, I'd be thinking about what can be done to shore up the supply chain as the older reactors go into permanent retirement.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

        The Chinese also appeared to think that nuclear was hobbled by "western issues", and assumed that they would roll out reactors like high speed rail.

        However they have also found it much harder, slower, and more expensive than expected. They have not given up, but they have slowed down as the economics in China are still not so great. A billion dollars spent on wind or solar gives more power, and sooner, even in CN.

        1. cyberdemon Silver badge

          Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

          More power and sooner, I could harvest energy from lightning using a kite.

          It's reliable, continuous power we're talking about here

          If they still have to kowtow to the IAEA, then they do have "western issues"

        2. druck Silver badge

          Re: Nuclear fanboys keep looking for a business case for SMRs

          However they have also found it much harder, slower, and more expensive than expected. They have not given up, but they have slowed down as the economics in China are still not so great. A billion dollars spent on wind or solar gives more power, and sooner, even in CN.

          When you can continue to build coal plants with no opposition from your own populace and to ignore international agreements, of course the economics of nuclear don't look as good.

  9. Sanguma

    Reminds me of a certain group in NZ who used to make noises about New Zealand needing nuclear power, and whatnot. Then there was a massive power outage in Auckland, and they piped up and said their bit about how all this would not have happened if New Zealand had Nuclear Power.

    Then people discovered the outage had been caused by a faulty insulator which hadn't been replaced, and we've never heard from them since.

    Consider the mental health of all those whose ability to snigger mercilessly at the sight and sound of lobbyists putting both feet in their mouths at once, has been curtailed by lobbyists deciding to shut up!!! It's a mental health crisis, I tell you.

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Devil

      To be fair, the extra inertia provided by a nice big steam turbine like those found in a NPP, could have improved a grid's tolerance even to faults like insulator flashover. The transmission network has redundant circuits and automatic re-closing circuit breakers, so as long as there is enough inertia, the blackout only lasts a few seconds while the grid finds another route.

      But if all you have are non-synchronous generators such as wind, solar and HVDC import cables, then in the event of a fault, the grid frequency can rise or fall so rapidly that everything has to disconnect to protect itself. And that's when you get a total blackout.

      But I guess the lobbyists would have found that hard to explain to the general public

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Then there was a massive power outage in Auckland,

      And when you realise that they were unable to maintain a simple underground cable, operate it within it's safe operating area, plan the known replacement before it failed, or even keep cable joiners who can work on critical cables within the country.

      Consider all that, and ask yourself what the long term future of vast numbers of SMR's would look like, as these are guys who will run them. The public is right to be skeptical.

    3. Dagg Silver badge

      Similar thing happened in South Australia where they use a lot of wind, solar and battery. It turns out a whole line of transmission towers were blown over. I would love to know how nuclear would have solved that problem!

  10. herman

    Small nukes

    Slovakia wants to replace its last three old coal fired plants with three small nukes.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One huge drawback of nuclear power is that it doesn’t dismantle systems of oppression - it only produces clean energy. This makes it unsuitable for solving the climate crisis, which isn’t just about the environment.

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      What are you blathering on about?

      1. Binraider Silver badge

        Even as an avid leftie I have to draw the line on the above too.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Sorry, I suppose that is too close to what some people would genuinely say so I suppose Poe's law is in effect.

  12. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Would a company really install a nuke?

    The ROI on a nuclear reactor is decades. Most companies can't think past how they are going to manipulate things to make the financials this quarter look awesome to share holders. A reactor would tie them to a site for a long time no matter what the State might do to them in taxes, regulations and all sorts of other not so pleasant visitations. Companies would lose the ability to let the bird fly and move someplace else and everybody playing the game would know that. I don't think we want entities like Enron or Theranos operating nuclear reactors.

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Would a company really install a nuke?

      And that's why private companies and PLCs should never be allowed anywhere near state utilities.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Would a company really install a nuke?

        "And that's why private companies and PLCs should never be allowed anywhere near state utilities."

        Things that are State run don't have the greatest track record either.

        I don't have an issue with reactors being run by private firms, but there needs to be proper oversight and standards. One has to remember that after Chernobyl went boom, there was loads of CYA going on before detectors in Scandinavia (?) started getting disturbing readings and worries were that there was a problem somewhere in Europe even though there were no reports of anything off-nominal. I expect there were apparatchiks that thought they could get a lid on the situation without having to own up until they realized there was no way and they then worked to make sure they had no exposure (figuratively).

        I'm of the opinion that utilities should not be allowed to be run in the same way as a corporation making widgets. They affect not just lots of people, but everybody even outside their service area. I don't see why they should be allowed to buy naming rights to sports stadiums or make outside investments rather than using that money to maintain and expand their infrastructure. That's doesn't mean that an MD can't make a pretty good living, but that the utility as a whole isn't geared towards maximizing shareholder value to the detriment of long term operations and safety.

  13. Dostoevsky

    They're going to have to move these around the country - hopefully with security in tow. And whenever they need any sort of moderate to heavy maintenance, they have to move them *back*. And then again when it's time to refuel or defuel them. This might be harder than MS would like to admit...

  14. JamesTQuirk

    When was the Last Time a Solar Panel or Wind Turbine Exploded & Wipe out 20 Square Kilometers ?, If your DATA requires that Level of Storage & RISK Management why keep it in a Possible Toxic Bomb ? Why is this being Discussed ? BECAUSE Wind & Solar are getting all the Money, even if Wind could keep Batteries to run the Place charged, for maintenance Costs, as they prefer for People to be relied on their Waste Disposal Contracts as Well, Unless we want to see more of Private Companies Handling of Nuclear Reactors in America ..

    1. Catkin Silver badge

      Nuclear in the US has been handled by private corporations since its inception. You might be thinking of the Soviet Union (Ministry of Medium Machine Building), where the handling of safety oversight and construction by the same organisation led to an inherently unsafe design being chosen, certified and used (RBMK).

  15. MachDiamond Silver badge

    I haven't seen the complaints that SMR's would resolve

    The push back against nuclear power hasn't been "Oh my gosh, that's too big" but has been more along the lines of "Nuclear!?, We'll all have massive tumors in a week and think of the children". If the problem was the size of nuclear power plants, a SMR could be a good approach, but that isn't the case. In fact, having to deploy even more sites with SMR's just becomes more work for lawyers, not progress.

  16. William Higinbotham

    The IT techs would look like and sound like Homer Simpson at the Nuclear plant!

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