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Is nuclear green?

A data center in Russia has some of the most impressive on-site power generation I ever heard of. it’s being built next to the Kalinin nuclear power plant near the town of Udomlya in the north of the country.

The new 80MW data center is being built by state-owned energy firm Rosenergoatom, which owns Kalinin, and it will have prefererential access to the plant’s output. Since Kalinin produces some 4GW of power, that should ensure energy security.

Kalinin nuclear power station

Kalinin nuclear power station

Source: Rosenergoatom

Low-carbon nukes

Nuclear powered data centers aren’t that unusual: it’s been pointed out that any facility in Paris will be 85 percent powered by nuclear electricity owing to the mix on the French grid. But is this a green story? With the leaders of the world meeting in Paris for the COP21 Green Summit this week, let’s have a look at whether nuclear is environmentally friendly or not.

Nuclear power produces virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, although fission reactors technically don’t produce “renewable” energy since fuel is burnt. It is possible for a “fast breeder” reactor to create more fuel than it burns, but we’ll leave that aside for now.

Despite the lack of greenhouse gases, nuclear power is highly unpopular with the green movement, although scientists have argued that environmentalists will have to accept it is necessary in order to avert climate change.

Nuclear power is suitable for base-load generation, as it can run continuously, something which many renewable sources can’t do. Wind and solar depend on the weather and the time of day, but hydroelectric and geothermal are continuously available.

Indeed, one role of Energoatom’s planned Kalinin data center is as a means to burn energy productively at times when demand doesn’t meet the steady production of the nuclear plant - a somewhat similar role to data centers in Iceland, which give a productive use to excess geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Arguments rage over whether nuclear is cheap or expensive, as energy experts cannot agree over what constitutes a subsidy. But it certainly is something which requires a lot of heavy investment, and is usually backed by state-owned utilities.

It’s been pointed out that uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal both use energy, but the full account seems to come out in favor of nuclear, at the very least as a “bridge” to a smart grid where renewables are more fully developed, and storage technologies can allow them to match the cycles of demand.

“News for nerds” site Slashdot followed up the Kalinin story with a poll asking how readers would like to power their data centers. At the time of writing, nuclear stood at 29 percent, running second to solar on 32 percent.

Greenpeace disagrees, marking down cloud firms which use nuclear power. This may be why public-facing cloud giants, like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, are concentrating their green power efforts on wind and solar.

The last couple of weeks have seen a 61MW solar plant funded by Google, and large wind energy contracts signed by Microsoft and Amazon, as well as Equinix. Because intermittent renewable sources don’t match the steady demand of data centers, these are of necessity agreements where the customer pays for an equivalent amount of renewable energy to the amount it uses.

These power purchase agreements (PPAs), are a very good thing in providing funding for renewable energy on the grid. However, the actual power used by the data centers will be the general mix of the grid - in both Russia and the US this is about 19 percent nuclear, and about two-thirds fossil fuel.

One could make a strong argument for data centers supporting the nuclear industry as well as wind and solar. However, I can’t imagine it actually happening, except as a spin-off at existing nuclear plants like Kalinin.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Here in Brazil we say "the dog runs to catch the own tail" I believe the nuclear power plants are one of most important option to avoid the carbon emission. Like the people believe or not, but is mandatory we think about this option. France has exports of energy from Nuclear Power Plants for others countries and it is a good example.

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  • The nuclear future is Thorium, not Uranium ! Intrinsically safe, no waste storage problem. Only China and India is developing the technology - why ? Because there will be no Plutonium from the process?

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