When people talk of energy sources, they use categories such as fossil fuels or renewables. The one resource that usually doesn’t fit into either category is nuclear energy.

While capturing heat from chain reactions and the decay from isotopes doesn’t use up limited reserves like fossil fuels, it is not exactly renewable, in that there are radioactive wastes that have to be dealt with and contained. The efforts and cost of taking care of the waste in a safe and effective manner is certainly a burden that many are working on to mitigate.

The Fukushima accident has convinced not only the Japanese to abandon nuclear power as their main source of power production, but there has also been a major shift throughout the world of those countries using nuclear. Concerned about reducing carbon emissions, Germany and especially France relied on nuclear fission for a good share of their power generation at the time of the accident. The radioactive problems at Japan certainly propelled Germany further into its solar investments and France into finding different fuels.

In the last decade, there has been a bit of talk about the possibility of looking to nuclear power, Alaska scale. Small-scale reactors do not depend upon the massive cooling systems and the operation of steam units that are a part of normal reactors. One of their advantages is that they can be shut down easily.

A small-scale reactor has been tested previously in Alaska. In the 1960s, a prototype small-scale reactor was operated at Fort Greely for heat and power. More than 10 years ago, an Interior hub village investigated the possibility of a small-scale reactor with Toshiba. Although the project never happened, a research briefing from the Alaska Center for Energy and Power said the project influenced a national conversation about nuclear energy for small, remote communities.

ACEP held an event recently with over 60 stakeholders from across Alaska to learn more about a possible future technology for nuclear “microreactors” in an Alaskan context. Multiple companies have been expanding their commercial development of reactors producing as little several hundred kilowatts, which is advantageous for villages for their combined heat and electrical power output. More microreactors are designed for 1- to 20-megawatt capacity, which could possibly service road system communities.

Benefits of the small-scale reactors include no moving parts to be affected by the cold, a lasting fuel source and a large amount of power to be generated with relatively little infrastructure. Challenges include the issue of safe disposal of waste in a state where seismic activity is present. It is at least five years before a variety of commercial small reactors with interchangeable parts are ready for prime time. Yet, if energy prices increase substantially as time goes on and the size of reactor units are scaled down, who knows? Alaska may at some point go nuclear. 

Art Nash is the Extension energy and radon specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 907-474-6366 or by email at alnashjr@alaska.edu.