In times of crisis, energy must be produced and deployed quickly to the areas that need it, but conventional energy infrastructure is not wholly crisis-proof. As recently as February 2021, a bitter cold front came close to collapsing Texas’ power grid. After unusually frigid temperatures moved into The Lone Star State, power plants across Texas began failing. Natural gas, coal, nuclear, and wind energy sources all buckled under the pressure of the unseasonable weather--millions of Texans were left without power for days and, in some cases, weeks. Eventually, the cold weather dissipated, and Texas’ power grid was restored, but this example illustrates how vulnerable energy infrastructure is during times of crisis, and how important innovative energy solutions will be to the future of crisis management.
The Potential of Nuclear
Nuclear energy in particular has been posited as an exciting development in the race to find efficient, powerful, and clean energy solutions. According to the U.S Energy Information Administration, nuclear energy does not produce direct carbon dioxide emissions--making it a cleaner and powerful energy alternative to fossil fuels. However, nuclear energy does produce radioactive waste, which can become a major safety hazard if not properly contained. Conventional nuclear reactors are large structures that have built-in, heavy-duty safety features designed to protect against the possibility of leaks. They are also housed in large, highly-secured containment areas to avoid public exposure to nuclear contamination.
Conventional nuclear reactors are powerful enough to provide entire cities with electricity, but because they are large and heavily secured, they are not easily moved from one place to another, and they take a long time to manufacture and deploy. In crisis situations, energy solutions will ideally be produced and deployed quickly and have enough versatility to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Thus, preparing for crisis situations requires rethinking the design and implementation of nuclear power.
An Innovative Solution: Micro Nuclear Reactors
Unlike conventional nuclear reactors, microreactors are small, compact, and portable. Their electrical output is a fraction of what conventional reactors produce (approximately 50MWe, compared to 1,000MWe for a conventional reactor), but they are suitable to power smaller or more remote communities and may be especially useful during crisis situations.
According to the Office of Nuclear Energy, microreactors have three main features: they are factory-fabricated, meaning all components of the reactor are produced in a factory and then shipped to a location; they are transportable, meaning they can be moved by truck, plane, train or boat; and they are self-adjusting, meaning they have a streamlined and simplified design characterized by passive safety systems that prevent overheating and nuclear contamination.
The innovative design behind microreactors has several benefits. Because of the versatility of microreactors, they can be easily integrated with renewable energy solutions, such as solar and air. Further, their compact size makes them ideal for restoring power after natural disasters like hurricanes or blizzards. Microreactors also have a long core life; they can last up to ten years without refueling. Perhaps most importantly, microreactors can be quickly moved from place to place, making them more portable and adaptable than most conventional energy infrastructure.
Microreactors are still in the early stages of development, but there are a handful of designs under regulatory review in the United States and Canada, and China and Russia are investing heavily in microreactor deployment.
Before microreactors can be used on a large scale, researchers and developers must be able to make innovations in design so that a powerful and efficient nuclear reaction can be sustained in such a small package. According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, there are still several challenges to developing microreactors, including limited fuel availability, security risks, waste containment and disposal challenges, and regulatory limitations.
Purdue’s MNE Program Prepares Future Leaders in Innovation
Purdue University, ranked #3 best in best online master’s in engineering programs according to U.S. News and World Report, is empowering future nuclear engineers to create innovative solutions to the latest issues in nuclear engineering, including the design and implementation of microreactors.
Purdue’s 100% Online Master of Nuclear Engineering (MNE) program is designed specifically for engineering professionals looking to move forward in their careers and emerge as leaders in the nuclear engineering industry. Because the program is entirely online, students are able to tailor their studies to their career goals and advance their education without disrupting their jobs. Online students are taught by the same expert faculty who teach on Purdue’s campus.
Shripad Revankar, Professor and Chair of the Nuclear Engineering Graduate Program, says that Purdue’s Nuclear Engineering curriculum “is well-positioned to impart the best education and training on advanced nuclear technologies including microreactor design.” The program “will equip new graduates with skills and knowledge to address challenges and opportunities in developing advanced nuclear reactor infrastructures for clean energy needs.”
Students in the MNE program take courses in issues at the forefront of the nuclear engineering field, including nuclear reactor physics, nuclear materials, nuclear fusion, thermal-hydraulics and safety, and radiation and security. Through exposure to cutting-edge research and theory, as well as first-hand experience solving industry problems, Purdue’s MNE students are prepared for essential careers at the intersection of energy and innovation.
For more information about how Purdue’s MNE program generates energy solutions by empowering students to solve vital energy problems, visit the program’s website.