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Industry studies nuclear power to power data centers and artificial intelligence workloads

Technology Cover
Post Date: 2024-04-11, Broadcom Limited

The data center industry faces a major challenge: meeting the growing energy demands of artificial intelligence (AI) workloads. With the advancement of artificial intelligence technology, the demand for computing power is also increasing, resulting in a significant increase in energy consumption. Schneider Electric's research highlights the need for data centers to consider power demand and cooling solutions to achieve peak performance. In search of answers, the data center division has looked at different energy sources, and nuclear power is emerging as a possible solution.

There are several reasons for the high energy consumption of data centers. First, they must be kept running 24/7 to ensure uninterrupted operation of critical applications. Second, complex IT systems require a lot of energy to run. Third, the advanced algorithms that drive AI rely on high-performance hardware, which requires a lot of energy.

Data centers often rely on redundant systems to ensure continued operation in the event of an outage. This involves backup generators and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), which are essentially safety measures that contribute to total power demand.

In addition, the current grid may struggle to keep up with growing demand, especially in places that don't have a lot of power capacity. On top of that, most conventional energy comes from fossil fuels, which will release more greenhouse gases into the air.

   

Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, generate electricity using nuclear fission, which involves releasing a large amount of energy from a small amount of fuel. Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear power produces very low greenhouse gas emissions during its operation.

This article will further explore the possibilities of using nuclear energy to power data centers, examine the pros and cons of nuclear energy, and analyze different aspects of incorporating nuclear energy into data center functions.

Use nuclear energy to meet electricity needs

Nuclear power is a compelling solution to meet the growing power needs of data centers, mainly because nuclear power plants provide a reliable power supply. Unlike renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which depend on weather conditions, nuclear fission provides a consistent and predictable base load power source that is ideal for data centers running around the clock.

According to a report by the International Energy Agency, nuclear energy also has big environmental benefits: it produces very little greenhouse gas when it generates electricity. As data center operations try to become more environmentally friendly, nuclear fits in with reducing the use of fossil fuels and their carbon-based waste.

   

Given these advantages, the development of small modular reactors (SMRS) has also become an exciting advance in nuclear science. These reactors are smaller and potentially cheaper than conventional nuclear power plants. SMRS may be particularly suitable for powering a single data center or small cluster, as they provide a dedicated and stable power source that is closer to the power needed.

However, the use of SMRS can pose challenges for the data center industry. Small reactors, even if small, produce nuclear waste that must be disposed of because it remains radioactive for thousands of years and requires safe long-term storage solutions. This has raised concerns about the safety of these facilities and the possible impact on the environment in the event of a leak.

Tech firms take the lead

Companies like Microsoft are exploring the use of next-generation nuclear reactors, especially small ones,  to power their data centers and support their artificial intelligence operations. Small reactors are favored for their  potential simplicity and cost-effectiveness compared to large conventional reactors.

However, challenges such as managing radioactive waste, establishing a uranium supply chain,  and relying on highly enriched uranium fuel (HALEU) remain. Microsoft's interest in nuclear power is in line with Bill  Gates' support for the technology,  though the company hasn't disclosed detailed plans to address the associated challenges.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), meanwhile, is also investing in nuclear power,  buying a data center campus next to a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania for up to $650 million. The move gives AWS  direct access to carbon-free energy to complement its wind and solar projects,  a decision that aligns with Amazon's broader commitment to clean energy.

Future Outlook: Do data centers need built-in nuclear reactors?

SMR technology offers unique advantages for AI data centers. Its compact size makes it ideal for field deployment,  eliminating the need for long-distance power transmission and associated energy loss. In addition,  because of their simplified design and passive safety features,  SMRS are touted as intrinsically safer than conventional reactors.

However,  integrating nuclear reactors into data centers also presents challenges that need to be addressed. Regulatory barriers  and public concerns about safety and radioactive waste disposal remain major obstacles.

Despite these challenges,  the potential benefits of Standard Malaysian Rubber for data centers are undeniable. Several large tech companies,  recognizing their potential to provide reliable and clean energy for AI data centers,  are actively participating in the development of small reactors.

While widespread adoption of the technology may still be years away, advances in SMR design,  coupled with growing pressure to find sustainable solutions to meet data center power needs,  could pave the way for a future where AI and nuclear power work together.

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