Tuesday, May 27, 2008

European nuclear plants and Google's data centers

A resurgence in nuclear plant development has three justifications:

  1. Expectation that oil costs will continue to rise over the next fifty years (plants take 20 years to come online).
  2. Expectation that limitations on CO2 emissions will limit use of coal, tar sands, and other "easy" substitutes for sweet crude
  3. Expectation that supply chains and suppliers will become increasingly vulnerable and unpredictable, so local ownership of power production will become increasingly important.

All three seem plausible, so Italy and other European nations are building "fourth-generation" reactors...

Italy's nuclear move triggers chain reaction - Scotland on Sunday

... Once the most-scorned form of energy, the rehabilitation of nuclear power was underscored in January when John Hutton, Labour's Minister for Business, grouped it with "other low-carbon sources of energy" like biofuels....

... There is now a determination to tackle the issue head on throughout the continent. With nuclear plants taking up to 20 years from conception to becoming operational, European nations are now having to answer some very difficult questions. The dilemma of Italy, as the biggest importer of oil and gas, are the most pressing: there is no chance of reactivating sites or building new ones within the next five years.

... Enel, Italy's leading energy provider, announced this year that it would close its oil-fired power plants because the fuel had become too costly. Italians pay the highest energy prices in Europe. Enel has been building coal plants to fill the void left by oil. Coal plants are cheaper but create relatively high levels of carbon emissions.

Enel, which operates power plants in several European countries, already has at least one nuclear plant, in Bulgaria, and has been researching so-called fourth-generation nuclear reactors, which are intended to be safer and to minimise waste and the use of natural resources...

It makes sense to build more nuclear plants. It is unfortunate, however, that they're being built in very crowded nations. If we casually disregard technical issues with transporting power (ship metallic hydrogen? superconducting power lines?), and exclude the desire for national control, it would seem to make more sense to build them in remote areas of northern Canada, possible on the sites of existing Hydro facilities or together with large data centers.

Nuclear plants and data centers, after all, have a few things in common:

  1. Power production/consumption is critical.
  2. Cooling is essential.
  3. Security is paramount.
  4. There's not much need for human attendance. Almost everything can be managed with a few people on staff and remote robotic control*.

In addition there are many good reasons to keep nuclear plants far from human habitation. Canada is an obvious location given its relative political stability, proximity the US market, enormous swaths of minimally populated land, and technological capabilities. Heck, compared to the Alberta tar sand environmental holocaust nuclear power plants in the North are positively benign.

So will Google and Microsoft go into the nuclear power business? Will Canada's native peoples become the Saudis of the 21st century?

This should be interesting.

* Be fun to build that secure channel, eh?

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